A quick note on the rhetoric: according to present-day G.O.P. platitudes (expressed in latest advertising), “spreading the wealth” = government “handout.” Roll footage of welfare mothers and food stamps and you get the message. In reality, which is not where the Republican Party leadership, communications directors and campaign chiefs operate by any objective measure, any form of taxation by necessity spreads the wealth. The question is in which direction: upward or downward? In 2001 and 2003, as is common knowledge, we saw radical redistribution of wealth for the wealthiest 1 and .1 percent of Americans (what’s called “socialism for the rich”). That wasn’t a handout; instead it was billed as an “economic stimulus” plan. Likewise the recent corporate welfare plan was mostly termed a “bailout” or even a “rescue” package.
As many writers have pointed out, the Republican Party is not “anti-government,” just opposed on philosophical grounds to the functions of government that happen to serve the general public. So anything, however mild, that deviates from the script is attacked as foreign, “socialist,” “Marxist,” etc. From the standpoint of the reactionary right, which lest we forget has been a dominant force in our politics for about thirty years, what Obama is talking about is socialist. But it’s not the case that right-reactionaries — a.k.a. the prevailing majority of the Republican leadership and nearly its entire “base,” far out of mainstream American opinion — are really against socialism per se. They see no issue with socializing the risks and costs of the financial sector, for instance, or with nationalizing the banks. On the other hand, making things like health insurance more socialized is completely outrageous (not even Obama goes that far, given the lack of an organized Left in our political culture).
Back to these “handouts.” There is also a racial code at work, which should be not at all surprising. One of the many positive aspects of American society today is that we have progressed enough that explicit race appeals can no longer be made by any viable, major party or political platform. Hence the need for code, like “handout,” which conjures the picture of freeloading, shiftless blacks subsisting on their government check. The ghost of Lee Atwater remains, in the form of Rove protégé Steve Schmidt who has contributed to the annals of unprincipled nastiness in politics, breaking all sorts of records. With “spread the wealth,” we are demanded to think of the Soviet Union (somehow). Taxes are social policy and they’ve been that way since at least as far back as the first graduated code back in the Progressive Era, championed by radical socialists like Theodore Roosevelt — incidentally he’s McCain’s hero, so according to the prevailing (il)logic McCain is a socialist himself. The assumption buried in the discourse around this issue is that giving a handout to the wealthiest tiny fraction of the country “creates” wealth and that doing the same thing for the “lower brackets” is just throwing money away, “spreading” it uselessly and swearing allegiance to Lenin.
The premises of this entire campaign are absurd, no one is asking critical questions in the “mainstream,” the press is tongue-tied in their rhetoric of equanimity and forced “even-handedness” (i.e. objectivity), and the people as usual pay the price when they will get the government they pay for next week. I hope it isn’t McCain, and if it’s Obama I wish he will do the humane and sensible thing and not go down the triangulation road. His supporters have bought into his promises of “fundamental change,” and we will all see if he will (or can) really deliver, and what that change will mean. It won’t be a revolution, but perhaps this can be a useful first step toward a better America that lives up to its founding creed and the needs of its people.