Lee Siegel takes a step back from the surreal antagonism on Capitol Hill to figure out how we got here ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Given the recent gridlock in the American Congress over the debt ceiling and the budget, it’s sobering to remember an historical fact. Even during the McCarthy era—the most politically divisive moment in American history since the civil war—no one was arguing over taxes or the size of the federal government. In fact, at the height of McCarthyism, when the accusation of being un-American destroyed lives and careers, no one seemed especially vexed over the top marginal tax rate, which hovered between 91% and 94%.
To be sure, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created an almost fanatical hatred of taxes among conservatives. Books like Frank Chodorov’s 1952 “The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil” suddenly found an eager audience. Yet while Chodorov’s book was published at a time when McCarthy’s indictments had liberals cowering in terror, Congress had yet to see the sort of onslaught against taxes that took place during the Reagan years. The anti-tax furore had yet to become mainstream. Until the final years of the cold war, high tax rates were part of the American way.
The conflict between left and right created by the cold war was strictly ideological. It barely touched the structures of everyday life. Consider the policies of Richard Nixon, that legendary bugbear of the American left. The man created wage and price controls; established the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration; signed the Clean Water Act; endorsed integrating schools, affirmative action and the Equal Rights Amendment. Today Nixon would be considered not just a big-government liberal, but a socialist leading the country helter-skelter down the road to serfdom.
It is incredible that no one is stepping back from the almost surreal antagonism on Capitol Hill now to ask how, in the space of just a few decades, we have gone from consensus on taxes and the size of the federal government to the kind of fundamental disagreement over the nature of a republic that might greet its origins, not its 235th year of existence.
Reflecting on this, I recalled something Norman Mailer once said in his famous 1962 debate with William F. Buckley. It bears mentioning that this was a time when you could have an intelligent debate between liberals and conservatives, rather than the screeching partisan punditry we have now (which only reinforces political paralysis). Mailer ominously warned of “the war we can expect if the cold war will end. It is the war that will take life and power from the centre and give it over to left and to right, it is the war that will teach us our meaning.” It was, he said, "the war between the conservative and the rebel, between authority and instinct.”
Mailer’s declaration was typically portentous and grandiose, and bristling with ego-driven apocalyptics. But it was prescient nevertheless. He was describing a shift from an ideological conflict to an existential one.
With the end of the cold war, politics has become a bystander of social conflicts it cannot resolve. It is extraordinary that as America is rocked by soaring unemployment, a worsening housing crisis, rotting infrastructure, ever-accelerating health costs, deteriorating public education, the bankruptcy of entire states and rising incidents of mass murder, its government has ground to a halt over a budget debate that few Americans even understand. The country has become like a couple in denial over a failing marriage. Rather than address the real problems of emotional and sexual connection, they quibble over money.