The Rich Victim – the Penthouse Punk, fighting the evil, totalitarian government on behalf of the common man – has been the symbol of the new, “counterculture” Republican Party amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Paul Krugman shines a spotlight on the “Angry Rich,” who see government regulation as tantamount to a Nazi takeover – literally. He tells us the story of billionaire, Wall Street magnate Stephen Schwarzman, who compared Obama’s proposal to close a tax loophole to the “the Nazi invasion of Poland.” And, as the New York Magazine article “The Wail of the 1%” points out, Schwarzman is not alone in playing Poland, as many of the rich on Wall Street who bankrupted the economy feel that they have been “mugged” by Obama’s modest government intervention.
In Gibson’s rant, and in the Republican “message machine,” as cognitive linguistic George Lakoff dubs the well oiled, well funded, neoconservative media complex, we hear echoes of Schwarzman – that the government, in collecting taxes from the wealthy, is a tyrannical thief. Joe Barton, a Republican representative, referred to the $20 billion BP fund as a “shakedown,” much like those on Wall Street, who said they were “mugged” by the closing of tax loopholes. And while Barton later apologized, other prominent Republicans, like Rand Paul and Sarah Palin, have unrepentantly asserted his position. In an ABC interview this summer, Paul castigated Obama as “really un-American in his criticism of business” after the BP disaster. Similarly, Palin defended BP in a Tweet, in which she passed along a blog by Thomas Sowell, a National Review writer and conservative, think-tank, Hoover Institute fellow. Sowell argues that the Obama administration has committed a “totalitarian” power grab by setting up a fund for BP to ensure they pay out those damaged by the volcano of oil washing onto Gulf shores. In “Is the US on a Slippery Slope to Tyranny,” Sowell, like Schwarzman, uses the analogy to Nazi Germany, arguing that forcing BP to pay into the fund is in essence an attack on constitutional democracy.
A month before the Republican rout of Congress, Newt Gingrich – who compared Obama to Adolf Hitler – distilled the same anti-government, pro-billionaire message down to a bumper-sticker friendly format: “Paychecks or Food Stamps.” As a central tenant in this “closing argument,” Gingrich advises candidates to hammer on the tax reform, to point out that increased taxes will directly decrease employment and that this slogan – when repeated again and again – will resonate with average Americans on a “personal, emotional level.”
And resonate it did. Not only did the Republicans win the Congress through Gingrich’s strategy, but many in the bottom 99 percent are true believers that the super wealthy are our benevolent patrons, and that hurting them, hurts us all. According to a September PEW poll, nearly 40 percent of Americans say “that allowing Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy to expire at the end of this year would hurt the economy.” And as Obama signed the bill to law this Friday, a bipartisan majority of the public (60 percent) supported it, according to another PEW poll.
That the Bush era tax cuts have passed, and with broad public support, provides clear empirical evidence that neoconservatives are winning the war for the public’s mind and heart, and that, indeed, our country has shifted to a more economically conservative worldview, in which the government is the problem, rather than the solution. In absence of government, the rich have become our job-creating superheroes, who will save us from the recession.
Robbing Ourselves Blind
Nowhere is this ideological shift more clearly demonstrated than in a fascinating PEW analysis comparing American’s attitudes today, to those in the middle of the Great Depression (“How a Different America Responded to the Great Depression”). Simply put, “Quite unlike today’s public, what Depression-era Americans wanted from their government was, on many counts, more not less.” Senior Editor Jodie Allen, in the comprehensive comparison of opinion data from the 1930s and today found that:
“The most striking difference between the 1930s and the present day is that …average Americans of the mid-1930s revealed downright ‘socialistic’ tendencies in many of their views about the proper role of government.”
In the 1930s, Americans saw the government playing a vital role in helping its citizens amid economic crisis, and generally supported government interventions to help the struggling; now, we believe the free market will save us, and its leaders – the billionaires – will lead the way.
And billionaires have led the way – toward increasing wage inequity, a point made resoundingly by Bill Moyers in “Welcome to the Plutocracy.” Extreme wage inequality is not solely a matter of Moyer’s “liberal envy,” nor affluent guilt, as Gibson might snidely suggest. Rather, wage inequality is an investment reality, according to the leaked 2006 Citigroup memo, which acknowledges that in the last 30 years, the “rich have been getting richer.” And Citigroup has ideas about how to help the rich exploit this ever-widening gap:
“If Plutonomy continues, which we think it will, if income inequality is allowed to persist and widen, the plutonomy basket should continue to do very well.”
The authors believe that the tax policies of the 1980s (Reaganomics) explain, in part, why wealth has trickled up, and the gap between the have-nots and have-alls continues to widen, at the expense of the have-nots. And as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out this week in a scathing op-ed, the new tax deal that the majority of the public now supports will maintain the plutocracy, and will increase the stratification of the classes, rather than help the middle class and poor.
Now, a willing public fights in defense of billionaires who are helping themselves to their – to our – hard-earned money.
How has this happened? How has the public turned on itself, avidly supporting policies that tilt the “free market” against them?
Listen to Newt
Unlike the 1930s, today’s average American is constantly plugged into the mass media network, a communication system run by the very billionaires the public now defends. The largely invisible pro-business, pro-billionaire propaganda machine has succeeded in molding public opinion, as Lakoff has pointed out in his latest book “The Political Mind.” He observes that they have think tanks (like the Hoover Institute, of which Sowell and Gingrich are fellows), which produce coordinated talking points (“Paychecks or Food Stamps”), that are then hammered mercilessly into the public discourse via media outlets (Gibson, Fox News), and ultimately, Washington, into our laws. This expansive persuasion machine, in turn, is silently funded by billionaires like the Koch Brothers, as Jane Mayer reported this summer in “Covert Operations”. And with the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, future funders will no longer have the fear of being outed by nosy, liberal reporters (or bloggers) who “hate the rich.”
Lakoff argues that Democrats need to create a competing communication machine, and need to have a “cognitive policy,” as the Republicans have used so successfully, to persuade the public. Democrats need to seize control of the mass media, to make issues “personal, and emotional,” as Newt Gingrich might say, and help the average American to see these tax breaks as the “public theft” they really are, to show people that the system does not fairly, nor equitably, compensate them for their hard work.
A great idea, but it’s one that sounds pretty expensive: think tanks, conferences, air time, Google search terms, cool-looking policy buses with “Tax Cuts are Public Theft” on the side, Tea Party grassroots style – all of it sounds pretty pricey. Heck, even running an independent media site that reaches more than 15 of your friends costs a pretty penny. (By the way, have you donated to Truthout yet?)
Can somebody please give George Soros a call? Apparently, he’s loaded and hates the rich, too.