Ensconced, encased, and engrossed within the chokehold of mob rule do we find in this most dire of dilemmas — the “fiscal cliff” — both the Democratic and Republican Parties.
Opinions from The Atlantic, Huffington Post and The New York Times suggest that President Barack Obama ought to take a democratic, “I won the election” attitude to working with Republicans in the Senate and House of Representatives. Indeed, he did win the election. Nevertheless, he faces divided government. In the same election, Republicans retained their majority in the House. In the face of such divided election returns, no mandate exists.
For all their posturing for and pandering to the folks back home, for all their use of their bully pulpits to replace rather than supplement their interactions with one another, no member of Congress has an obligation to pay any heed to the public opinion polls that say that most Americans support tax increases. Barely more than 500 Americans have a direct say on the language of bills or whether they become law. It is time for the president, senators and representatives to start dealing with one another rather than agitating their intellectual dependents like a bunch of bums.
The source of the fiscal dilemma is none other than the majoritarian reductionism with which we have been infected for decades, if not centuries — first, by amending the Constitution so that presidents and vice presidents are elected as tickets; second, by amending it so that senators are elected by popular majorities rather than the legislatures of the states from which they hail; and third, by requiring the members of the Electoral College to cast their votes for president and vice president in accordance with their states’ popular vote returns.
At the core of the problem is the conflation of what is best for the United States of America with what is best for a certain class of Americans in their personal capacities. How else could Obama advocate a plan that “asks the wealthiest Americans to pay more, … will strengthen the middle class over the long haul, and grow our economy over the long haul”?
In his statement following a last-minute meeting with Congressional leaders, Obama reiterated such dedication to a solution that would “above all protect our middle class and everybody who’s striving to get into the middle class.”
Haggling over tax brackets and rates demonstrates this conflation as much as anything else. Initially, Obama wanted to allow taxes to rise on family income above $250,000 per year. Boehner’s so-called “Plan B” would have raised taxes on incomes of more than $1 million per year. Obama countered with a proposal that taxes rise on incomes of more than $400,000 per year.
It is time for everyone — including the “middle class” which, in the words of Vice President Joe Biden, is “the backbone of this country;” which, according to the Pew Research Center, is an income bracket made up of 51 percent (a majority) of Americans — to pay more. If the middle class truly is the backbone of America and its ideal class, it has just as much an obligation to contribute to its coffers as the richest among us.
Focusing so much attention on the taxes of the rich, which would bring in so little more, makes us look like vindictive perpetrators of class warfare in the mold of the Roman Gracchi, the English Levelers, or the French and Russian revolutionaries. If we shoulder them with responsibilities disproportionate to their equal citizenship, the rich Atlases of the world will begin to shrug, unsettling us all.
President Abraham Lincoln said in his famous Gettysburg Address that the United States is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Each of those words — of, by and for — forms one corner of a triangle. If one of them ceases to exist, the triangle crashes down. The rich are the most prominent among us, but they are not the only Americans. Even the poorest have civic obligations and must share in the governing “by the people.”
Politicians of all stripes like to flaunt and campaign on their patriotism. At the end of the day, however, patriotism belongs to the men and women who will pay the ransom, who will flinch in the game of chicken.
One Biblical story comes to mind. Once, two women confronted King Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of a baby. Since each woman was insistent, Solomon proposed that the baby be cut in half and that each woman receive half of it. One woman acquiesced. The other, however, exclaimed that the baby should be kept whole, and given to the other. Solomon concluded that the desperate woman was the child’s mother, and gave it to her. American politicians should have the same desperation to save the object of their trust.