“lack of compassion has become a matter of principle, at least among the G.O.P.’s base . . . And what this means is that modern conservatism is actually a deeply radical movement, one that is hostile to the kind of society we’ve had for the past three generations — that is, a society that, acting through the government, tries to mitigate some of the ‘common hazards of life’ through such programs as Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare and Medicaid.”
Of course this has been true for quite some time now, but what is unique about the present is not that those ideas are prevalent on the Right but that the Right, thanks to our current austerity politics, is getting closer to achieving its decades-long quest to bring us back to the wonders of the McKinley era.
This is clearly in evidence with the Republicans’ lock-step response to President Obama’s proposal for a millionaire’s tax. Like parrots on the shoulder of anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, they howled “class warfare” in unison before Obama even had a chance to formally announce the idea. While most Americans think the “Buffet rule” that would require millionaires to pay a similar tax rate as those they employ is a very reasonable idea, for the contemporary right it is utter sacrilege.
Instead of looking for new revenue their sole focus is on cutting government, shrinking it down to the size where one can “drown it in a bathtub,” as Norquist once put it. This is because they don’t believe in government as a buffer against the hard edges of the market place or as the only institution capable of checking the power of capital if the public good is not in line with the interests of the rich or powerful corporations.
For the contemporary right, the goal is to, as William Greider once put it, “roll back the twentieth century.” In the days before “big government,” we were free from income taxes and government regulations. The fact that for many of the elderly, retirement meant poverty doesn’t matter. Nor does the fact that unregulated corporate power led to social movements demanding that the government check the excesses of unregulated capitalism. History be damned.
This movement on the Right wants to bust unions, privatize everything, and put an end to “entitlements.” Krugman is correct to call it a radical movement in the sense that all radicals want to return “to the root” and challenge the first principles of their opponents. And these new right-wing radicals are not interested in compromise; they are interested in winning at any cost.
Here in San Diego, this movement is best represented by the Right’s obsession with busting the pensions of San Diego’s public employees. Back in 2005, in the afterward to Under the Perfect Sun, I addressed what the attack on city unions and pensions represented. At that time, city workers had just become the piñata of choice for the local right and San Diego’s media pundits:
Rather than addressing the complex history of the problem, much of the local media and the once moderate Republican turned snarling union-buster and privatization advocate, Ron Roberts [along with others], demagogued the issue, blaming the “millionaires’ club” of city employees for the problem, while ignoring the fact San Diego’s that garbage men, bus drivers, cops, and teachers were hardly living the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Why?
As Donald Cohen, [then] president of the Center on Policy Initiatives has argued, the pension fund crisis represents a perfect opportunity to reverse the Democratic shift in the city by attacking unions, privatizing government services, and undermining the emerging Democratic political base. What a massive fiscal crisis offers is an opportunity to, as David Stockman once put it, “starve the beast.” By refusing to raise taxes, one can impose fiscal discipline in a way that conveniently eliminates your opponent’s political base. In a city that both the Libertarian Reason Foundation and Karl Rove confidante Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform see as fertile ground for an experiment in the radical revamping and privatization of public pension funds, the cries of “Enron by the sea” are sweet music indeed.
So San Diego was “the Wisconsin of the West” before Wisconsin elected Scott Walker. And, of course, the Right has been on the march in San Diego ever since. The emergence of Carl DeMaio, a pure product of the right-wing think tanks, as a leading mayoral candidate is the logical extension of this move from the right to the hard right. Anyone who thinks that DeMaio’s lust for pension busting is uniquely local doesn’t understand how the assault on public employee pensions and the public sector as a whole fits into the larger strategy and goals of the American Right.
Once you eliminate public pensions you enshrine the idea that everyone’s retirement security is best dealt with by market forces. It shouldn’t take a leap of imagination to see how the same arguments about the sustainability of public pensions logically extend to Social Security—the big enchilada for the privatization movement. For those who do not believe government’s legitimate role is to be a buffer against the excesses of the marketplace, the current austerity rocks. It opens the door to a radical downsizing of our social safety net.
For the hard right, unquestioned faith in the marketplace as the only legitimate sphere of social life borders on the religious. In a world where the rule of the dollar is supreme, compassion isn’t just passé, it’s a moral flaw of sorts. Just as a century ago Andrew Carnegie argued in “The Gospel of Wealth” that the distance between the palace of the millionaire and the cottage of the laborer was evidence of our progress as a civilization, the contemporary Right rails against any effort to “punish success” by taxing the rich.
If you judge the GOP by their actions, it is clear that they think that the folks who need to pay are not the rich but those who work for or sometimes need government—whether they be public employees, students, the elderly, the needy, the sick, or any citizen who believes that taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society with a decent infrastructure and quality public services. That’s why pension busting, cuts-only budgets, and privatization are the stock in trade of the Right because they don’t believe in “hand-outs” or asking those who have benefited the most from our society to sacrifice a little for the public good. That would get in the way of their wealth redistribution project which has seen the richest top 1% of Americans continue to prosper and, in fact, gain wealth while the rest of us have been losing ground. So the tea party crowd is right in a way. It is all about class war—it’s just coming from the top down.
Read more of Jim Miller’s column, “Under the Perfect Sun”