The right-wing trifecta -
morality, prosperity, and patriotism -
and how to fight it.
by Robert R. Reich
The American Prospect magazine,
In my view, being a liberal is something
to be proud of. Yet for more than 20 years, liberals have been
on the defensive and conservatives ascendant. Radical conservatives-
"radcons," I call them-are taking over the public agenda.
Radcons are revolutionaries. For them, ends justify means. They'll
do whatever it takes to win. Listen to Paul Weyrich, prominent
radcon founder of The Heritage Foundation and coiner of the term
"moral majority": "We are no longer working to
preserve the status quo. We are radicals, working to overturn
the present power structure of the country." And they are
meeting with woefully little resistance.
To understand their radicalism, you need
to understand their notion of evil.
This article is adapted from Robert B.
Reich's new book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for
America, to be published this month by Alfred A. Knopf, a division
of Random House, Inc. Copyright 2004 by Robert B. Reich.
To radcons, the major threat to the security
of our nation, the stability of our families, our future prosperity,
and the capacity of our children to grow into responsible adults
is a dark, satanic force. It exists within America in the form
of moral deviance-out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality, abortion,
crime. It potentially exists within every one of us in the form
of sloth and devastating irresponsibility. It exists outside America
in the form of "evil empires" or an "axis of evil."
There's no compromising with such evil. It has to be countered
with everything we have. Religious faith and discipline are the
means of redemption. Punishment and coercion are the only real
deterrents. Fear is the essential motivator.
The radcons' dominance is due in part
to their money, discipline, and tactics. But the most fundamental
source of their dominance has been their capacity to shape the
public debate around this idea of evil. Put simply, radcons have
offered America a set of ideas that celebrate "us" and
condemn "them." Unless "our" values prevail,
"they" will triumph.
The radcons' arguments are organized around
three themes: morality, prosperity, and patriotism. The radcon
version of morality seeks to impose private religious norms about
sex and the family on the entire nation, transforming matters
of private morality into law. But radcons are looking in the wrong
direction. America is facing a moral crisis, but it is abuses
of authority at the highest levels of America that are stacking
the deck against average working people and small-scale investors,
not to mention undermining public trust in the entire economic
and political system. The real public moral breakdown is at the
top, where too many powerful and wealthy people are abusing their
authority. We are defining deviancy down. Even in the early l990s,
before the stock market soared and then plunged, before the corporate
scandals, CEO pay in America was "deviant" in the sense
that it was far higher than the pay of CEOs in other countries.
Then it grew even more wildly out of line-going from 4z times
an average hourly worker's pay in 1980 to 85 times as much in
1990 to more than z80 times as much now. But what had once been
disturbing came to be expected. Then, what became expected became
acceptable. Finally, what became acceptable began to seem appropriate.
The problem isn't just a few "rotten
apples." We need moral as well as legal limits on rapacious
CEOs, accountants, lawyers, brokers, and investment bankers. Liberals
should lead the charge for reforms, as they have done twice over
the last century, in the early l900s and in the 19305. Both times,
liberal reformers were accused of interfering in the free market.
But in both instances, liberals prevailed by appealing to public
morality and common sense.
The radcon version of prosperity rewards
the rich, gives almost nothing to the middle class, and penalizes
the poor. It is based on a market-fundamentalist faith that has
deep roots in American history. Few Americans living today have
read any of Herbert Spencer's writings, but they had an electrifying
effect on America during the last three decades of the 19th century.
To Spencer, the marketplace was a field for the development of
personal character. Only the fittest were able to prosper, because
only they were able to muster the necessary resources to maintain
themselves and their offspring. It was Spencer, not Charles Darwin,
who coined the phrase "survival of the fittest." It's
almost startling to find how exactly Spencer's views are echoed
by today's radcons. The America of the late 19th century went
through a technological revolution. Today's social problems differ
in many ways but the upheaval caused by today's technological
revolution is no less dramatic.
The radcons are dead wrong about how to
grow the economy. Their solution is to raise the level of savings
and reduce consumption in order to create more capital. But the
real way to do it is by widening the circle of prosperity to include
Americans who have been falling behind. Rather than cut taxes
on the rich in order to generate more financial capital, we need
to use those tax revenues instead to improve the productivity
of all Americans. In a world where financial capital moves across
borders at the speed of an electronic impulse, our people-our
human capital-are the one asset that's uniquely American. Shared
prosperity isn't incompatible with growth; it's essential to it.
But in the post-September 11 world, patriotism
has arguably emerged as the area in which radcon rhetoric has
proven most effective. It has certainly been the most intimidating
to Democrats-and infuriating to liberals.
The radcon version of patriotism is downright
dangerous. I call it "negative patriotism" because it
stifles dissent at home and insists that America be so much stronger
militarily than any other nation that we can bully others into
submission. What is the role of patriotism in an age of terrorism?
Radcons emphasize pledging allegiance, showing the American flag,
and singing the national anthem. They label as "traitors"
anyone who criticizes the president or questions any detail of
America's "war on terrorism." Their goal is to keep
America the most powerful nation on earth and force into submission
any other nation that might threaten us. Their patriotism is all
about expunging "evil" outside our borders. Terrorism
is another evil that must be eliminated through discipline and
force. And the war on terrorism is another example of us against
them-if you're not with us, you're against us.
The radcon version of patriotism requires
no real sacrifice by most Americans, nor does it ask anything
of the more fortunate members of our society. Radcons don't link
patriotism to a citizen's duty to pay his or her fair share of
taxes to support the nation. And they don't think patriotism requires
that all citizens serve the nation. Theirs is a shallow patriotism
that derives its emotional force from disdaining foreign cultures
and confronting foreign opponents. As such, it imperils the future
security of America and the world, for reasons I will outline
in a moment.
Yet many liberals have been silent about
patriotism. They seem wary of it or, at best, embarrassed by it.
Perhaps that's because, in recent decades, patriotism has so easily
morphed into crass "America first" chauvinism. But that's
not the only form patriotism can take. Liberals must promote a
"positive patriotism" that stands tough against terrorism
and genocide, yet doesn't need a foreign enemy to define itself
or in order for it to flourish. At its best, the American tradition
of liberal internationalism has reflected our drive to expand
our founding ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy.
Among my earliest memories is my father
telling me what a wonderful place America was and what a privilege
it was to live here. Even though he worried about making enough
money to support our family, he always thought of America as a
land of wondrous opportunity. My father was a patriot, but that
didn't stop him from being critical of America or of the people
who led it. He thought that Senator Joseph McCarthy was a villain,
and, years later, that Lyndon Johnson had deceived the nation
about Vietnam. He was the first person I heard say that Richard
Nixon was a crook.
Dad's patriotism was grounded in American
ideals. He got upset when he noticed a wide gap between those
ideals and what actually occurred. And in these moments he was
participating in the very essence of Americanism.
That gap is still with us and always will
be. The ideals are just that-ideals. They're goals and aspirations.
But unless we acknowledge the gap, we can't even begin to close
it. If we accept the radcon view that good citizens should keep
their criticisms to themselves, we won't ever be able to mobilize
the political will to do better.
A childhood friend of mine, Michael Schwerner,
went to Mississippi during the summer of 1964 to register black
people to vote. Mickey was in his 20s, brimming with optimism
and courage. He was murdered, along with two other civil rights
workers, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, by racist thugs. What
motivated the three of them to participate in "Freedom Summer"
was that they loved America enough to risk their lives for it
and were determined to help close the gap between American ideals
and American practices. Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney were true
But most of all, a truly positive patriotism
asks sacrifices of Americans. What should be asked of individual
American citizens in a time of emergency such as ours? Radcons
don't ask much more than uncritical support for their policies.
I listened recently to a radcon radio talk-show host fulminate
against liberal "anti-American traitors" who criticize
American foreign policy. Within a minute, he was on to another
one of his favorite topics: taxes. "lt's your money,"
he thundered, repeating the radcon line we've heard so many times
before. "lt's not the government's money!" He bloviated
on about why it was perfectly OK for citizens to use every tax
dodge they could find to avoid paying Uncle Sam.
"It's your money" makes it sound
as if citizens have no duty to support America. But how can we
afford to fight terrorism if everyone tries to avoid paying taxes?
What kind of patriotism is this? Real patriotism requires real
sacrifice. Those who honestly love America feel a strong sense
of responsibility to it. Displaying an American flag is easy.
Paying your fair share of the cost of the nation requires some
We don't know exactly how much the fight
against terrorism will cost in the years ahead, but it's bound
to be far more than the $400 billion now budgeted annually for
the Defense Department. I remember a White House meeting years
ago when the president's national-security adviser asked for billions
of dollars more than had been budgeted for the Defense Department
in order to go into Bosnia. It struck me as odd. I'd assumed that
the whole reason for spending hundreds of billions each year on
defense was so the military could take military action. But it
turned out that the purpose of the defense budget is to be ready
for military action. Military action itself costs much more. "Battles
are extra," I remember him saying.
We have to spend hundreds of billions
more rebuilding Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries we've pledged
to help. We'll need to spend a bundle policing against terrorism
around the world, even if other nations are pitching in, too.
Helping Russia and other nations secure all nuclear-fissile materials
will be a further major expense. Add to that the substantial cost
of beefing up homeland security. As I've noted, exercising true
world leadership is also expensive; it will require far more money,
as well as attention, than we devote to it today.
It's your money? It's your country! If
you weasel out of what you owe in taxes, either someone else has
to pay more taxes to make up the difference or there's less of
what's required-roads, hospitals, troops, cops, safety inspectors,
teachers-to keep it great.
Traditionally during wartime, taxes were
raised on top incomes to help pay for the extra costs of war.
The estate tax was imposed by wartime Republican Presidents Abraham
Lincoln and William McKinley. It was maintained through World
War 1, World War 11, the Korean War, and the Cold War. Only in
2OO1 did radcons start to phase it out.
During World War 1, the income-tax rate
on the richest Americans rose to 77 percent. During World War
11, it was greater than go percent. In 1953, with the Cold War
raging, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower refused to support
a Republican bill to reduce the top rate, then g 1 percent. By
1980, the top rate was still at 70 percent. Then Ronald Reagan
slashed it to z8 percent. Because Reagan kept spending record
sums on the military, the federal deficit ballooned. A few years
after that, the Berlin Wall came down, ending the Cold War. We
congratulated ourselves-and then faced the largest budget deficit
since World War 11.
Now we're back at war. But instead of
raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for it, the radcons want to
cut those taxes. Pardon me for asking, but where, exactly, is
the patriotism in this?
Liberals must do the arithmetic for the
American public. Compare the after-tax earnings of families in
the top 1 percent with the after-tax earnings of families in the
middle. Between 1980 and 2000, the after-tax earnings of families
at the top rose more than 150 percent, while the after-tax earnings
of families in the middle rose about 1o percent. The Bush tax
cut of 2003 raised the after-tax incomes of most Americans by
a bit more than 1 percent, but raised the after-tax incomes of
millionaires by 4.4 percent. Apparently, in this time of national
emergency, the wealthy have less of a patriotic duty to provide
for the financial support of their country than do families of
more moderate means.
Even if you're a billionaire, it's not
just your money. You earned it because you live in America. President
Theodore Roosevelt made the case in 1906, when arguing in favor
of continuing the wartime inheritance tax. "The man of great
wealth owes a particular obligation to the state because he derives
special advantages from the mere existence of government,"
he said. It's your country. And right now your country needs every
American to sacrifice, in fair proportion. Liberals embrace this
sacrifice. Radcons want to evade it.
In the battle for America, liberals shouldn't
recoil from morality, prosperity, and patriotism. The radcon versions
imperil our future. But unless they're met head-on by a bold,
liberal alternative, radcons win by default.
Liberals have reason on our side. But
that's not enough. To win, we also need fire in our bellies. Passion
is necessary to gather resources, build organizations, and energize
participants. I believe that another era of liberalism is on its
way. The most important thing for each of us to know is that we're
not alone in all this. There are tens of millions just like us-Americans
who have had enough of the radical conservatives. Liberals will
indeed win the battle for America because we are closer than radcons
are to the true American ideals.