By Mark Gabrish Conlan
September 17, 2012 (San Diego) – Well, now we know. The 2012 Presidential election won’t just be between incumbent Democrat Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but between two starkly different philosophies not only of politics, or how to revive the economy and preserve the capitalist system, but also of life itself and what it means to be human. It won’t be a serious debate over how much government the American people want, or how they propose to pay for it. Nor will it really be about the budget deficit or the national debt, however much Republicans — especially their vice-presidential candidate, Congressmember Paul Ryan —might claim the moral high ground on that issue even though their giveaway tax cuts to the ultra-rich will actually make the national debt bigger, not smaller.
In a sea of familiar pundits, an unknown one named Edward D. Kleinbard, a law professor at USC who once worked as a staff member for Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, probably summed up what this year’s election is about better than most. In an article in the September 7 Los Angeles Times taking Mitt Romney to task not only for sheltering as much of his income as possible in offshore tax havens but actually boasting about it, Kleinbard wrote, “One party urges tax rates too low to support any plausible platform from which government can deliver the services we all expect. Those are the Democrats.”
Wait a minute, you might think — aren’t the Republicans the anti-tax party? What Kleinbard was getting at is that neither major party is proposing taxing the richest Americans — “the 1 percent,” if you will — at anywhere near the rates they were taxed under Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, let alone Franklin Roosevelt or Bill Clinton. The Occupy activists and other ultra-Leftists who insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that there is “no difference” between Republicans and Democrats have a point; both major parties have retreated from any idea of government as a service organization that needs to take in as much revenue as it spends. Both have accepted the idea that wealthy individuals and corporations need to be treated with kid gloves lest, in a hyper-globalized world market, they take their marbles away from American workers and consumers and go play somewhere else.
But where the Democrats have been dragged kicking and screaming into that position, the Republicans have embraced the brave new world of corporations and wealthy individuals über alles and compete with each other to see who can get taxes on the 1 percent down to zero the fastest. During the primary campaign, virtually all Republican Presidential candidates competed to see who could slash the tax on capital gains — a tax paid almost exclusively by the rich and the super-rich — the most, anywhere from 15 percent to zero. Kleinbard argued that the Democrats aren’t proposing anywhere near enough taxes to fund all the government they and their rank-and-file base say they want, but the Republicans…well, he compared their taxation fantasy to a sensationally popular but now virtually forgotten 19th century utopian novel called Erewhon (an anagram for “nowhere”) by Samuel Butler.
In Erewhon, Butler wrote, “If a man has made a fortune…they exempt him from all taxation, considering him as a work of art, and too precious to be meddled with; they say, ‘How very much he must have done for society before society could have been prevailed upon to give him so much money.’” It’s not that different from the philosophy of a more recent and much better-known writer, Ayn Rand, though she would have bristled at the notion that the rich should be rewarded with no taxation and no interference from government because of what they “must have done for society.” To Rand, it was self-evident that every good and service in the economy was created by a brilliant entrepreneur, and it was not only bad policy but actually immoral to take money away from him or her to give to working, sick, disabled or poor people.
And the Republican Convention was basically a four-day celebration of Butler’s and Rand’s ideas about the rich. It took its theme from a misquotation of a speech by President Obama (actually Obama’s inept appropriation of a theme used by Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren) that if you built a business, you didn’t do it on your own. You had help from an elaborate infrastructure created by government and by the workers hired by it — schools to educate your workers, roads to move your products on, police and fire departments to ensure the safety of your people and property while you went about working hard to make yourself rich and fulfill the American dream.
Not so, said the Republicans. It’s true they didn’t adopt all of Ayn Rand’s agenda — they’re still sufficiently in thrall to the radical religious Right that they couldn’t embrace an atheist who believed that if two adults wanted to have sex with each other, it was nobody’s business but theirs. But these so-called “Christians” couldn’t have been farther away from Jesus Christ, who said in Matthew 25, verses 35 to 46: “I was hungry, and you gave me meat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you visited me…Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.”
Ask a modern-day Republican about those parts of the Bible — the parts that aren’t about condemning Gay people and giving orders to women about what they can and can’t do with their wombs — and you’ll probably get the snickering response Paul Ryan gave when he was asked how he reconciled his proposals to eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid with what his church, the Roman Catholic Church, calls the “preferential option” for the poor. He said that there was nothing in the Bible that supported “big government.” It was a classic Randian answer — that if individuals or churches wanted to give away money to help the poor, that was their business (though Rand made it clear in her books that the people she admired, and wanted us to admire, were the ones who didn’t give charity and kept all their money for themselves), but that it was wrong and even immoral to pay for social programs with taxes on the grounds that that was essentially enslaving the rich to the endless demands of what Rand called the “moochers.”
The Republican Convention was essentially a four-day orgy of this bastard combination of the worst of institutional Christianity — the obsession with sex and blanket condemnations of whole groups of people based on how they have sex and deal with its consequences — and the worst of Randism, the utter and unabashed worship of money per se. At the end of a long article on the history of Mormonism in the August 13 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik raised the inevitable question of how, if at all, Mitt Romney’s ancestral faith has shaped his character and will affect his presidency if he wins the election — and he decided that Romney’s character has been far more shaped by America’s religion, its worship of wealth, than by Mormonism.
“It’s unfair to say, as some might, that Mitt Romney believes in nothing except his own ambition,” Gopnik wrote. “He believes, with shining certainty, in his own success, and, more broadly, in that American Gospel of Wealth that lies behind it: the idea that rich people got rich by being good, that the riches are a sign of their virtue, and that they should therefore be allowed to rule.” The 2012 Republican Convention can best be understood as a four-day camp meeting for that gospel — and the culmination of a long movement that began in the 1930’s in response to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. If the Republicans win this year’s elections — if Romney becomes president and they keep their House majority and take the U.S. Senate — they will be able to reverse the entire political and economic evolution of this country in the 20th century and return us to the Gilded Age of the 1880s, when the idea that corporations had the right to do anything they wanted to their workers, the environment, and the government itself was simply accepted as given.
Against the Republicans’ sweeping back-to-the-future (or, rather, forward-to-the-past) ambitions, the Democrats offered the usual yin-and-yang we’ve come to expect from them. The Democrats have long been trapped in a basic contradiction between what their voting base wants and what their financial backers want. On issue after issue, particularly labor rights, financial regulation, environmental protection, and the tattered but still extant “social safety net,” Democrats have to strike a delicate balance that will encourage pro-equality, pro-labor, pro-environment voters to vote for them while not scaring away the big corporations and wealthy individuals that fund their campaigns. The Republicans don’t have that problem because what their voter base and their financial contributors want are the same things: “small government,” an end to the welfare state, a “drill, baby, drill” energy policy, and a military greater than the rest of the world’s nations combined so defense contractors can make scads of money selling weapons even the U.S. military doesn’t want — and we the taxpayers get to pay for it all.
The delicate balancing act was evident throughout President Obama’s speech. He solemnly promised that never would his administration bail out corrupt bankers or endorse tax cuts for the rich — both things he actually did during his first term. He said he would protect the jobs of U.S. workers and bring back manufacturing from overseas — and he also boasted of his success in negotiating and pressuring Congress to ratify so-called “free-trade agreements” that grease the skids on which jobs are flying out of the U.S. and settling in ultra-low-wage sweatshop nations. But what marked the Democratic convention as different from the Republican one — and what is at the heart of the great difference that still exists between the two big parties despite their mutual dependence on the money of the 1 percent — is that Democrats still acknowledge the existence of society.
Democrats still believe — or say they believe — that human beings have at least some obligations to help each other in times of need and to run an economy and a polity that doesn’t let the rich totally run over the not-so-rich. It’s an acknowledgment they sometimes honor more in the breach than the observance, but they don’t clench their fists and raise their middle fingers at the very idea that members of the human race have mutual obligations to each other the way the Republicans do. The Republicans seem to have got their idea of “society” from their second greatest political hero (after Ronald Reagan), former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who famously said, “There is no such thing as ‘society.’ There are only individuals.”
The Republican Party sees itself poised on the eve of what one of their most powerful figures, consultant turned super-PAC manager Karl Rove, called “full-spectrum dominance” of American politics. Their ambition is to convert the U.S. from a two-party system in which other parties are allowed to exist but never actually elect anybody into a one-party system in which other parties are allowed to exist but never actually elect anybody. Their model is the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its domination of Mexican politics in the last two-thirds of the 20th century. They’re convinced that they can achieve that if they sweep the 2012 elections. They certainly won’t make the felony-stupid mistake the Democrats made in 2009 by allowing the Senate filibuster to remain in place and thereby giving a repudiated minority party carte blanche to block the majority’s agenda.
And if they lose in 2012 — if Obama is re-elected but the Republicans still hold at least one house of Congress — Obama will face the same obstructionist tactics he faced in his first term. During Obama’s presidency the Republicans seem to have taken their political philosophy less from Rush Limbaugh (as they were accused of doing) as from Groucho Marx, who in the Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers famously sang, “I don’t care what they have to say/It makes no difference anyway/Whatever it is, I’m against it.” They will continue to keep the government gridlocked, and if anyone dares suggest that the American people are the real losers in this clash of parties, they’ll say through their actions — if not through their words — that it’s what this country deserves for ever electing Democrats to anything.