The story regarding the tax bill Republicans are set to pass in Congress tomorrow is wickedly clear: It cuts taxes on the super rich and that loss in US government revenue will later be pulled from normal Americans in the form of cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public infrastructure investments, public education investments, etc.
When the story is so clear, it can be bewildering that anyone supports this. Even rich people get screwed eventually. As Warren Buffett emphasized in June, when you’re that rich, the extra money doesn’t really do anything for you. However, taking it away from public infrastructure, education, and health care degrades the broader society you’re a part of.
Nonetheless, this is apparently priority #1 for Republicans — tax cuts for the rich. Priority #2 — tax cuts for the rich. Priority #3 — tax cut for the rich. The party has passed essentially no significant legislation since taking over Congress and the White House. It tried to pass a “health care bill” earlier this year, but it turned out that was basically just a tax cut for the rich combined with worse health care for Americans, so a few Republicans bailed. Now, the party is on the verge of passing the most dramatic, insane, counterproductive tax bill in the history of the country. It robs the middle class and poor to shift more money to the already obscenely rich. (Didn’t the Bible advise against such hoarding of wealth?)
So, again, when the story is so clear, it can bewilder many of us how these politicians got elected and how many of them actually came to believe that such legislation is beneficial. Below are 4 keys to those outcomes.
1. Misleading branding
For decades, Republicans have been branded as the “pro business” and “pro economy” party. It’s misleading and actually hugely incorrect in the long run. It relates to point #2 (below), but is itself a separate matter. This point is not about depth of discussion — it’s about a simple claim and intense repetition. Democrats and the media even play into the branding by repeating misleading terms to describe Republicans and Republican policies.
People care a great deal about their income and thus their jobs. People fear a lot, and one of the most common fears is not being able to support oneself or buy what one wants. In election after election, what’s the most critical topic to focus on? Jobs. “It’s the economy, stupid.” This branding noted above makes people think the Republican Party is the party of jobs — it is not. Unfortunately, what matters in elections is not what’s real — it’s what people believe. That’s especially true in elections in which much of the public is very shallowly informed and much of the media coverage is about a couple of false narratives rather than actual policies.
Independents, Democrats, and the media need to stop falsely branding the Republican Party as a pro-economy party. It has repeatedly tanked the economy via the policies it most promotes.
2. The incorrect myth that government is inherently evil
In a democratic society, the government is formed by the public to support and protect the public. The more involved citizens are in the government, the more democratic it is. There is nothing fundamentally evil about the government — beyond whatever it is that’s fundamentally evil in humans. If you want a strong democracy, you need a strong and influential government.
Why? Because the government corrects inherent market failures that harm society. Governments set limits on what corporations can do so that they don’t harm workers and the public at large. The government puts limits on pollution or makes corporations internalize* the price of pollution (*in other words, not pretend pollution has no cost just because it doesn’t directly affect the corporation’s bottom line). The government puts limits on massive gambling within the US economy, gambling which can tank the economy if left unregulated (as we’ve seen in various decades of low regulation). The government requires that corporations treat their workers and the surrounding community with some degree of compassion, respect, and humanity. Remember, corporations aren’t human — it’s up to humans to make them act humane. Some corporations will have board members and CEOs that do that on their own. Many other corporations need an overseeing power (the government) to make them act humane.
To repeat, the government is in place in order to support, protect, and serve humans. It is in place specifically to benefit society.
Yet certain corporations, wealthy people, and ideologically captive citizens have long promoted the myth that government is inherently evil. They jump on mistakes or individual cases of corruption to paint the whole government and the whole idea of government as evil. If you play a word association game with 100 people, chances are, some of them will follow “government” with “evil.” Chances are, many of them will associate the term — a part of society formed by the people, for the people, of the people — with something negative. Why? Again, it comes down to long-term, incessant political branding.
As a result of the effectiveness of this branding, we now have an EPA (Environmental Protect Agency) that is being run by someone who wants to destroy the EPA (and is effectively doing so), we have a DOE (Department of Energy) being run by someone who said on the campaign trail he’d get rid of the DOE if elected president, we have a Department of Education being run by someone who spent her life promoting private education and who apparently never set foot in a public school before taking the position, we have a Department of Interior being run by someone who wants to give public lands to corporations (and is doing so), and story goes on and on.
The government is good when run by people who believe in the positive mission and goals of the government. When you elect people who simply want to destroy the government and make it ineffective, you get a crappy government.
3. A simple ideological point that is overgeneralized
Related to the above, there’s a simple ideology that has taken over the minds of much of the Republican political elite. It’s the idea that anything to weaken the government and cut regulations is good. Put another way, it’s the idea that corporations should be allowed to do practically anything they want. Put yet another way, it’s the idea that instead of pooling money from the public (via taxes) for public goods, we should have lower or no taxes. If none of us pay taxes, will we voluntarily put money into public goods that benefit us all in a satisfactory manner. Will that volunteer approach work as well as using a governmental structure?
Of course, if we all had a tax rate of 99%, we’d have other problems. Putting too much of our wealth into public goods takes away from our ability to freely explore and pursue private ones. Nobody is recommending that. Nobody is recommending anything close to that. What Democrats recommend is putting enough money into public goods and the social safety net that we have a good & stable public domain, attractive & healthy public spaces, and a decent basic quality of life. What they also recommend is that we regulate corporations enough to protect most Americans from substantial harm, and that when the richest 1% of Americans own more additional income than the bottom 90%, they should pay more in taxes to support the society that made them unimaginably wealthy.
The Democratic recommendation is not to shift to 100% government control or taxation — not even close. But the Republican recommendation (and, in the current administration, approaching reality in many sectors of society) is to remove public, societal, government oversight and regulation. It’s to let corporations do what they want and to cut their taxes.
4. A political, fact-free “media” subculture
This is perhaps the least obvious and most under-acknowledged. It’s also perhaps the least understood.
Years ago, a Republican operative had the hugely effective yet democratically immoral idea to politicize the media, to turn it into a political weapon. That person was apparently Roger Ailes.
Why do I say “democratically immoral” about a corporate approach like the one Fox and others took? Because democracy is built, at its corest core1, on accurate information being widely available and used by the public to make political decisions. Without that, democracy falls apart. Thomas Jefferson tried to make the point exceedingly clear:
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
The problem with Fox News is not that reporters, talking heads, or producers have political opinions. It’s not even that they share those opinions. The problem is that they routinely present misinformation and ignore facts that are inconvenient to their narrative. They are creating a reality in people’s minds that does not match actual reality. As the misinformation grows, more and more decisions are made with incorrect expectations of the results, more and more people don’t understand the underlying causes of their problems and society’s problems. A “news organization” that disregards the facts and weaponizes the Fourth Estate eliminates one of the most important pillars of democracy.
In fact, it is propaganda machines like Fox News that are used routinely and to an intense extent in dictatorships to retain power and squash democracy.
With the growth of the internet, one would think that “the media” got better. After all, publishing was democratized. However, the internet allowed further expansion of this fact-free, politically weaponized approach. It allowed individuals, webpages, and new media outlets to gain a voice as part of democratized media but without the fact checking and institutional constraints on publishing false information that the old guard of traditional media had. There are pros, but there are also cons, most notably that misinformation can and has spread much more widely and incessantly, like a virus within our society.
Image via Media Matters
If the United States had gone too far and was heavily over-regulated, a shift toward deregulation would be smart. We would end up better by removing restrictions on corporations. However, the country is under-regulated after decades of deregulation. Corporations are allowed to pollute too much (harming human health and leading to countless premature deaths). Super rich bankers and speculators are allowed to gamble too much (risking the stability and health of the economy). Corporations and the rich are taxed too little, with not enough funding coming in for public education, public infrastructure, and public health care.
Share the news. Democracy crumbles when people fail to inform themselves, fail to engage in discourse, and fail to correct common myths.
1Yes, I’m aware “corest” isn’t a word, but I just liked “corest core” too much here.