Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Populism of the Privileged"

E.J. Dionne has an excellent opinion piece on the actual constituency of the Tea Party:
Their [the NYT and CBS pollsters] findings suggest that the Tea Party is essentially the reappearance of an old anti-government far right that has always been with us and accounts for about one-fifth of the country. The Times reported that Tea Party supporters "tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45." They are also more affluent and better educated than Americans as a whole. This is the populism of the privileged. ... The poll found that while only 38 percent of all Americans said that "providing government benefits to poor people encourages them to remain poor," 73 percent of Tea Party partisans believed this.
And, of course, a populism of privilege is no populism at all. Tea Party politics would hurt the condition of the poor and disadvantaged. Take, for example, the Tea Party's "Contract From America". There are some universal principles there, but there are also several principles that betray the privileged status of its constituency.
3. Demand a Balanced Budget: Begin the Constitutional amendment process to require a balanced budget with a two-thirds majority needed for any tax hike. (69.69%)
A two-thirds majority would make tax increases extraordinarily difficult at a time when the top marginal income tax rate is very low compared to its post-war high (which was also the time when income inequality was at a low point, "The Great Compression"). The privileged, not the poor or middle class, would benefit the most from a required supermajority for tax rate increases.
4. Enact Fundamental Tax Reform: Adopt a simple and fair single-rate tax system by scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution. (64.90%)
A flat tax is inherently regressive (as opposed to progressive, where the rich pay a higher percentage than the poor). Granted, certain flat tax systems could be more progressive than others, but in the end all of them would have the rich paying much less tax than they do now.
7. Defund, Repeal, & Replace Government-run Health Care: Defund, repeal and replace the recently passed government-run health care with a system that actually makes health care and insurance more affordable by enabling a competitive, open, and transparent free-market health care and health insurance system that isn’t restricted by state boundaries. (56.39%)
Health care reform has been debated endlessly at this point. What I'd point out is that it is the working poor and lower middle class who stand to benefit the most from the recently passed health care reform. To defund and repeal it would be to take away from them guaranteed health care insurance and lower their standard of living. It would benefit, of course, those who already had enough money to carry health insurance under the pre-reform system.
10. Stop the Tax Hikes: Permanently repeal all tax hikes, including those to the income, capital gains, and death taxes, currently scheduled to begin in 2011. (53.38%)
This is a blatant give-away to the privileged. Capital gains tax and the estate tax ("death tax") are the most progressive taxes we have. Only about 5,500 estates pay any estate tax (contrast this with the 70% of individuals who owe income taxes). Seventy-five percent of those estates come from the top 10% of wage earners. One-third come from the top one percent. The top ten percent of wage earners pay 94% of the estate taxes. (Source.) A decrease in the estate tax would be a major boon to the rich. This would also be true of the capital gains. See "What is the effect of a lower [capital gains] tax rate?".

Now you may believe in trickle down economics, that policies favoring the rich will somehow benefit everyone else. There's plenty of evidence that it doesn't. Google it if you want all the numbers and charts. What I want is for people to be honest about this. Quit pretending that these policies are anything but defenses of the wealth and status of the privileged. Quit misleading voters who would not benefit from your policies by wrapping them in patriotic language.

For myself, I agree with Matthew Yglesias:
Conservatives side with business over unions and environmentalists, with police and prosecutors over criminal defendants, with nationalists against cosmopolitans, with majoritarian ethnic and religious groups against annoying weirdos, and with the military against peaceniks.
And, I should add, with the rich over the poor and the powerful over the weak. It is for that reason that I am not a conservative.


  1. One of the things that attracted me to Catholicism was the "preferential option for the poor." Whenever it comes to rich versus poor, Jesus always chooses the poor, and so should anyone claiming to be a Christian!

  2. I was making a sort of to-do list yesterday and one of the items is to investigate Vatholic social teaching. The preferential option for the poor is very attractive to me. I also really admire what little I know about Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero.

  3. I heard Dionne argue this view of the tea-partiers a bit on one of Diane Rehm's news roundups a few weeks ago. There was some push-back on his data & interpretation from another panelist and from a caller or two, but I don't recall either side being clearly convincing. But the very mention of 'tea party' starts my eyes glazing over, so I'm not going to trust my impressions too much.

    My feeling is that the little summary of side-taking tendencies you borrow from Yglesias is misleading. Some essential things are completely obscured there, without which one's heading to a place where it's pointless to use the language of conservatism & its antitheses. A person's assumptions about historical development & social structure & the web of personal obligation & so on can be undeniably conservative in cast and the opposite side be taken on every item in such a list as Yglesias' there, you know.

    I'd still call you conservative, or rather anyhow a guy with (like me) at least as strong conservative impulses as liberal/progressive or what have you. But I haven't sorted out very clearly the terms of my own idea of what's conservative yet, I admit.

    I'll forward a sloppy but (for me) helpful recent exchange had with a libertarian friend recently. Not a lot of time for this, but I am somewhat on the prowl for clearer idea connections in these things. Maybe you'd be willing to comment & help me along.

  4. (A person's assumptions about historical development & social structure & the web of personal obligation & so on can be undeniably conservative in cast and the opposite side be taken on every item in such a list as Yglesias' there, you know. — Easiest sort of examples would be among immigrant communities from Europe (esp. Jewish & Catholic) & Asia to the U.S. in the 19th & 20th centuries. Plainly conservative in attitudes & choices about family life, religious practices, local social order, &c., yet with many affinities to the politics aligning workers against owners, minority ethnicity/religion against majority, urban/cosmopolitan against heartland interests, & on down the line. The children, the 2nd generation, assimilate more conventionally Right or Left, depending on a variety of factors. But the 1st generation isn't so simple to describe as one thing or the other.)

  5. Paul:
    You're right, of course, that Yglesias' statement (and my agreement with it) can be challenged by all sorts of self-identified conservatives who don't agree with it. On the whole, though, I think it is correct when viewed as a statement about run-of-the-mill conservatives in popular politics. There are other flavors of conservatism out there (AmCon magazine, for example) but they are not what most people mean when they say they are conservative.

    Your example of Catholic immigrants is also true. As I told Sylvia above, Catholic social teaching is something that I need to learn more about. There are leftist interpretations of it, of course, but it can also be followed by people who are temperamentally conservative but are not drawn to the political conservatism, as it is manifested in popular politics today.

    I'll take a look at that email exchange.

  6. I don't have a strong sense of who is involved in the tea parties. But it would be good to be clear on what the "Old Right" was. I think that there may be Old Right elements in the tea parties, but I suspect that a neoconservative element is as big. There are also elements of the Old Right that should be noted for clarity's sake.

    I'm not exactly sure what "nationalist" versus "cosmopolitan" means. The Old Right tended to be isolationist. Both "nationalists" and "cosmopolitans" sound like warmongers, the difference being the wars in which they would choose to engage.

    The "Old Right" tended not to call themselves conservatives. Some call themselves classical liberals. In their own time, they might have just used the term "liberal." But with the 19th century understanding, not current leftist ones. Hayek even wrote an essay titled "Why I Am Not a Conservative." (see here:


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.