Descending Into Class Struggle
A storm had thrown the Mayflower well off course, to the uninhabited west coast of the Cape Cod Bay. The Pilgrims had free rein in choosing how to structure their lives together in the New World.
Their compact with one another — to which all subscribed — was to abide by the will of the majority as long as each had a say in voting on the Plantation’s laws. Their individual acceptances of majority will was facilitated by the recognition that all were in the same “boat”: There was no social or economic stratification among the Pilgrims. There was no wealth to fight over.
Fast forward almost 300 years. The United States had become the most powerful and richest nation in the world. It had evolved into a society where the distribution of income had become highly skewed. The top 1 percent of all income-earners accounted for almost 20 percent of all income earned: concomitantly, lower- and middle-income classes were finding the going ever tougher.
Class struggle — long a scourge of any democracy — has moved front and center in public policy debates.
Class warfare was far less fractious in the past because past administrations were able to address needs of all income groups simultaneously. President Reagan substantially cut taxes without reducing the safety net. President George H.W. Bush cut taxes substantially while increasing Medicare and Medicaid coverage.
Importantly, both did so by using America’s credit card to partially fund government operations. The consequence of this continued deficit spending has been the steady rise in U.S. indebtedness.
We can no longer have it both ways. At this point, America has effectively reached its credit limit. Although we probably cannot afford to end government deficit spending immediately, we must come to grips with the disconnect between tax collections and government expenditures.
The differences between the long-term solutions proposed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and President Obama could not be starker.
The first calls for substantial additional tax cuts along with substantial caps on government contributions to Medicaid and Medicare. That would unravel if not dismember both programs. The Obama plan calls for increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans and a reduction in corporate tax breaks to maintain a leaner version of the status quo.
Our democracy is thus faced with making fundamental choices regarding what we stand for as a nation. Unlike the past, there will be real winners and losers in the current debate.
Those who cling to a relatively flat tax rate may be faced with absorbing substantially higher tax burdens. Those who believe in a central role for government in ensuring a social safety net may be faced with substantial reductions in government support. Something and someone has to give.
Harsh choices require all of us to heed President Obama’s plea for an end to the vitriolic animosity that has become part and parcel of our national debate. The health of our democracy will depend, in no small measure, on the ability of the political “winners” to be sensitive to the deep-seated values held by the “losers.”
By analogy, those factions that do not get their way in public policy debates must accept that such losses are a natural outcome of the democratic process.
In our democracy, all citizens are equally entitled to their view of the proper role for government. This fundamental legitimacy should not be denigrated, no matter how “irrational” or “irresponsible” their views may appear to others.
Politicians espousing programs that go against one’s personal views are not “misguided” or a “threat to the country.” They are honestly representing the views of a portion of the electorate.
Failure to acknowledge the legitimacy of differing views threatens the vitality of a democracy that started some 300 years ago when 102 men and women combined to form a government based on the shared recognition that each individual owed his or her allegiance to those decisions that were agreed upon by the majority.
A tenacious clash of values is part and parcel of the democratic process, but so too is the recognition that everyone is entitled to an equal say in the matter. Democracies are sustained not by policy outcomes, but by the process by which these outcomes are reached.
Paul Ericson teaches social studies at Pinecrest High School. He previously served with the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency.
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