In the American political pantheon, Thomas Jefferson is firmly ensconced at the highest level, with only Washington and Lincoln as peers. A man of extraordinary breadth and depth, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence has, not surprisingly, been quoted and misquoted by almost everyone – from schoolboys to later presidents – seeking to anoint their arguments with historical holy water. It is scarcely surprising, then, to find latter-day Republicans seeking to bask in the afterglow of the father of the original Republican party. But when we recall that Jefferson’s Republican Party was actually the lineal ancestor of today’s Democratic Party, we realize that right-wingers might need to exercise a certain amount of caution in this territory. Unfortunately, in the Money section of today’s Leesburg Daily Commercial, G.O.P. propagandist Russ Sloan throws caution to the winds and seeks to enlist Jefferson in his cause. Since that cause is, despite his pretensions to civic virtue, the advancement of plutocracy, Sloan’s effort is doomed to fail.
Understanding The Sloan Manifesto
Before wading into today’s fetid waters, a few words of explanation are in order in this first post in an important category on this site. Of all the conservative cant printed in the Leesburg Daily Commercial, Russ Sloan’s is perhaps the most profoundly offensive. I simply do not understand why a newspaper that is aimed at a lower-middle and middle-class readership provides a weekly soapbox for the propagation of myths, lies, and distortions that advance the interests of the corporate oligarchy at the expense of ordinary Americans. And, couched as they are in such seemingly mild-mannered and patriotic tones, Sloan’s Republican talking points slither past the somnolent intellectual guards of many readers, influencing their attitudes through a steady drip feed of manipulative mythology. Most readers of the newspaper have no idea that they are being played like a Stradivarius by a political machine that knows exactly which notes to hit. Sloan is only a bit player, of course, in this national scheme, but it is our job to resist attempted brainwashing wherever we may encounter it. The future of our country is at stake.
In what sense is Russ Sloan a plutocrat? Let us count the ways:
- He argues repeatedly for lower taxes on the rich and higher taxes on the poor, attacking the very concept of a progressive income tax by any means. All the tired, old trickle-down arguments are supplemented by blatant misrepresentation of the actual burdens currently borne by different groups of Americans. The rich are lionized while the poor are routinely dismissed as feckless parasites with “no skin in the game.” The fact that many of his readers are poor bothers him not one whit.
- He steadfastly ignores the distributions of wealth and income in the United States, which have deteriorated to levels not seen since before the Great Depression and which no longer resemble the conditions that are expected to prevail in advanced economies. In Russ Sloan’s columns, despite their publication in what is supposed to be the financial section, we are never exposed to Gini coefficients. Instead, we are patronized with fables (literally) that are cynically designed to exploit the American fondness for simple solutions to complex problems.
- He uses the national debt and the annual deficit like a bludgeon to call for cuts in spending on programs that benefit the middle class. For those who haven’t figured it out yet, the debt “crisis” is a heaven-sent opportunity for the rich to ensure that an even larger share of GDP will be diverted to them. Conspicuously absent from the list of proposed cuts is the bloated military-industrial complex so beloved of the Republican Party and the weapons manufacturers who profit from the business of death.
- He blames social programs such as Social Security and Medicare for the debt “crisis,” completely ignoring the actual causes: unnecessary wars, the inappropriate Bush tax cuts, a Republican-designed Medicare Part-D plan that wasn’t funded, and a severe recession caused by deregulated finance. Similarly, blame for the recession itself is never laid at the feet of its true creators, but upon scapegoats like public-sector unions and government regulations.
- He lambastes “entitlement programs” for ordinary citizens while remaining oddly mute on the subject of corporate welfare. Conspicuous by its absence is anger over the extraordinary sums lent by the Federal Reserve to the big banks, which effectively amounted to a license to print money. Similarly absent is any sense of outrage over Wall Street compensation packages made possible by the socialization of risk. The public sector, apparently, has its uses after all.
- He presents unfettered capitalism as the American way, and any attempt to regulate capitalism as un-American socialism. Straw men fallacies are common, with the problems of Greece – a completely different society – being presented as the inevitable alternative to doing things his way. The costs imposed upon society by this deification of greed are completely ignored. In his naive fantasy land, there is no such thing as market failure, negative externalities, or the tragedy of the commons.
- He characterizes government as the enemy of liberty and prosperity, reinforcing the oligarchy’s favorite – and most disingenuous – narrative. The reality that must never be exposed to the people is that the government is simply a tool of the forces that control it, and the forces in control are not the poor citizens who would like a better life. The American way is not capitalism; it is corporatism, in which the corporations use the government to improve their lot in life. Rousing the people against their own public institutions is the oligarchy’s most cynical and effective method of perpetuating its own power.
Over and over again, Sunday’s Money section is used to beat us over the head with these insidious mantras. I do not know – and no longer care – whether Russ Sloan receives direct marching orders from Republican “central command,” or whether he is actually misguided enough to believe what he says. (His wife’s touching, but unintentionally hilarious, recent letter in her husband’s defense suggests that the Sloans are true believers, or was designed to convey that impression.) Regardless, he is advancing a set of ideas that empowers the short-sighted profit-takers who are sucking all the value out of the human and natural resources of the United States. He is fighting for the wrong side, and we must fight back.
A Proper Understanding of Jeffersonian Principles
Politicians on the right generally like to focus on the immortal reference to individual equality in the Declaration of Independence, arguing that the words do not guarantee equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity. Even if we embrace their reading, one might have cause for some concern, especially if one’s ancestors were the property of the men who wrote that stirring language. But to concentrate solely on the Declaration, brilliant though it was – then and now – is to miss a much richer vein of history that is strikingly relevant to modern times.
To properly understand Jefferson’s politics, we need to look at the reasons for the development of political parties in the United States. Jefferson, together with Madison (the “father” of the Constitution and first Speaker of the House) teamed up in the early 1790’s to oppose the Federalist Party of Washington, Adams, and Hamilton. It is vital to remember that, in Madison’s constitutional design, political parties weren’t supposed to exist. Madison’s various mechanisms were intended to eliminate the pernicious influence of narrow-minded “factions” intent on pursuing selfish agendas inimical to the national interest. So why, then, would someone so opposed to factions become involved in creating a political party to oppose Washington’s administration? What could have been that important?
The Republican party of Jefferson and Madison arose in response to the financial plan of Washington’s brilliant Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton sought to strengthen the new national government by placing its finances on a solid footing. He believed that the financial sector of the economy – such as it was back then – had to be tied to the government by financial interests. Meanwhile, the states were struggling under the burden of debt accumulated during the Revolutionary War, and looked to the new national government for help. Hamilton’s solution was threefold, involving the national government taking over responsibility to pay the states’ debts (Assumption); the issuance of new national bonds and the imposition of new taxes to raise revenue (Funding); and the creation of a national bank. Apart from the opposition of whiskey drinkers who resented paying an excise tax on their favorite brew, and expressed this resentment with physical violence that had to be quashed, what was so wrong with that?
To Jefferson and Madison, Hamilton’s financial plan presented a danger to the very nature of the new American republic. Jefferson and Madison believed that a republican form of government could not persist if power became concentrated in too few hands. Their vision for America – which many might see as naive and romantic – was an agrarian republic in which the citizenry all owned land and possessed a stake in society. (Skin in the game? Yes. But it’s worth remembering that some of that skin was actually the real skin of the slaves they owned. The framers weren’t perfect and we have grown since then – in some respects.) Their nightmare was an industrialized America in which a few capitalists owned the means of production and the citizens became dependent workers with no real power. Hamilton’s plan would result in a concentration of financial power in the money men of New York and Boston, and that sounded the death knell of the republic.
The Resurrection of Thomas Jefferson
All our founders would struggle to recognize the America of today. To say that the world has changed would be a redundant understatement. Indeed, one might ask whether it is even appropriate to attempt to apply their modes of thought to modern conditions. Put differently, why should we be guided by the dead hand of the past? Why should we listen to slaveholders talk about liberty? Alternatively, is it even fair to somehow expect our founding fathers to provide us with answers to problems they could not even have imagined? Shouldn’t we just figure it all out for ourselves? After all, Jefferson himself argued that a constitution should be rewritten every twenty years to render it both legitimate and relevant for each generation.
That said, our admiration for our founders is a part of our “civic religion” that isn’t going away, and most of us don’t want it to. We will continue to argue about who we are as Americans by arguing about who our ancestors were, and what they thought. So if we’re going to do this, let’s at least make some effort to do it right. Let’s look at the whole thrust of someone’s life and work instead of plucking, as Russ Sloan did today, one or two quotes at random and out of context.
While Jefferson probably would have been disturbed by the extent to which the state (in the abstract sense) involves itself in the life of the citizenry, it is also abundantly clear that his top priority in political life was the preservation of republican liberty. Today’s concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few would undoubtedly require a response, just as it did in the 1790’s. It would not be lost on a man of Jefferson’s intellect that the corporate – and particularly the financial – elite of this country have co-opted the federal and state levels of government to do their bidding. Laws are written to confer special advantages in tax, trade, and commerce upon those who control not only political campaign contributions, but also career prospects before and after public service. We are, in fact, governed by a corporate oligarchy – a privileged group that has become more “equal” than the common man. And Jefferson would also be frightened to observe that this same corporate oligarchy controls much of what we read and see – what we think – through its ownership of the mass media.
This is the larger picture that Russ Sloan either doesn’t understand, doesn’t want to recognize, or has been induced to misrepresent. The very nature and existence of our society is at stake. To enlist Jefferson himself in the cause of the plutocrats – by invoking his memory in the relentless war against social policies that help the ordinary people he wished to empower – is to debase the legacy of one of the greatest Americans. More importantly, it insults we the people, by turning our common history against us, converting something we cherish into an aggressive social cancer that invades and destroys healthy institutions.
So I have a simple message for Russ Sloan. Your paymasters – the people who have bought your heart and soul – may take an ever-larger share of national income. They may repeal the environmental regulations that protect the people and the planet from their pollution. They may ship our jobs overseas in search of cheaper labor and higher profits. They may make it impossible for anyone poorer than themselves to get a proper education that does more than teach people how to work for them. They may own all the major newspapers and television stations. But they will not take our history and bastardize it into something that suits their own selfish purposes. Our national identity is the one thing they can never buy.