Channelling George Washington: Us Against Them
Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in an ongoing series, Channelling George Washington. Mr. Fleming is on the advisory board of HNN.
"I haven’t heard from you for a good while, Mr. President."
"I try to stay neutral in presidential elections. After all, I have to deal with the winners when they eventually transfer to Elysium. But I can’t stay silent about the current election. The Democrats -- and, I regret to say, President Obama -- are promoting the world’s worst and oldest idea."
"What would that be?"
"The 1 percent versus the 99 percent and the so-called Buffett Rule, named after the billionaire who supposedly pays less taxes than his secretary."
"It’s become a very popular slogan. You hear it on TV and radio constantly."
"The only thing new about it is the pseudo-information about Buffett. In 1987, an economist named Rabi Batra hit number one on the bestseller list with a book claiming the top 1 percent owned too much money. In the 2000 election, Al Gore never stopped accusing George W. Bush of supporting the wealthiest 1 percent. In 2006, a filmmaker named Jamie Johnson produced a documentary called The One Percent. He claimed they controlled 38 percent of the nation’s wealth, implying that this was somehow criminal. Then came Occupy Wall Street, who made the 1 percent their favorite demons. It all echoes a very old and tired idea, which desperate or reckless or stupid politicians have spouted, all the way back to Ancient Greece."
"What might that be?"
"Us Against Them. Us -- the majority (they hope) against an evil greedy minority."
"I was chatting about it with that Greek fellow Socrates just the other day. He told me how time and time again, in various Greek city states, they tried rule by the people -- and decided after a few years that an oligarchy -- rule by a few -- or dictatorship -- one leader -- was preferable. For the next two thousand years, democracy was a bad word. In my days in politics, calling a man a democrat was an insult."
"Did Socrates explain why this happened?"
"The people changed their minds about the issues every third day. Every rumor or slander a troublemaker threw into the mix destabilized them. They were especially susceptible to the Us Against Them ploy. That doleful truth has been demonstrated repeatedly in modern history. Us Against Them was the engine that drove the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and all their imitators, from Cuba’s Fidel Castro to Venezuela’s Hector Chavez."
"I begin to see why you don’t think much of the 1 percent idea."
"It’s especially bad for a country like the United States, where a lot of issues -- race, sexual preferences, gender and age discrimination -- already strain national unity. Fortunately, we’re not a democracy. We’re a republic, which responds to the voices of the people with built-in checks and balances that enable us to control political passions."
"But you’re still worried about the 1 percent slogan?"
"I find it especially upsetting to hear President Obama pushing the idea. True, he belongs to a political party, but he should never forget that the founders intended the president to be the unifying factor in our scheme of government."
"Congress has never been able to unify anything, including themselves. Presidents are chosen by a vote of all the people. They’ve always been sensitive to the unifying part of their job. Take Tom Jefferson -- as virulent a party man as we’ve ever had. But when he won the presidency in 1800, he promptly said: 'We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans.' Teddy Roosevelt made a few nasty remarks about 'malefactors of great wealth' -- but he never made hatred of the rich the essence of his politics. Instead, he declared himself in favor of a 'Square Deal' for everybody"
"Perhaps Mr. Obama will say something similar if he gets re-elected."
"That will be hard to do, if he continues to push the 1 percent line. It’s especially reprehensible in the United States, where we’ve always had a strong middle class. Even in my day, when there were lots of rich men, we had a solid group of people in the middle who were prosperous and largely contented with life. We still do."
"Do you know what the distribution of wealth was in 1776?"
"I checked that out with Robert Morris before I contacted you. In the Northern states, the wealthiest 10 percent of the population owned about 45 percent of the wealth. In some Southern states the top 10 percent owned 75 percent."
"Then there’s nothing new about a concentration of wealth?"
"Not in the least. What’s new is this attempt to turn it into a reason for class warfare, that’s the supreme evil we must avoid."
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