July 27, 2020 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Are Americans rethinking who they are?
The politics of "taxpayers" versus "citizens."
The Senate Republicans are no longer dithering. Along with the White House, they have decided to split the difference. They aren’t demanding a payroll tax cut, as the president preferred, but neither are they demanding a continuation of $600-a-week in unemployment benefits, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell preferred. Instead, they are going to push for reducing that benefit to about $200 a week.
This is bad policy and bad politics, as my friend Marty Longman wrote last week. Two hundred bucks weekly is better than a payroll tax cut. No one would see that (especially if they’re unemployed). But people would see less money coming in amid a pandemic, recession and housing crisis just getting started. (Evictions are set to soar next month.) In the Washington Monthly, Marty said the “compromise” is an “example of the way ideology twists the Republican Party in knots. They wind up worried that they’re disincentivizing work when no one can find work. Then they settle on paying people for nothing because they prefer that to creating a government job.”
“Consumers” and “taxpayers” can’t save a republic.
Conservative ideology does indeed turn the GOP into knots, but I suspect there’s more going on. At one time in our past, it would have made perfect sense to say, as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin did last week: “We’re not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home.” While that rhetoric may still persuade some, it by no means persuades most. To put a finer point on it, rhetoric used by Republicans to justify anti-government economics no longer appeals to a majority of white voters, because a majority of white voters, in the era of Donald Trump, realize we’re all in this together. Without a collective effort, our republic may never return to good health.
This transformation, if it is happening (a big if, I concede), can’t be overstated. At some point during the 1980s and the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a majority of white Americans began to think of themselves as consumers and taxpayers, instead of free and responsible citizens. At that point, the conservative movement, which began two decades prior to Reagan’s election, was no longer a movement. It became the conservative political regime of low taxation and low regulation we live in today.
Thinking of themselves as consumers and taxpayers—instead of citizens endowed from birth with rights, liberties and responsibilities—lent itself to thinking about the federal government as separate from the citizenry. “Government” was something done to people. It wasn’t of, by and for them. Though we needed it for national defense and rule enforcement, we didn’t need it otherwise. “Government” was a byword for coercion and a catalyst for keeping it small. Keeping it small, for the white people thinking of themselves consumers and taxpayers, meant low taxes and low regulation.
Thinking of themselves as consumers and taxpayers affected profoundly the way a majority of white Americans thought about work. If you got more from the federal government than you got out of individual work, you didn’t have the incentive necessary for the maintenance of a free society. You had instead the incentive to stay on “welfare,” requiring more from the people who did work, who were not fellow citizens but consumers and taxpayers bearing undue burdens on the road to serfdom.
In truth, poor people pay far more of their income in taxes than you and I do. Anyway, the government doesn’t tax you. We tax ourselves using government as the instrument of collective taxation. We are citizens who consume and who pay taxes, indeed, but as citizens, we are much more than consumers and taxpayers, because as a citizenry, we are the ultimate sovereign. When the government gives taxpayer money to people in need, due to some kind of national emergency, we are giving money to ourselves.
Conservative ideology always seemed principled (some of it was, I suppose), but for the most part, it was a fancy way of dividing and conquering a majority of Americans using old-fashioned bigotry. “Taxpayer” really meant “white” while “welfare” really meant “Black.” “Coercion” was interpreted to mean forcing white people to pay the expenses of Black people, who were presumed poor (or criminal) and untaxed. If Mnuchin had said, “We’re not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home” in 1996, his meaning would have been perfectly clear. Now? I’m not sure.
The confluence of national and constitutional crises seems to be forcing some people, perhaps most people, to rethink how they think about themselves. Consumers and taxpayers are not enough to save a republic from a president who committed treason before walking away from his responsibility of leading a nation out of harm’s way.
Only a citizenry can do that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.