Grover & the Stone Wall


Swedes are good. Norwegians and Danes are pretty good. I grew up speaking Swedish and English until my parents noticed I could understand their off-color jokes and theological musings. Then no more ‘Swede-talk.’ But Scandinavian is still good. I feel a twinge of pride when Sarah Palin attacks European socialism because I know that she is attacking Sweden, my people. I feel a certain adrenaline rush when Robin Soderling wins a match or Bjorn Borg appears in the tennis stands or Liv Ullmann makes a subtle philosophic point with the blink of a beautiful eye in a Bergman film. And when the Swedish-born Pia Sundhage plays Bob Dylan to her U.S. women’s soccer team, I am ready to get up and dance. So much for my cultural chauvinism.

But not all Scandinavians are so good. There is—Grover Norquist. The founder of “Americans for Tax Reform,” Grover sometimes appears in my imagination as a kind of troll, a demonic figure from the Swedish woods. He started out his political life as a worshipper of Nixon, and then Ronald Reagan—the government leader who taught us that government is the enemy and that the way to get rid of social programs from the New Deal and Great Society was to up the military budget. Reagan, at least, had the Soviet Union as his excuse. Grover is using Reagan’s anti-government message to paralyze the entire country—and for an excuse Grover has… well… the whine that new taxes don’t create new jobs even if it’s only millionaires and billionaires who are being taxed and the taxes go to ‘green’ development projects and infrastructure. Grover’s congressional pledge goes as follows:

I, _______________, pledge to the taxpayers of the _____ district of the state of__________, and to the American people that I will: ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.

Grover’s pledge is now House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s mantra and the mindless mantra of the majority of our representatives.

The Nebraska representatives and senators who have signed on to this chant are as follows:

  • Sen. Mike Johanns (R) 
  • Sen. Ben Nelson (D) 
  • Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R) 
  • Rep. Lee Terry (R) 
  • Rep. Adrian Smith (R)

All five of ‘em. Every last one.

Grover says that the representatives who make the pledge do so to the American people and not to his organization. But the American people didn’t make up the pledge. Grover did.

So what do our representatives really pledge to the American people when they take their oath of office? They pledge to support the Constitution, and the Constitution says that it is crafted “[I]n Order to form a more perfect Union,” to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… ”

Promoting the general welfare must, at the very least, mean ensuring that people have health care, a roof over their heads, and enough food to eat. If the general welfare does not include these, what does it include? When we fought World War II, we were properly told that we were fighting it for four freedoms, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. But all of that is in the trash bin now—superseded by Grover’s tax pledge.

A government that actually sought to discover and promote the general welfare would, of necessity, have to be open to thinking together about our problems. It couldn’t fall back on mindless shibboleths. It couldn’t stonewall. In western parliamentary theory, beginning with representative parliaments in the 14th century, leaders used to these bodies to reason together about what redound to the common benefit—the common weal—of the citizens. The phrase “promote the general welfare” in our Constitution is a direct descendant of that parliamentary tradition. To go to Washington as a representative of Nebraska with some other goal that will govern all of one’s actions other than promoting the general welfare amounts to disloyalty to the spirit—if not the letter—of the Constitution. People may disagree about how to promote the general welfare, but they cannot ignore the responsibility.

Aside from Grover Norquist’s tax pledge, the other pillar of the Republican stone wall is the “Ryan budget”—introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)—that leaves the military budget as it is and cuts almost everything else that’s decent and human. The House passed this budget overwhelmingly and it is the point from which the negotiations in late July have proceeded on the Republican side. As the New York Times has written, “If the House Republican budget blueprint is the ‘path to prosperity’ that its title claims, it is hard to imagine what ruin would look like. The plan would condemn millions to the ranks of the uninsured, raise health costs for seniors and renege on the obligation to keep poor children fed. It envisions lower taxes for the wealthy than even George W. Bush imagined: a permanent extension for his tax cuts, plus large permanent estate-tax cuts, a new business tax cut and a lower top-income-tax rate for the richest taxpayers… ” This kind of ruin is not the general welfare. It is Reagan’s old formula for starving the poor by feeding the Military-Industrial Complex.

The usual answer to any critique of this sort of Social Darwinism is that struggle promotes liberty, rolls back the ‘nanny state’ and, in Ayn Rand’s phrase, allows Atlas to shrug. Also it supposedly creates employment. Shouldn’t the Kochs and the Murdochs also struggle then? And we can see from ten years of this sort of tax structure how much employment it creates. Further, we can see how good it is from the recent studies that show that the economy is in the doldrums because 90 percent of the people lack enough money to buy what they need. You can’t create a mass production economy without surrendering enough resources to the masses for them to buy the basics.

So this voodoo economics makes no sense.

It does make sense, though, in other terms far more sinister than those offered by the Grover Norquists and the Eric Cantors. As a French writer once wrote, “There is something in the misfortune of even the best of our friends that is not entirely unsatisfying to us.” What then of those we do not know? One of the great joys of our form of capitalism, where the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than in almost all other industrialized countries, is that we can create a monster class—the foodless, the sick, the undereducated, the homeless and ill-housed—and enjoy their misery while telling them it is their fault. Hence Grover’s tax pledge. Hence Ryan’s budget. Hence the love of ruin and the dissing of the promotion of the general welfare.

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