The Tax Bill Is Really about the Culture War

Source: The Nib

Remember the line about how the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled is convincing people that he doesn’t exist?  It’s a versatile quotation, able to be deployed by people from all ideological backgrounds.

For many on the Right, the hidden Devil is liberal cultural hegemony—the supposed influence that the Left is able to exert on an unsuspecting populace through its domination of Hollywood, universities, nonprofits, and government institutions.

Conservatives might possess political power in their control of the Presidency, Senate, House, Supreme Court, and 34 State Governorships, but the Left has what matters: the ability to impose an alien and misguided ideology through its nearly invisible manipulation of America’s cultural apparatus.

But the analogy ought to be reversed.  The Devil that we’ve been persuaded doesn’t exist is plain for the eye to see—a determined campaign of conservatives to wreck institutions of arts and education and social dissent, disguised behind a high-minded commitment to small government and fiscal prudence.  The American Right has long hated universities just as much as it hates Hollywood liberals and George Soros’s insidious Open Society initiatives. (Open society? No thanks!)

The 2016 Democratic Primaries might have resurfaced the perennial debate on the Left over prioritizing class or culture, but if there ever were a moment to illuminate the reality that the culture and class wars were one in the same, this is it.

Why “Tax Reform” Symbolizes It All

The grotesque GOP tax bill that is nearing passage in Congress is the latest and most audacious volley in this enduring war.  Any center of power that can actually be independent and critical of the country’s rapacious plutocracy has got to go.

The bait-and-switch is painfully obvious. The media constantly refer to Paul Ryan—who has never seen a poor child he didn’t think would be better off in a coal mine, living off of bacon grease and corn meal—as a wonk.  He’s a policy guy.  He’s got big ideas, like giving gigantic tax cuts to the rich while privatizing or doing away with Medicare and Social Security altogether.

This pablum is passed off as self-evident by all but exasperated progressives, in much the same way that many nominally intelligent people convinced themselves that Thomas Friedman is a gifted wordsmith.

This frame distorts our understanding of American politics on a huge scale. Libertarianism is understood as just a philosophical difference—a sincere belief in smaller government and the efficiencies of the market.

The GOP tax bill is not about a philosophical approach to taming big government or goosing job creation.  It is a massive transfer of wealth to the ultra rich donor class that bankrolls the GOP, done on the backs of working people.  It blows a hole in the budget to do so, and includes a bevy of goodies and carve-outs to satisfy narrow special interests.

But our contention is that it’s far more than this.

Indeed, it’s not just about plutocratic greed.  It’s hardly surprising for rich people to donate to candidates and then demand that they advance their own economic interests once in office.  It just makes sense.  (Well-heeled Democrats do it too, of course, but they sort of feel bad about it.)

Up with Us, Down with Them

Rather, the tax bill is an extension of the culture war.  Yes, it gives the rich the tax cuts they crave. But it is part of a much bigger effort to smash institutions that the Right has wanted to destroy for a long time anyway.

It threatens to destroy the financial model of graduate education, as historian David Walsh and others have made clear with their #GradStudentTax hash tag.  No more pesky Marxist professors training the next generation of elitist social critics.  The impact will likely be felt most heavily in the humanities and social sciences, but it will disrupt all advanced education in US universities.  Quite intentionally.

The bill will remove the deduction for citizens to write off some of their state and local taxes, a provision long in place.  This is a direct attack on people in blue states that have higher taxes; of course, states like California and New Jersey tax at a higher rate to provide a higher level of social services than places like Georgia or Alabama.

What’s in the blue states?  Hollywood, the liberal media, Berkeley, minorities, sanctuary cities.

Attack states that didn’t vote for your party? Check. Transfer money from the voters there to the people in your red states (which already take in more federal benefits than New York or California)?  Check.  Make blue states more like Alabama by putting pressure on their budgets and social expenditures? Check.

Stick it to people you don’t like.  It’s an economic motivation, yes, but it’s also rooted in deep cultural animus at least as much.

As Sahil Kapur recently reported, “Some of the biggest losers under the Republican tax overhaul include upper-middle class families in high-tax areas like New York City, graduate students, government workers and public school teachers.”

Actual GOPers have been even more frank about their motivations. Conservative economist Stephen Moore (a former Trump campaign adviser) explained it this way:

It’s death to Democrats… They go after state and local taxes, which weakens public employee unions. They go after university endowments, and universities have become play pens of the left. And getting rid of the mandate is to eventually dismantle Obamacare.

In colorfully villainous fashion, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley explained that the bill was meant to reward the investor class, who do all the real work in America, and not the sadsack losers who blow all their money on “booze or women or movies.”  The poors are garbage, and they deserve to be rolling around in the dirt, scabbing their hands trying to crawl out of a deep ditch.  It’s vindictive and purposeful.

The Long War against Arts, Education, Workers, Basically Everything

We are, of course, not making any of this up.  The culture wars of Ronald Reagan in 1966 or Pat Buchanan in 1992 or Karl Rove in 2004, when social conservatives went to war on God, gays, and guns, have supposedly subsided in recent years.  Yet they never went away.

The antipathy toward universities goes back at least to conservative icon William F. Buckley, who assailed liberal elites in his 1951 book God and Man at Yale.  But it didn’t necessarily start there; historian Richard Hofstadter’s oft-cited 1963 book on the long history of suspicion toward intellectuals in American history comes to mind.

The 1950s and 1960s brought many assaults on eggheads, elites, “pointy-headed bureaucrats who couldn’t park a bicycle straight.” The Ford Foundation came under attack for funding social reform efforts and undesired research in the 1960s, and was brought to heel.  Richard Nixon was known for resenting intellectuals and other cultural elites, who he felt saw him as a parvenu rube and interloper.  He did his best to undercut institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts, as historian Bruce Schulman illustrates in his great book The Seventies.

There’s sex education in the 1970s. (See Natalia Petrzela’s Classroom Wars.)  God forbid anyone should know the difference between their private parts and a goddamned mailbox. Robert Mapplethorpe in the 1980s—taxpayer dollars going to fund outrageous perversion.  More recently, there has been left-turned-right warrior David Horowitz’s wildly disingenuous effort to harass, shame, and hopefully fire liberal professors, Students for Academic Freedom.  The list of “professors who hate America” in the run-up to the Iraq War.  (Eric Foner was not the only one proud to be on it.)

Then, of course, there was Donald Trump’s puzzling assertion during the presidential campaign that he was being hounded by the IRS because he was a good Christian. Their sense of animus goes to weird and deep places.

These are not disconnected dots.  Conservatives have long wanted to undermine institutions that promote independent thinking and criticism of social inequities; they also want to hurt and take from people they don’t like: the blue staters, the professors, the union “bosses,” the annoying actors (Sean Penn is, of course, legitimately annoying), the poor and people of color and Planned Parenthood and ACORN (rest in power).

Political scientist Corey Robin has argued that this antipathy is in the DNA of conservatism, going back to the French Revolution. Conservatives have long been invested in restoring seemingly lost power for men over women, parents over children, the rich over the poor, white people over minorities, and so forth.  The Left has at the same time pursued a project to expand the scope of freedom and equality for workers, women, racial and sexual minorities, and others who historically had less power.

Hence, institutions committed to those goals must be undercut and destroyed.  As Marx said in 1842, “No one fights against freedom; one fights at most against the freedom of another.”  None of this is new.

Looking Beyond the Plutocratic Pig Trough

Politics is a game of us versus them; my power over yours; my interests at the expense of people I don’t like.  Conservatives have long gotten this basic fact and have pursued their interests with raw force.  Liberals and Democrats think that politics is a fucking West Wing episode where if we all got down to work and did an origami workshop we could find a way to make Medicare fiscally solvent in the long-term.

The other side is using your own hand to smack you in the face and say “Why do you keep hitting yourself?  Why do you keep hitting yourself?”  We are not arguing over the best and fairest way to divide up the pizza; they want the whole pizza.  And more.

The GOP tax bill is, in a sense, admirable—an expression of giving the party’s own constituents what they want.  But what they want is not exactly a sincere commitment to the virtues of trickle-down and the Laffer Curve.  They want to win and they want you to lose, and this goes far beyond debates about tax policy.

Libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises once summed it up well in a letter to Ayn Rand:

You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your conditions which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.

There’s the Devil that convinced us it didn’t exist.

Author: Alex Sayf Cummings

Alex Sayf Cummings is an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, whose work deals with technology, law, public policy, and the political culture of the modern United States. Alex's writing has appeared in Salon, the Brooklyn Rail, the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Al Jazeera, and Southern Cultures, among other publications, and the book Democracy of Sound was published by Oxford University Press in 2013 (paperback, 2017). Alex can be followed on Twitter at @akbarjenkins.

9 thoughts

  1. “Liberals and Democrats think that politics is a fucking West Wing episode where if we all got down to work and did an origami workshop we could find a way to make Medicare fiscally solvent in the long-term.”

    Certainly some liberals believe that fantasy, but most liberal voters simply don’t believe in using political power to punish people because they vote for the other party. Maybe that isn’t the most effective way to consolidate power, but it’s not just a question of the Democratic Party adopting a new tactic.

    1. If one considers America’s Democrats an expression of liberals, they certainly DO believe in using political power to punish people because they vote for the other party. Years and years of their doing so is why the heartland and the majority of every non-urbanized areas voted for President Trump. They were done being punished by the Left for not buying into their ideas of society.

      1. In what ways were “heartland” voters explicitly singled out for punishment by Obama’s major policy initiatives? I know that “punishment” in this context is a hard term to define, but can you cite anything like what this Republican tax bill does, where it goes out of its way to reward red states and punish blue ones? Keep in mind that there’s a difference between not liking a policy and being punished by it. The rural voters may not have liked Obamacare, but a lot of them probably benefited from it, whether they knew it or not.

      2. Sadly, there’s no one single piece like that. If there had been such, it could have been corrected for with less extremity. What it was was a whole series of smaller assaults upon the primarily White non-urban areas…all supposedly to make up for their racism (Hence, punishment).

        Face it, when your repeatedly told directly or indirectly that you’re in the wrong and policies are enacted that harm you and benefit those that the Dems claim you wronged, that’s punishment to most people minds.

        Or, in my personal case: Obamacare was “meant” to punish me in a way. I and my family, as a higher-income independent contractor was considered by the Dems as an acceptable combat loss. No subsidies for me and no policy available anymore that I could afford…yet by law I had to buy one (I didn’t)

        Add to that the fact that the majority of the Dems’ policies are both filtered through the lenses of “specially protected traits” and heavily focused on benefiting the major urban centers – where people with those “specially protected traits” are concentrated – and a prima facie punitive situation is created.

  2. Case study regarding the contentions named here is the state of Wisconsin under Republican Governor Scott Walker. The cheeseheads are dismantling their state and turning it into a feudal backwater. Every measure of quality of life is taking a nosedive there. Meanwhile, next door in liberal Minnesota, things are lookin’ pretty good. (Except for Garrison Keillor and Al Franken. OY!)

  3. Then there’s this possibility: Liberals are correct about the Right’s conspiracy to serve the 1% at everyone else’s expense (as you well argue) AND conservatives are correct about the Left’s conspiracy to “impose … a misguided ideology through its … manipulation of America’s cultural apparatus.” I hate to be the pessimist here, but there’s no logical reason why they both can’t be true (and they seem so to me).

  4. I think the Devil’s trick here is quite different. “Conservatism” (your tag) has nothing to do with the American right today, which is reactionary and radical.

    Tax law should be simple. Universities should help their students. Anyone who argues for favourable tax treatment for their special interest group is asking for special treatment.

    I have ordered the claims above in increasing order of certainty. Please check any statements you have made in the past about lobbyists or “special interest groups”, as you are now one.

    Moreover, universities perpetrate the culture war against conservatives just as much as the other way around. Check out Bill Deresiewicz’s essay in _The American Scholar_ (phi beta kappa magazine) about political correctness on campus. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreyfus’ book _Higher Education?_ makes a couple points about this (the radical leftist professor in Colorado and their critical examination of professors who say a well-reasoned defence of conservative viewpoints *could* be written, they’ve just happened to see it). And plenty of other academic writers (chronicle of higher ed? nyrb? i can’t recall exactly where) have pointed out that (a) universities *are* left-leaning institutions (what was the Devil’s trick, exactly, again?), (b) they do alienate Christians, believers, and faithful (even faith itself), (c) some departments, and some professors, really are asking for it! Several of the authors make the point that young professors are less likely to be scholars of some particular author, epoch+region, or topic (by topic I mean things like “mail”—someone could be a specialist in postal systems across regions and times), and more likely to be scholars of some school of theoretical interpretation. That is taking a stance in a culture war, and means you can no longer ask for special apolitical treatment based on apolitical, neutral expertise (in theory, a scholar of Byron could hold any political view).

    Just to be clear, I am not saying that leftism, postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, whiteness studies, ethnomusicology, folklorics, Foucault, anarchist theory, a people’s history of the United States, criticism of past U.S. governmental policy, or employing communists is WRONG. Just like it isn’t WRONG for NPR listeners to be highly educated, Democrat leaning, and Democrat leaning hosts/staff. However things do lean that way, just like finance and oil industries lean to the right. In my opinion, it is RIGHT to stand up against oppression; it is right to glorify the good works of the oppressed; it is RIGHT to re-examine the mistakes of the past, the prejudices of the present, and to call them that.

    Asking to be paid to do so, or to be given tax-favoured status while doing so, makes very little sense to me. Would you ask for a tax exemption because you marched with Dr. King? No … it’s just the right thing to do.

    BTW, I am commenting from and if you search my recent tweets, I’ve been posting research on the US tax proposal which took less than 40 hours’ (more like 5) worth of research — showing that (a) the JCT’s projections are that the working poor will benefit most from the tax proposal (b) the

    Did not take very long or very much education / research skills to get to this point in the tax debate.

    Sound bites, shallow analysis, and selfishness are bad. Transparency and honesty are good things.

    1. oops … (b) the macroeconomic projections (which are the whole point of a tax cut) are closed-source and it’s totally unclear what the effect will be. (The WSJ citedheadline numbers from a study which, within the first few pages, said “We didn’t try to even include the macroeconomic feedback effects in these headline numbers.”)

      Somehow, people who have not read the estimates or how they were arrived at, are tweeting and posting with definite surety about what this proposal will do, because, you know, Republicans are bad.

      I get particularly irate when university people do this, because the selling point of higher education is the ability to critically analyse things; to improve the functioning of democracy through communication; to actually read things instead of submitting to your knee-jerk reaction; to substantiate one’s arguments.

      Undermines the supposed value of an advanced education when the people providing it are not willing to do those things in the public sphere.


      Oh, and one more thing. If I were the Devil and I wanted to screw everything up, I would teach all the people who have both brains and a heart to be afraid of models, spreadsheets, and anything with numbers in it.

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