Weekly Briefing

A Tax Day sermon

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The right’s distorted view of the American experiment

Today is Tax Day – the day of the year on which Americans of all political persuasions have long grumbled about how much they have to send to Uncle Sam. And good for us for doing so; being ornery and skeptical with respect to government is a noble tradition. It helps keep the corruption that inevitably infects all large human enterprises to a minimum and reminds us to cherish (and work to preserve) the civil rights and liberties that we enjoy.

That said, there’s an important distinction to be made between the mature and knowing grumbling of an informed citizen and the childish temper tantrum of a self-absorbed nihilist. And sadly, such a distinction captures much of the essence of the divide in the American policy and political debate in 2014.

On one side stands a large group of people who knows that their country and its institutions are imperfect, but who also understands that its future viability as a vast melting pot of free people depends upon coming together, on building vibrant public structures and on compromising and sacrificing for the common good. Like Churchill, this group holds that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried.” And like FDR, this group recognizes that “freedom” comes in many forms, but that the four greatest – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear – require a sturdy network of strong, common good institutions.

And on the other side? Increasingly and distressingly, it seems to be a group that has tumbled through a looking glass of self-delusion – a group so self-absorbed and so out of touch with reality of Planet Earth in the 21st Century that it equates the publicly-funded feeding and schooling of hungry and impoverished children with “theft” and the unfettered possession and transfer of mass killing devices with “freedom.” It is a group for whom the elimination of taxes on giant, profitable corporations and wealthy individuals is, literally, a divine commandment and that considers the very existence of the American union an option that can be conveniently discarded if it interferes with its members’ understanding of the original intent of the Founding Fathers.

The 40-year war on government

It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the 1970’s, the United States was a country with an actual political left and one in which a Republican president could preside over the establishment of the EPA and propose a guaranteed minimum national income. What happened – as veteran journalist and commentator Hedrick Smith explained a few years’ back – is that a group of wealthy plutocrats and their hired political guns launched an expensive, all-out war to bring back the America of their grandfathers – the America of Morgan, Rockefeller and Carnegie. In their view it was simply a matter of restoring the nation to its rightful order; one based on a harsh (and largely illusory) meritocracy that was at once Calvinist and Darwinian.

The chief nemesis for these men, of course, was government – that array of strong public institutions launched in earnest by Theodore Roosevelt, greatly expanded by FDR and solidified by leaders of both parties in the post-war era that curbed the excesses of capitalism and helped construct one of the most successful middle class societies in history. To combat it, they built a large network of politicians, lobby groups, think tanks, and media outlets and spent lavishly on it.

And boy did it work. Working closely with nativist, chauvinist and sectarian interests, this network put out a relentless flood of propaganda and political cash that simply overwhelmed the defenders of New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society. Add to this toxic mix the energy of a newly-revived far right fringe that has fed on the scraps from the plutocrats’ largesse (and that prodded and nagged and pushed the ideological envelope even further) and you get a pretty good picture of where things stand today.

In 2014, the United States is a place: in which a deranged Nevada cattle herder named Cliven Bundy can defy federal law and be transformed overnight into a far right celebrity, in which the party of Lincoln in one of the stronghold union states of the Civil War can vote to explore secession, in which conservative religious groups who claim to follow the teachings of a humble and un-propertied carpenter can champion tax cuts for the rich and in which North Carolina — one of the old confederate states that has made such great headway in escaping its dreadful and reactionary past – can roll back several decades of painstaking progress toward modernity in as many months.

The Tax Day divide

One of the great, high holy days for the modern right wing, of course, is Tax Day. On April 15, the movement kicks its propaganda machine into overdrive and inundates the nation with bucket loads of spiteful invective targeting government and its supposed evils.

Today will be a day in which we’ll hear about how long Americans supposedly “have to work for government, before they can start working for themselves,” about how a president who has presided over soaring stock prices and met few corporate leaders whose bidding he wasn’t willing to do is a “socialist,” about how public employees, the poor and the unemployed are mostly lazy and/or overpaid freeloaders and about how the infallible “genius of the market” dictates that billionaires be “unleashed to create wealth.”

Most of all, today will be the day on which we’ll hear time and again how taxes – not the vast power of multinational conglomerates, not the holier-than-thou dictates of religious theocrats at home and abroad about who one can and cannot love, not even the prying eyes of the nation’s fast-growing public-private spy apparatus, but taxes – are what threatens “freedom” in our great country.

It is actually a rather remarkable state of affairs. Rather than looking at our vitally important public structures and, like a modern physician or an I.T. expert, examining what needs healing or fixing, the right takes it as a matter of faith that they are beyond repair – that government is, in effect, a Great Satan that must be combated at every turn, or in the ghoulishly revealing words of one of its high priests, shrunk “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

Mistaking license for freedom

Much of what drives the right’s crusade against government and our collective coming together to pay for it is just plain confusion and ignorance. One need only go online to call up any number of recent debates at the North Carolina General Assembly and listen to the embarrassing mixture of Fox News talking points and utterly incoherent inanities to confirm this.

To the extent, however, that there is something akin to an intellectual core in the right’s arguments, it is clear that a key fatal flaw lies in the mistaking of license for freedom. Put simply, notwithstanding the delusions of the Cliven Bundys of the world or the fantasies of his defenders on talk radio or in right-wing think tanks, 300 million people cannot live together with any cognizable degree of peace, prosperity or freedom in some kind of weird combination of the wild, wild west and Victorian England.

In the 21st Century, vibrant and democratic public structures are clearly our only hope for building widespread peace, prosperity and freedom. And while this truth obviously doesn’t preclude us from grumbling about having to pay for those structures, from fighting corruption within them (or from having fantasies about a world in which money is the only law and we have all we need to rule) responsible citizens understand the difference between nihilistic fantasy and real life. For Tax Day 2014, we would all do well to take a moment to contemplate this distinction.