Grover Norquist: The Least Courageous Man in Politics
By Nick Rodriguez, newly minted Contributing Writer
As America returns to work from the Thanksgiving holiday, Congress and the president return to pick up the pieces from last week’s supercommittee failure. Many factors led to the breakdown in negotiations, but one recurrent theme is the refusal of the Republicans on the committee to raise any net new taxes.
The anti-tax orthodoxy among conservatives is well-known, and it has been on full display this year, as Democrats and Republicans cut two prior deals – on the budget in the spring and the debt ceiling in the summer – that included over $1 trillion in spending cuts without a dime of additional tax revenue. The priest of this orthodoxy is Grover Norquist, the keeper of the famous “taxpayer protection pledge” that binds nearly every Republican member of Congress (and all six Republicans on the failed supercommittee) to never vote to raise taxes under any circumstances.
I envy Grover Norquist. Not because he’s a successful political tactician (though he is), nor because of the sway he holds over half of official Washington. No, I envy Grover Norquist because his job is so very easy.
Most activists trying to mobilize voters have to do two things: activate those who already agree with them, and persuade more to join the cause. The latter can be challenging. Public policy, by its very nature, involves tradeoffs between multiple good things. At its best, voter education is about explaining these tradeoffs and convincing people to give up one good thing for another. Your taxes will go up, but your schools will be better. This set of public services will be eliminated, but the money is better left in your pockets than spent for this particular purpose. And so on.
Not so with Norquist and the anti-tax movement. Theirs is a public policy stance with no tradeoffs at all. As far as they are concerned, the government is stealing from you when it levies taxes, and the thievery must stop (this is their metaphor, not mine). Norquist is essentially offering us our money back. And really, who wouldn’t want that?
It would be a nice narrative if it were true. But in fact, every decision to lower taxes is a decision to cut some service that the government provides, now or in the future. The genius of people like Norquist has been their success in decoupling these two questions. Take your tax breaks now, they say, without any mention of the potential costs in the future. As a result, we are having a conversation about spending cuts in 2011 that we should have had in 2001, when the tax cuts that helped create these deficits were signed into law.
In this sense, Norquist and the anti-tax movement have something in common with the subprime loan sharks who also helped cause the current crisis: they cater to our greed and tell us we can have it all, hoping all the while that we won’t read the fine print. Which brings me back to why Norquist’s job is so easy. It takes not one bit of courage – and not a great deal of skill either – to appeal to the basest and most selfish of instincts in each of us, to demand nothing more from us than that we guard our pocketbooks and seek to enrich ourselves.
Conservatives are better than this. The modern conservative movement was founded to defend individual liberties, to instill a healthy skepticism of what government can and should undertake, and to urge caution about the pace of societal change. But now, because Norquist and his ilk have been so successful, the movement seems on the verge of trading in these noble principles for much smaller, narrower, and meaner aims.
I pray that it would not be so. This ideology of naked self-interest has ensnared most of the Republican party and is poisoning our body politic. If it wins out entirely, we can expect last week’s supercommittee failure to be just the beginning of the dysfunction that is in store for us. And if, as citizens, we let it happen, then perhaps we will have the government we deserve.
Nick Rodriguez is a nonprofit leader in the field of education policy and practice.