Radcon 3

The right-wing trifecta - morality, prosperity, and patriotism -

and how to fight it.

by Robert R. Reich

The American Prospect magazine, May 2004


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 patriots.

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 sacrifice.

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.

Politics watch

Index of Website

Home Page