What spurred me to write about this topic was a recent Facebook discussion I had with an old and respected friend, who opined that he thought political leaders over the past twenty years or so were subjected to more slanderous accusations, ridicule and disrespect than at any time in our history. I might have dismissed that comment, except it seems to be a popular sentiment these days. Whether the cries to denounce comparisons to “Nazis” after Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot, complaints by members of Congress regarding ethnic and racial slurs used against them, or statements by people like my friend, there seems to be an overriding sense that politics today has become far too personal. Popular sentiment is that unlike our history, we’re a nation more polarized and more willing to use the most vicious ad hominem attacks in place of reasoned debate than ever before.
Such sentiment may be popular, but it is incorrect. Defaming public figures is an American tradition that is older than the Republic – one can find newspaper articles and pamphlets pre-dating the Revolution that disparage, often in the most personal terms, some of the most famous Americans in history. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.” 1 Although Jefferson wrote those words in 1814, the reality is vulgarity and mendacity were hardly new to politics, even at that young age for the nation. As an example, in 1798 Alexander Hamilton published the pamphlet Letter from Alexander Hamilton, Concerning the Public Conduct and Character of John Adams, Esq. In it, Hamilton not only defames Adams’ character (among other things, he asserts that Adams is “a drunkard, the type for whom sound judgement <sic> deserts at the first drop of whiskey.”2). Of course, six years later Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton would be killed by Vice President Aaron Burr – a duel sparked by Hamilton’s characterization of Burr as, among other things, corrupt and treasonous; even going so far as to actually recommend assassination should Burr win the Federalist Party nomination for President.
The election of 1824 gave rise to “The Corrupt Bargain,” but was nothing compared to the vindictiveness and nastiness exhibited in 1828. Andrew Jackson was portrayed by John Quincy Adams as an adulterous murderer(and you thought Bill Clinton had it tough), while Jackson and his camp gleefully heaped charges of prostitution, elitism and corruption on Adams. The slander reached levels not seen since, as the “Coffin Handbills” were widely distributed and Jackson’s wife was accused of bigamy. The attacks were so vicious that Mrs. Jackson fell ill and later died as a result. In 1840, the winning campaign of William Harrison completely avoided the issues of the day (including the worst financial crisis in the nation’s history, to that date), focusing instead on comparing the personalities of Harrison and Martin Van Buren. (Although Van Buren tried to make an issue of Harrison’s age, it went nowhere. The nation should have listened – Harrison served the shortest term in history after falling ill during his Inauguration.) And of course, Abraham Lincoln faced the worst kind of personal attack when ½ the country decided they would rather secede than accept him as President.
Personal attacks haven’t always been limited to the Executive Branch, either. Indeed the mudslinging on the floors of the Congress and Senate have even occasionally led to outright brawls. The first occurred in 1798, between Roger Griswold (Ct.) and Matthew Lyon (Vt.). Griswold, upset about charges of cowardice from Lyon, took it upon himself to whack Lyon with his hickory walking stick. Of course, it should be noted that Lyon didn’t help calm the situation when he spat at Griswold. Both men were later censured by the House. In 1856, Andrew Sumner (Ma.) took the floor to deliver a diatribe against Preston Brooks’ (SC) father-in-law. In a scathing bit of oratory, Sumner alleged Brooks’ in-law kept a mistress “who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him.” 3 The result was less brawl than mugging: Brooks beat Sumner to within an inch of his life, using his cane; as other members of the Senate attempted to aid Sumner, Laurence Keitt (SC) bayed them at pistol-point. Keitt was hardly a stranger to fisticuffs on the House floor. Two years later, he took exception to Galusha Grow’s (Pa.) calling him a “negro driver” and attempted to strangle Grow – on the House floor. The result was the largest melee ever seen in Congress, involving at least 50 Representatives.
These are just some of the more outrageous examples of how political slander has been a part of our discourse since the days of the Founding Fathers. In fact, you can argue that if anything, politicians today face less derision than their predecessors. The next time somebody you know complains about our leaders being treated like Rodney Dangerfield, feel free to whip out one of these juicy tidbits – and invite them to pay more attention in history class.
- Excerpted from “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson,” edited by Lipscomb & Bergh, published 1903. The excerpt is from a letter written to Walter Jones in 1814.
- As excepted in the Philadelphia Aurora, June 12, 1800.
- Detailed in “The Caning of Senator Charles Sumner“, Senate Historical Office, US Senate.
A positive development in our politics is that attention is finally turning to the debt and the annual deficit. In case you aren’t aware of the raw numbers, the deficit for the past two years has ballooned to more than an aggregated $3 trillion. That has raised the national debt to more than $14 trillion – or, about $123,000 for every household in the United States. I give President Obama credit for finally listening to the nation and recognizing the seriousness of the problem. It marks a dramatic turn for him, seeing as how he spent more in his first two years in office than his predecessor did in eight.
In his speech last week, the President didn’t mince words: he expects the “wealthy” to pay substantially more than they currently do while he continues to spend like a drunken sailor on things only a drunken politician would consider necessary. Lo, the blogosphere and networks have focused on the President’s new Medicare proposal (more on that tomorrow) and how yes, the “rich” should pay more. After all, the argument goes, the middle class is paying higher rates than the wealthy and that is just unfair. It certainly seems a winning political argument; after all, who isn’t for soaking the rich?
This makes for good sound bites and good politics, but bad policy. I realize that in some regions the Democrats definition of “wealthy” (a family earning $250,000/year) might make sense. But in others, $250,000 per year is simply middle class. Upper middle class, to be sure, but hardly wealthy. In the New York metro area, a family easily achieves a combined $250,000 in income with two public sector workers. It is even easier to reach if one person sells cars and the other works in the local bodega. The same holds true for San Francisco, Los Angeles and other major metro areas around the country. This is really a call to arms in class warfare, the destructive political game played by Andrew Jackson and Teddy Roosevelt, with disastrous effects for the nation – though those effects weren’t felt until decades later. Even liberal icon FDR understood the dangers of the game and generally shied away from playing it.
Fortunately, the IRS keeps records on the truly wealthy and the rest of us. The latest data they have is from 2007; but since the one tax policy liberals love to hate – the “Bush Tax Cuts” were already in effect – it makes a good statistical reference point. You can find it here. In it, the IRS keeps tabs on the 400 wealthiest taxpayers in the country and compares their rates to the rest of the taxpaying public. They began tracking the data in 1992, so we have a 15 year window in the way tax policy evolved through both the Bush and Clinton eras.
At first blush, it seems as though liberals may be on to something. The IRS calculated the effective tax rate on the top 400 earners as 26.38% in 1992, rising to a high of 29.93% by 1995, and then steadily dropping to 16.62% by 2007. But statistics are wonderful things; anyone can quote a number out of context to prove an argument and this is exactly what the liberal media is doing.
First, I give credit to the IRS for doing what nobody to the left of center has bothered doing in their arguments. Their numbers reflect 1990 dollars ,thereby accounting for inflation (in mathematical terms, they normalized values). So, if the truly wealthy were paying lower effective rates, then the government should have been taking in less money from them, right? Not so fast: in 1992, the IRS collected about $4.5 trillion; by 2007 that figure rose to $14.5 trillion. Why? Well, in 1992 not a single one of those 400 returns reflected an effective tax rate over 31%. By 2007, even with the hated “Bush Tax Cuts”, 55% of the top 400 had an effective tax rate of at least 35%. The lower overall tax rate for these taxpayers is reflected in the fact that 35 of them paid no tax – an effective rate of 0%.
Overall, the truly wealthy combined to pay 2.05% of the taxes in 2007, nearly double the 1.04% they contributed in 1992. In actual dollars, they contributed nearly $23 billion of the government’s total tax take of $1.1 trillion. Those who make up this class are certainly already paying their share and the administrations attempts to paint them as sore winners can only result in flat out class warfare.
We do have a revenue problem, since we’re spending more than 4 times what the government is taking in. A better focus would be on the 45% of Americans who currently do not pay any income tax. Certainly, if you’re gross income is below the poverty line for your region, you shouldn’t be expected to pay, but I doubt 45% of Americans are living in poverty. That certainly seems much fairer and also guarantees that those currently benefiting from living here also gain equity in the system.
However, I doubt we’re going to find $1.6 trillion in revenue by asking everyone to pay their taxes. We still need deep spending cuts just to get the 2012 budget balanced. Tune in as I tackle those issues throughout the week.