Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Shifts

Harry Byrd Senior:  Racist, Democrat, Budget-Slasher
In 1963, the United States Congress was deadlocked.  A tax cut was being held up in the Senate Finance Committee.  Advocates of the bill insisted that it was essential for the nation's prosperity.  Opponents of the bill countered that it would lead to profligacy, bankruptcy, and ruin.  Budget hawks insisted on bloody cuts to government programs.  Young college educated know-it-alls dreamt of a vigorous government and the huge budgets that went with it.  There were calls to close military bases.  There were also calls for war.

These issues are familiar to news-reading Americans today.  Looking at them we automatically plop them in one of two camps--liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican.  The strange thing is that in 1963 the ideological lines were drawn slightly differently than they are today, leading to a Twilight Zone politics, a politics in which the words liberal and conservative and Democrat and Republican do not mean what we assume them to mean.

The 1963 tax cut bill was the policy of liberal darling John Kennedy, thought up of by Kennedy's brain-trust of young intellectual firebrands.  The thinking behind the 1963 tax cut was that cutting taxes would lead to more economic growth, and so raise revenue.  This is the same argument used to defend tax cuts by conservatives today.  The only difference is that Kennedy's bill cut top tax rates from a little over 90% to 70%.  Today they stand around 30% (or 15% from capital gains.)

The opponent of the tax cut bill was the conservative Senator Harry Byrd Senior, the chairman of the Finance Committee.  Byrd was an arch Virginia conservative.  He wanted limited government, was wary of racial equality, and was one of the most powerful Democrats in the Senate.  He insisted that the government cut its budget below 100 billion dollars before he release his bill from committee.  Many of these cuts would come from slashing defense spending and closing military bases.

On one side, you have Eastern smarty-pants college-educated young men, who want tax cuts.  On the other side, you have a bigoted southern military base-closing deficit hawk, who fights these tax cuts.  Both sides are members of the Democratic party.

When we look at politics today, it seems that the policies associated with each ideology are necessary to it:  that conservatives have always and must be against wide-ranging social programs, raising taxes and protecting the environment; and liberals have always and must be against war, tax cuts and racial discrimination.  But in the massive tangle of politics and history, ideologies change.  They change slowly, usually so slowly no one can notice them, but if you look out from the broad view of decades and centuries, you see that many of the political positions that seem so entrenched and certain are merely contingent--they have changed and will change and must change.  Ever so slowly, history drags us on, and what it means to be who we are shifts--so slowly we only notice it after it's done.

No comments: