COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The Poison of Extremism

FOLLOWING THE Democratic victory in 2008, Republicans listened to their most ideological spokespersons and instead of moving toward the center, started the Tea Party movement and moved further to the right. Media propagandist Rush Limbaugh told them that they had lost because they had not been conservative enough. Anti-tax ideologue, Grover Norquist, together with Fox News, played key roles in birthing the Tea Party movement. Their propaganda succeeded in convincing a plurality of intellectually undernourished Americans that Obama’s health care program was a socialist plot, even though it is a bonanza for insurance corporations. Fear works politically, and so far right Republicans, who think government exists to advance militarism and corporate rule, took over the House as well as many state governments in 2010.

In these states, they are driving democracy into a ditch, as they do the bidding of right wing industrialists. Outlawing public employee unions, replacing city governments with politically appointed czars, passing voter identification laws that make it extremely difficult for the poor, the old, and low wage workers to vote, and gerrymandering districts so as to forestall public attempts to recall governors and legislatures that pass these unpopular measures, are now common goings on in states run by the Tea Party right.

On the congressional level, Tea Party House Republicans take marching orders from the likes of Norquist, as well as the high flying one per cent of Americans who now account for some ninety per cent of the nation’s income. As I write, House Majority leader, Eric Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, refuse to budge on their dogma never to raise taxes on those who benefit most in a corporate dominated America. Early in the year, they bludgeoned the president into retaining the Bush tax cuts for the richest among us by threatening not to extend unemployment benefits and thus throw millions into dire poverty. Anti-tax extremists now seek to extract concessions from the president on “entitlement,” programs, that is federal legislation that helps older Americans retain their health and retire in dignity and gives others a leg up. An ever conciliatory Obama states his willingness to make cuts in these programs in exchange for closing some glaring tax loopholes for the rich, such as the one that enables billionaires to get taxed at a lower rate than their chauffeurs. That occurs because the wealthiest among us get most of their income from investments taxed at the capital gains rate of fifteen per cent, ten per cent lower than the rate paid by most working Americans. But even this “compromise” is insufficient to placate anti-tax extremists, who threaten to block raising the debt ceiling, thus causing the US to default on its debt, provoking economic meltdown, rather than vote for anything that would increase the share paid by billionaires and multimillionaires.

Since the Reagan years, anti-tax propagandists have succeeded in convincing a sizable portion of the American public that all taxation is bad, particularly at the federal level. This is a nihilistic position that would have appalled American statesmen from Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton to Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Taxation is the price we pay for a civil order with individual advancement. Taxes pay for roads, education, public parks, libraries, the electrical grid, and the whole gamut of projects to build and improve a complex, up-to-date national infrastructure. Graduated taxation, wherein the wealthy pay their fair share and are thus taxed at a higher rate, has in the past facilitated the creation of innumerable American jobs. To limit tax liability, wealthy industrialists poured money back into their American based businesses, thus expanding the labor force, or into non-profit entities, like museums, that enrich our national culture. But anti-tax nihilists would have a society where all public services are privatized so that only those who can pay may use them. Their ideology supports not a civil society with upward mobility, but an order of vast inequalities, where the few monopolize opportunity while the overworked, impoverished multitudes struggle to survive.

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.