Right wing politicians and talking heads often shout about how capitalism embodies the true American spirit. They say that getting oneself ahead always leads to getting everyone else ahead too. However, the financial meltdown proved that success and money never trickle down. And although the Bush tax cuts have proven disastrous for the economy, they are passionately defended by the right.
An angry Republican base often refers to the repeal of the Bush tax cuts as “class warfare.” They evoke the founding fathers and the constitution, albeit incorrectly, to rally their self-labeled “patriot” base into taking their country back. This vilification of the liberal agenda as being un-American did not work. They lost the White House and the Senate. And now as an older, more experienced President Obama is set to begin his second term, the Right wing continues to challenge the president on tax issues.
As Americans, red and blue, we should take this as our cue to reexamine how we view the political divide that has plagues this country and how we define American values. Perhaps in our past we can find evidence of an American spirit that holds the key to solving our most difficult problems.
What we really have to ask ourselves is not whether the founding fathers would have agreed or disagreed with the Bush tax cuts, it is whether these men, who history and nostalgia have given a special place in our imaginations, were themselves in disagreement about the government’s role in the people’s lives. Undoubtedly, they were. It cost, for many years, the friendship of two great allies, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, after the election of 1800. And yet after that election, Jefferson, a man who fought ruthlessly and brilliantly in support small government, famously violated his ideals in order to purchase Louisiana, a decision, according to his own rules for the limitations of presidential powers, he did not have the authority to make. But even he realized that there were times that no political agenda or opinion could trump the betterment of the American people. What we can consider from this brief historical anecdote is that what made these men great was their ability to put their political agendas aside for the good of this nation, as Jefferson was able to do when he made the best land deal in history. This is the difference between a politician and a statesman.
Consider that when Bill O’Reilly and his ilk talk about a simpler time, they are actually talking about a time when the rich were heavily taxed so that the country could have a strong infrastructure. We used the money to build schools, bridges and roads.
Consider that in the 1950’s CEO’s made 10 times the salaries of their employees. Now CEO’s make 300 times the salaries of their employees.
Consider that in the 1950’s the upper tax rate was 84%. Today the upper tax rate is a mere 35%. If the Bush tax cuts expire the upper tax rate will be 39.6%.
Imagine you are an hourly wage worker in the 1950’s. You made enough to comfortably provide for your family and remain securely in the middle class. And you felt your work was valuable, which assured your bosses greater productivity, because it created a positive work environment and loyalty, because they deserved loyalty. You carried that productivity and optimism home. Today, 80% of Wal-Mart employees are on government assistance, and they are not alone. How can these people who don’t make enough to provide for their families or ever be considered part of the middle class feel valuable to the society that allows this to happen? They can’t. That feeling of worthlessness surely must permeate their thoughts every hour they spend on the job, making them less productive. And then they take that hopelessness home with them.
Consider that Jonas Salk made nothing from his vaccine. Now consider that Paul Offit, co-developer of the vaccine for Rotavirus, has made millions from his vaccine while sitting on the board of doctors that decide which vaccines kids need.
The result of the last 60 years is that the perception of patriotism and American values has shifted. Today, the whole country seems to think that the equivalent of a two year old temper tantrum “MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE!” is the greatest American value, the one road to achieve the American dream. The only way to prove you are a patriot is to put yourself before your country.
People say that unfettered capitalism embodies the true spirit of America, and keeps us at the front of the pack. In Jonas Salk’s day, we were truly a leader of nations in science and technology. The most successful of these scientists, Salk, had no desire to profit from his discovery. Today, the significantly smaller development of improving a vaccine already in existence guarantees millions for its developers, and so according to the World Health Organization we are famously ranked 37th in healthcare, hardly a leadership role.
Are we really better off having traded in us for me? When the conservative pundits shout that they want America “back” do they realize they are shouting for an America that is in fact in accordance with modern liberal ideals…less capitalism and more doing the right thing?
Today, after being upset about a brain child of mine being passed around work, worried about all of the hard work I had put in that others now did not have to, I complained to a colleague of mine. She reminded me that it was my pride and attachment that had me irritated and that the school and students were really a better place for my sharing it … and wasn’t that the point? Of course, she is right.
Just like Jonas Salk was.
And for all of the shouting the right wing does, we have to decide which America would we want: the America that produced Jonas Salk or the America that produced Paul Offit? If the answer is Salk, then call your Republican representatives and Senators and tell them we want statesmen and not politicians. Remind them that they represent us too. It is time for a return to true American ideals, where every American, even the wealthiest among us, should ask what they can do for their country and not what their country can do for them. It is time for everyone to do all they are able to do, no more, no less, no matter how humbling and painful the task, in order to help make America a great leader of nations again.
Katherine Schexnayder is a Louisiana native and a high school English teacher in Lafayette Parish. She has 10 years of teaching experience in Louisiana schools and plans to finish her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the summer of 2015. She is the proud mother of a beautiful three year old daughter. If you would like to reply to this blog or contact Katherine, please send your remarks to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Originally published: Dec 11, 2012