Confusing the concept of democracy with a distorted ideology of unrestricted freedom for individuals
All but two of the Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a resolution finding Trump aides Dan Scavino and Peter Navarro in contempt of Congress, for refusing to comply with subpoenas from the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Among the early “no” votes on April 7 was Representative Greg Pence (R-IN), whose brother, Vice President Mike Pence, was in danger from the mob on January 6 after then-president Trump blamed him for his refusal to overturn the election. The two who voted in favor were committee vice chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) and committee member Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
The Republicans explicitly backed former president Trump and insisted that the investigation of the January 6 insurrection was simply a way to try to keep Trump off the ballot in 2024 and to distract from scandals potentially involving President Joe Biden’s son Hunter – who holds no government office.
The Democrats, in turn, warned that Trump’s attack on our democracy must not go unchallenged. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD) called the Republicans a party “drenched in Putin propaganda” and noted that it had turned even on Cheney, who used to rank third in the leadership of House Republicans, “[b]ecause if you don’t go along with Donald Trump…a cult…they will attack you.”
An important current feeding the Republicans’ embrace of Trump is that the Republican leadership is wedded to an ideology that sees the most important American principle as a specific form of individual economic “freedom,” not democracy.
After World War II, Americans of both parties began to defend the concept of democracy, in which every person was equal before the law. That meant civil rights for Black and Brown Americans, as well as for women. But it also meant that the government tried to keep the economic playing field level enough that everyone had an equal shot at rising to prosperity.
Beginning with the New Deal in the 1930s and reaching into the 1970s, the government regulated business and protected workers and consumers. Those opposed to such a government insisted that such protections hurt their freedom to arrange their businesses as they saw fit. Second to their hatred of regulations was their dislike of the taxes that funded the government bureaucrats who inspected their factories, as well as underpinning social welfare programs. But it was the promise to cut taxes for working Americans that enabled them to take the White House in 1980.
The idea that America meant freedom for individuals to act as they wished took over the Republican Party after the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Beginning in 1981, the party focused on tax cuts to put more money in the hands of the wealthy, who would, they insisted, use it to expand the economy. Using the government to defend the “demand side,” by protecting equality, would destroy the ability of business leaders to arrange the economy in the most productive way possible. It was, Republicans said, “socialism.” And so, Republicans focused on cutting regulations and slashing taxes.
Rather than revise their ideology when their “supply side” economics concentrated wealth upward rather than promoting widespread prosperity, the Republicans doubled down on it, promoting deregulation and tax cuts above all else. They have now, in the second generation since Reagan, become convinced that their version of “freedom” is the fundamental principle on which the United States stands and that any challenge to it will destroy the country.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in late February, the attendees had little to say about authoritarian Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of democratic Ukraine, which had happened days before. But they had plenty to say about Democrats.
On February 26, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) gave a speech in which he said “We survived the war of 1812, Civil War, World War I and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War,” but “[t]oday, we face the greatest danger we have ever faced: The militant left-wing in our country has become the enemy within.” He claimed: “The woke Left now controls the Democrat Party. The entire federal government, the news media, academia, big tech, Hollywood, most corporate boardrooms, and now even some of our top military leaders… They want to end the American experiment. They want to replace freedom with control.”
This is completely wrong historically, of course. But the rising extremism of the Republican leadership suggests that it is concerned that American voters, including Republican voters, are turning against the ideology of “freedom” that focuses on concentrating wealth on the supply side of the economic equation and would like to see the government try to restore some semblance of equality. This would mean higher taxes on the wealthy.
A YouGov poll released April 1 shows that 60% of Americans think that billionaires don’t pay the full amount of taxes they owe. Among poorer voters, only 16% thought billionaires were playing fair, while a whopping 63% thought they were not, and 20% were not sure. Two thirds of Americans think that households should pay at least 20% of their income over $100 million in taxes. In not a single demographic category did that number fall under 50%, and the only category for which it was 50% was Republicans.
More broadly, Americans have called for higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations now for years. In 2018, two thirds of Americans said they were dissatisfied with “the way income and wealth are distributed in the U.S.”; in 2017, 78% said that what bothers them about the U.S. tax system is that the wealthy don’t pay their fair share, and 80% said what bothers them is that corporations don’t pay their fair share.
Biden’s proposed $5.8-trillion 2023 budget, released at the end of March, proposes tax increases on the wealthy and on corporations. It would end Trump’s 2017 tax cut for the wealthy early. That cut sliced the top marginal income tax rate from 39.6 to 37% until December 31, 2025. It would also tax the interest on stocks and bonds, which currently is not taxed until those assets are sold, which means that their owners can accumulate large sums of money without ever being taxed on it, while wage workers pay full freight on their income. Biden wants to make American households worth more than $100 million pay a tax rate of at least 20% on their real income as well as on the gains on their unsold stocks and bonds.
The administration also wants to get rid of the 2017 Trump tax cuts, which cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Biden’s proposal would raise the corporate tax rate from the Trump low of 21% up to 28%.
The White House says these taxes would raise $1.5 trillion over the next decade, and it wants to use that money to fund public housing, science, police departments, climate change adjustments, education, pandemic preparedness, and, in this precarious time for democracy, increases to the military. While Trump’s tax cuts drove the national debt up to an astounding $23.2 trillion by the end of 2019 – up from $19.9 trillion when he took office, Biden promises to use money from his proposed tax increases to pay down the deficit.
Biden’s plans signal an end to the era of “freedom” in American politics and a return to a focus on equality and democracy. In this, they, hark back to the principles of the original Republican Party. During the Civil War, when faced with a mounting debt in their fight to protect the government, the Republicans invented the U.S. income tax in order, as Senate Finance Committee chair William Pitt Fessenden (R-ME) said, to make sure that tax burdens would “be more equalized on all classes of the community, more especially on those who are able to bear them.” Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA) agreed, saying: “It would be manifestly unjust to allow the large money operators and wealthy merchants, whose incomes might reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, to escape from their due proportion of the burden.”
Meanwhile, Senator Rick Scott’s “11-Point Plan to Rescue America” promised to put income taxes on the 50% of Americans who currently don’t make enough to be taxed. It’s part of his plan to “grow America’s economy, starve Washington’s economy, and stop Socialism.”
It is no wonder the Republicans are trying to keep the national focus on Trump and the culture wars.
Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics