Grand Old Power: The Politics of Insurrection and Unpopular Tax Cuts for the Rich
Four years ago, the nation was contending with immense and widening income and wealth inequality during an economic expansion that should have ushered in prosperity for all. The Trump administration’s major policy response to this challenge was an unpopular $2 trillion tax cut proposal that primarily benefited corporations and the wealthy.
The public responded by using tools intended to give ordinary people a voice in our democracy. Grassroots groups organized rallies on Capitol Hill and across the country. They flooded the Capitol switchboard with calls to their representatives and senators, telling them to vote “no” on the tax bill. We know how this story ends. The GOP-led Congress enacted the unpopular tax cut anyway, and some lawmakers admitted they were doing so at the behest of wealthy donors — not their constituents. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley even said the quiet part out loud, offensively characterizing rich people as worthy of tax cuts and lower-income people as profligates who don’t know the value of a dollar.
Federal tax policy likely was not on the minds of the mob that ransacked our nation’s Capitol a month ago. But their cause is a gross, dangerous manifestation of the unspoken but ever-present idea that the nation belongs to self-proclaimed white Christian patriots. Exploitation of this belief empowers elected officials to appease their wealthy donors (in lieu of their constituents) and allows a demagogue to rile up thousands, falsely claiming election fraud.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that inciting an angry pack determined to overturn the results of our free and fair election leaves an even larger stain on former President Trump’s legacy than already existed. Yet, an acquittal in this week’s impeachment hearing is assured. Republicans in the Senate are essentially telling the nation there’s nothing more to see, so move on. We should no more move on from investigating an unprecedented effort to subvert fair election results than we should move on from efforts to dismantle policies that give wealthy and powerful people greater sway in the nation’s political system.
Since the 1970s, our society has become increasingly unequal — on purpose. As conservative judges and politicians have dismantled programs meant to remedy longstanding racial injustices (see, for example, Shelby County v. Holder) and squeezed spending on programs that boost economic security for the poorest people, they also snipped away at the bootstraps that they say we ordinary people should use to get ahead. The minimum wage is worth less today than it was in the 1960s. The ratio of CEO to ordinary worker pay is exponentially wider today than it was half a century ago. And the coordinated attack on unions, using legislative, judicial and regulatory means, has weakened workers’ ability to collectively bargain for living wages.
The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United in 2010 and other campaign finance decisions before it deemed that money is power in our democracy. The high court’s decision to decimate the Voting Rights Act aids lawmakers who would rather suppress Black and brown people’s votes than compete fairly. But the 2020 election demonstrated that closing polling places and slowing mail-in votes during a pandemic can only do so much to deter people hungry for change. At the same time, it revealed that making voting more accessible increases participation in the democratic process — something we should all want. Instead of hailing this success, GOP legislatures and governors around the country are now doubling down on their efforts to systematically impede access to the ballot. All of this is in service of the harmful idea that powerful people — more specifically, powerful white people — matter more than others. While the injury that politics of deliberate disenfranchisement inflicts is more detrimental to Black, brown and indigenous communities, some harm is universal among all poor and middle-class people.
Only the wealthy and powerful mattered when Trump and other GOP leaders ushered through their tax cuts, for example. Only the wealthy and powerful mattered when, year after year, the Trump administration tried to slash safety net programs, health care and Social Security. Only the wealthy and powerful mattered when the Trump administration made it easier for corporations to pollute or eased checks on carcinogens in consumer products. The rich and corporations got tax cuts and a stacked Supreme Court that may perpetuate supreme inequality for decades to come. The rest of the nation got a president who couldn’t denounce Nazis with conviction, abused the office to line his own pockets, told incalculable lies, and failed to lead when tested by a pandemic that cost more than 400,000 lives by the end of his term. We also got an alarming insurrection that GOP leaders want us to sweep under the rug.
Employed effectively since President Richard Nixon, Southern Strategy politics promises white supremacy. It deliberately divides us by race because wealthy powerbrokers know the opposition is stronger when united by class. Most of us know this, of course. But structural flaws in our system of government (gerrymandering, disenfranchisement of residents of the District of Columbia, an anti-Democratic Senate, etc.) give disproportionate power to a minority, who in turn wield it as though they have a popular mandate. That powerful minority lent credence to Trump and the insurrectionists’ ludicrous cause for weeks.
So, it’s little wonder that a mass of people, encouraged by Trump, ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 to violently demand that lawmakers invalidate legitimate votes in swing states where Black and brown voters helped deliver a historic victory to President Biden. Beyond “stop the steal” and other conspiracy-laced mutterings, they could not and still can’t make it make sense. Their erroneous belief that this democracy is theirs alone and that their votes matter more is an outgrowth of the cynical political strategy that Republicans have employed for five decades to secure power and ram through unpopular policies without regard for a majority of the American public.