Though we wish it were not so, America has a two-party political system. Both parties share many of the same bad qualities. But one is unique, in that it is a machine made of fraud.
My purpose here is not to glorify the Democratic party. America is an oligarchy. Both the Democratic and Republican parties operate in response to the demands of the wealthy and powerful. This is not an opinion; it has been amply demonstrated by political scientists. We do not live in a well-functioning democracy, because our system does not represent the needs of the average voter. Our electoral system is infested by monied interests that finance campaigns in exchange for influence, warped by gerrymandering that heavily favors incumbents, and encumbered by a Senate that gives citizens of sparsely populated rural states far more per capita power than everyone else. It is a flawed system, and both major parties actively participate in and reinforce it in many similar ways. There are no saints here.
The Democratic Party—the (very relatively) more liberal of the parties—is guilty of the dreary sins of hypocrisy. The Democrats often fail to live up to their progressive ideals. They often say the right thing, and do the wrong thing. They often sell out morality for political expediency. Their flaws are the basic failings of human nature. They are a classic archetype, old as politics itself.
The Republican Party, though—now there is a fascinating creation. The central sin of the Republican Party is not so mundane. The Republican Party is qualitatively different. The Republican Party is not a typical political party that fails to live up to its stated ideals. It works just fine at what it is constructed to do: draw in the votes of the poor while working to serve the interests of the very wealthy. This is not a flaw; the party is built this way. It is built to be a trick, perpetrated by the very rich at the expense of everyone else. And it has been extremely successful.
The Republican Party is the equivalent of a magician who distracts you with a flourish of his wand while stealing your watch with his other hand. Anyone who thinks about it for a minute will find it odd that one political party caters to both yacht-purchasing heathen Wall Street millionaires and poor Southern churchgoing whites. The only way the Republican Party accomplishes this is by not catering to them both. It caters to the rich. To the rich, it gives the steak. To everyone else, it tosses the bones.
What is the fundamental purpose of the Republican Party? To minimize the tax bill of the rich. For those in the highest tax bracket—the people whose interests are actually represented by elected officials—politics is an investment. It is no big deal to invest a million dollars in the presidential race if it ends up saving you ten million dollars on your tax bill. Issues that do not directly affect the net worth of the rich are sideshows, in the sense that they are not the core purpose of the party, but rather instrumental tools to be used to advance the core purpose. It is that simple. All of the issues that attract the majority of the Republican Party’s voters—Gay marriage! Bible thumping! American exceptionalism! Tough on crime! Tough on terror! Abortion, babies, rah rah rah!—are not the issues that motivate the people who actually control the party. The rich, after all, are insulated by money from the potential negative impacts of these issues. They care about money, and how to keep as much of it out of the public till and in their own pockets as possible. The way to do that is to manipulate the tax code to their own advantage. In order to do that, they need elected officials working for their interests. In order to get elected officials, they need lots of votes. In order to get lots of votes, they need more than just the rich voting for them. In order to get lots of poor and middle class people voting for a party advocating policies in direct opposition to the economic interests of the vast majority of people, they wave around social issues like a matador waves a cape in front of a bull. The wealthy can watch the culture wars play out from on high, laughing to themselves all the while. All of the fine hardworking Christian culture warriors are the peasants fighting for their king, who urges them to battle for god while being primarily concerned with maintaining a healthy flow of capital. Donald Trump proclaiming “I love the Bible” is just the most cartoonish manifestation of the playbook that all Republican functionaries are working from.
Taxes are boring. Taxes are arcane. Guns and god and babies and terrorism are exciting. But taxes are where the real action is. For the sake of a ten percent plus or minus difference in income tax rates, an entire political party is constructed and funded. Why not? That difference amounts to millions or billions of dollars for those funding the party. The economic logic of investing in politics is overwhelming. Most of the urbane wealthy are willing to tolerate some Bible-thumping in exchange for an extra hundred thousand or hundred million in their accounts at the end of the year. This is what the Republican Party exists to do. And it has done it so well for the past 35 years that the rich have now accumulated more capital than we’ve seen since the Gilded Age, which was not so gilded for all of the non-rich.
This is not a big secret among those who have taken the time to look at it. People have been screaming about “class consciousness” since the nineteenth century. Yet here we are—seventy years into a more or less solid decline of top income tax rates. For the sake of that little fluctuating tax rate, cable networks are built, and think tanks are founded, and a thousand and one political candidates are lined up to receive their fundraising checks. I do not know what it will take to impress upon the average voter what is happening here. It is only possible to modestly hope that as people cast their votes for the good party conservative, they come to realize that they are not participating in an honest battle of political beliefs. They are participating in a grand con job. And the joke is on all of us.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]