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How the 1 Percent Suckered the Tea Party Crowd into Doing Their Bidding

When the super-rich feel threatened, they foment grassroots uprising on their behalf. Here's why it always works.
 
 
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The following is an excerpt from  Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the 1 Percent by Isaac William Martin. Copyright © 2013. Reprinted with permission of Oxford University Press, New York NY. 

On Election Day, November 2, 2010, more than eight million Americans voted for congressional candidates who claimed to represent the Tea Party and its grassroots insurgency against the federal government. Most of the Tea Party candidates won. Their victory marked a sea change in American government. Even before the winners were sworn in, reporters began to refer to the 112th Congress as “the Tea Party Congress.” On the day of the swearing-in, the prominent Tea Party backer David Koch likened the electoral success of the Tea Party to the American Revolution. “It’s probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776 in my opinion,” he said.

The proposals of the new Congress had little in common with the revolutionary slogans of 1776, but many of them would be familiar to activists who had participated in the grassroots uprisings on behalf of the rich in the twentieth century.

On January 5, for example, House Republicans introduced a “balanced budget amendment” that was really a tax limitation amendment—modeled on the precedents that the National Taxpayers Union and the National Tax Limitation Committee had furnished in the 1970s. A flurry of other balanced budget amendment bills followed. On January 23, Senate Republicans, led by Orrin Hatch, introduced a tax limitation/balanced budget amendment bill of their own that was even more restrictive.

The next day, Representatives Steve King (R-IA) and Rob Woodall (R-GA) introduced a one-sentence proposal to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment. On March 15, 2011, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced the Liberty Amendment, precisely as Willis Stone drafted it in 1956.

And throughout the session, Republicans introduced bill after bill to cut top income tax rates and make estate tax repeal permanent. Many of these tax proposals were regressive enough that they might have made even an Andrew Mellon blush. But they would have warmed the heart of J. A. Arnold if he could have lived to see them. They could almost have been copied from the 1927 program of the American Taxpayers’ League.

Thanks in part to proposals like these, the Tea Party Congress is likely to be remembered as one of the most conservative Congresses in American history. Scholars have described this rightward turn in Congress as “historic,” as “a new phase in the extreme ideological polarization of U.S. politics,” and as a “historically unprecedented development.” And they have pointed to unprecedented conditions to explain it. The historic segmentation of media markets is said to have allowed voters to surround themselves in closed and ideologically extreme social worlds. The influx of money into politics following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), is said to have given an edge to ultraconservative candidates whose policy proposals flatter the pocketbook interests of the very richest Americans.

Some new conditions like these are surely part of the explanation for how such radically inegalitarian tax policy proposals came to dominate the policy agenda of Congress. But these new conditions cannot be the whole story, because so many of the proposals themselves are old: not founding-fathers old, but early-twentieth-century old. They are the harvest of a century of rich people’s movements.

Why Rich People’s Movements Now?

What can we say about the sources of this new radicalism, and how long it is likely to be with us? The answers depend on a proper understanding of the history of rich people’s movements.