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Averting Aristocracy

Democrats need to open up a new front in the war on tax cuts

By Eoghan W. Stafford

The 2004 general presidential race has not yet formally begun, and I’m already bored with the debate on economic policy. The president, in classical Republican fashion, has been extolling the benefits of letting ordinary Americans keep more of their money. The Democrats, meanwhile, point out that by “ordinary Americans,” the president seems to mean “the ultra-rich,” It’s the old equity-versus-efficiency debate—is it better to soak the rich or the poor?—and the whole thing is about as fresh as a “Friends” rerun. So here’s a new talking point that I suggest the Democrats try out to keep the election interesting and maybe even improve their chance of uprooting the Shrub: Bush’s tax cuts, by increasing economic inequality, could undermine political equality—that is to say, democracy itself. This is where a dead Frenchman comes in.

In the very latest instance of French praise for America—Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 masterpiece Democracy in America—the author notes the remarkable “equality of conditions” in the United States and connects America’s socioeconomic equality to our democratic blessings. “By no possibility could equality ultimately fail to penetrate into the sphere of politics as everywhere else,” de Tocqueville wrote at that time. (Incidentally, a 2002 study of New World societies by the National Bureau of Economic Research backs him up, observing that “where there was extreme inequality, as in most of the societies of the Americas, political institutions were less democratic,” than those where settlers started out relatively equal.) Today, there is typically a 25 to 30 percent gap in voter turnout between America’s top and bottom income quintiles and the rich can further enhance their participation with hefty campaign contributions. Put simply, people’s ability to exert influence in the political arena is not unrelated to their economic means.

As obvious as that may seem, Democrats have been too timid to point out the implication: Bush’s grossly lop sided tax cuts, by exacerbating economic inequality, will ultimately foster a more unequal distribution of the means for participating in political power. (For instance, axing the estate tax, which had applied to only the top two percent of estates, raises the prospect of making that inequality hereditary.) It’s no surprise then that their case for repealing the cuts has fallen flat.

The Dems have pointed out the injustice of the skewed rewards of the tax cuts, and they are right to do so. But over-reliance on framing the issue in terms of winners and losers or the “two Americas” (real though those divisions are) exposes the Democrats to the bogus but potent charge of class warfare. “Strengthening democracy” would be a much more unifying aspiration.

And a too-narrow appeal to Joe Voter’s wallet won’t end the Republican hegemony either. Kerry, for example, promises to “give every American access to the health care plan that the President and members of Congress already have,” while Edwards, during his candidacy, wanted to provide tax credits “to help working families own a piece of the rock.” These are fine ideas and highlighting the programs we could afford by repealing tax cuts for the rich is a smart tactic. But as long as the debate remains at the level of making promises to cash out the public purse, the GOP can hold its own. Not only did they put tax rebate checks in the mail, they even implemented a big new entitlement program: the prescription drug benefit.

Of course, the Republicans “paid” for these initiatives by charging them direct to the burgeoning national debt: “the best things in life are free; for everything else, there’s Future Generations of Taxpayers.” But then, with both parties going on about doling out individual goodies (whether tax breaks or entitlements), it’s easy to distract the public from the mounting deficits; since their costs will fall on everybody, nobody wants to deal with them. I guess you could say the voters have been fooled by the “piece of the rock” they the mail. But a common goal of preserving democratic vitality could save our budgetary keisters: allowing Democrats to muster political support for the fiscal responsibility needed to sustain egalitarian policies.

But to return to my original point—that the key issue here is to avert “Snore 2004”—I would draw the Democrats’ attention to the film that won eleven Oscars last Sunday: the final installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. It was not the hobbits’ quest for more generous Medicare benefits that made that epic film so captivating. Nor was it Aragorn’s rousing rhetoric on the “two Middle-earths.” No, it was the struggle between good and evil and the triumph over tyranny that captured our hearts (and our cash). A showdown over the future of American democracy would be equally stirring.

Well, that’s not exactly true. But it could easily be, say, 1/10 as entertaining as The Lord of the Rings. And for a debate on economic policy, that’s not bad.

Eoghan W. Stafford ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alernate Wednesdays.

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