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Homage to Daniel Shays

Fat Cats and Democrats: The Role of the Big Rich in the Party of the Common Man

by G. William Domhoff
Prentice-Hall, 203 pp., $5.95

Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington

by Bella Abzug
Saturday Review Press, 320 pp., $7.95

The Washington Pay-off: An Insider’s View of Corruption in Government

by Robert Winter-Berger
Lyle Stuart, 341 pp., $10.00

To govern is to choose how the revenue raised from taxes is spent. So far so good, or bad. But some people earn more money than others. Should they pay proportionately more money to the government than those who earn less? And if they do pay more money are they entitled to more services than those who pay less or those who pay nothing at all? And should those who pay nothing at all because they have nothing get anything? These matters are of irritable concern to our rulers, and of some poignancy to the rest.

Although the equality of each citizen before the law is the rock upon which the American Constitution rests, economic equality has never been an American ideal. In fact, it is the one unmentionable subject in our politics, as the Senator from South Dakota recently discovered when he came up with a few quasi-egalitarian tax reforms. The furious and enduring terror of communism in America is not entirely the work of those early cold warriors Truman and Acheson. A dislike of economic equality is something deep-grained in the American Protestant character. After all, given a rich empty continent for vigorous Europeans to exploit (the Indians were simply a disagreeable part of the emptiness, like chiggers), any man of gumption could make himself a good living. With extra hard work, any man could make himself a fortune, proving that he was a better man than the rest. Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.

The vision of the rich empty continent is still a part of the American unconscious in spite of the Great Crowding and its attendant miseries; and this lingering belief in the heaven any man can make for himself through hard work and clean living is a key to the majority’s prevailing and apparently unalterable hatred of the poor, kept out of sight at home, out of mind abroad.

Yet there has been, from the beginning, a significant division in our ruling class. The early Thomas Jefferson had a dream: a society of honest yeomen, engaged in agricultural pursuits, without large cities, heavy industry, banks, military pretensions. The early (and the late) Alexander Hamilton wanted industry, banks, cities, and a military force capable of making itself felt in world politics. It is a nice irony that so many of today’s laissez-faire conservatives think that they descend from Hamilton, the proponent of a strong federal government, and that so many liberals believe themselves to be the heirs of the early Jefferson, who wanted little more than a police force and a judiciary. Always practical, Jefferson knew that certain men would rise through their own good efforts while, sadly, others would fall. Government would do no more than observe this Darwinian spectacle benignly, and provide no succor.

In 1800 the Hamiltonian view was rejected by the people and their new President Thomas Jefferson. Four years later, the Hamiltonian view had prevailed and was endorsed by the reelected Jefferson. “We are all Hamiltonians now!” he might have exclaimed had he had the grace of the Thirty-seventh President, whose progress from moth to larva on so many issues gives delight. Between 1800 and 1805 Jefferson had seen to it that an empire in posse had become an empire in esse. The difference between Jefferson I and Jefferson II is reflected in the two inaugural addresses.

First Inaugural: “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government….” In other words, no taxes beyond a minimal levy in order to pay for a few judges, a postal service, small executive and legislative bodies.

Second Inaugural: Jefferson II was now discussing the uses to which taxes might be put (once the national debt was paid off, oh Presidential chimera!), “In time of peace, to rivers, canals, roads, arts, manufactures, education, and other great objects within each State. In time of war—if injustice, by ourselves” (those italics, irresistibly, mine) “or others, must sometimes produce war…. War will be but a suspension of useful works….” The idea of the rich empty continent best exploited by mean unbugged by a central government had now been succeeded by the notion that government ought to pitch in and help with those roads and schools, but of course that’s going to take money so taxes must be raised to pay for these good things which benefit us all equally, don’t they?

It is significant that nothing more elevated than greed changed the Dr. Jekyll of Jefferson I into the Mr. Hyde of Jefferson II. Like his less thoughtful countrymen, Jefferson could not resist a deal. Subverting the Constitution he had helped create, Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon, acquiring its citizens without their consent; he then proceeded to govern them as if they had been conquered, all the while secretly—comically—maneuvering, by hook or by crook, to bag the Floridas. The author of the Declaration of Independence was quite able to forget the unalienable rights of anyone whose property he thought should be joined to our empire—a word which crops up frequently and unselfconsciously in his correspondence.

In the course of land-grabbing, Jefferson II managed to get himself into hot water with France, England, and Spain simultaneously, a fairly astonishing thing to do considering the state of politics in Napoleonic Europe. But then war is bound to result if you insist on liberating vast tracts of land from colonial nations as well as from home-grown Indians (they were equal to whites, Jefferson thought, in spite of their bad habits, but different from the hopeless black races which had started out white but then, in the unwholesome African climate, contracted a form of leprosy; enlightened optimists like Jefferson’s friend the learned Dr. Rush were certain that advanced dermatology would one day restore to these dark peoples their lost prettiness).

The result of all this finagling was a series of panicky appropriations for the navy and the creation of the American military machine which in the last fiscal year cost us honest yeomen 75.8 billion dollars out of a total of 126 billion dollars paid in personal and corporate taxes. Forever forgotten was the wisdom of Jefferson I: “Sound principles will not justify our taxing the industry of our fellow citizens to accumulate treasure for wars to happen we know not when, and which might not perhaps happen but from the temptation offered by that treasure.”

It is a tribute to the Protestant passion for wanting always to appear to be doing good (particularly when one is robbing the till) that Americans have been constitutionally incapable (double entendre intended) of recognizing the truth about themselves or anyone else. Mixing his metaphors, celebrating the empire electric, appealing to the god Demos whose agent he thought himself to be, Jefferson II so clouded over our innate imperialism that we cannot to this day recognize the nature of American society, even as our bombs murder strangers (admittedly leprous) 8,000 miles away. Fortunately, the empire has taken such a shellacking in the last few years that critics (not yet loved) are being listened to at last, and it is now unlikely that even a yeomanry so constantly and deliberately misinformed from kindergarten days to wrap-up time in the Forest Lawn Slumber Room will ever allow another President the fun of destroying someone else’s country in the name of Jefferson I self-determination. As the empire falls apart, things may yet come together again in a good—or at least more realistic—way.

To make sense of our situation a simple question must be asked. Why do we allow our governors to take so much of our money and spend it in ways that not only fail to benefit us but do great damage to others as we prosecute undeclared wars—which even our brainwashed majority has come to see are a bad proposition because of the cost of maintaining a vast military machine, not to mention a permanent draft of young men (an Un-American activity if there ever was one) in what is supposed to be peacetime?

Whether he knows it or not, the middle-income American is taxed as though he were living in a socialist society. But for the money he gives the government he gets almost nothing back. He does pay for a lot of military hardware, and his congressman will point to all the jobs “defense” (that happy euphemism) contracts bring to his district, as if the same federal money could not create even more jobs doing things that need doing as well as benefiting directly the man who paid the taxes in the first place. Ultimate irony, the middle American still tends to believe that he is living in a Jefferson I society when, in fact, he has been for some decades in a Jefferson II world, allowing an imperial-minded elite to tax him in order to wage a holy war against something called communism.

Fortunately, there are now signs that they don’t make suckers like that any more. The taxpayers’ revolt has begun. A dislike of all politicians is in the land. Word is out that the rich don’t pay as much, proportionately, to maintain their empire as do the middle-income people. Something fishy’s going on down in Washington, as the two Georges have been telling folks (that the Georges are a part of what is wrong is not exactly their fault), and the people are responding. They hate socialism and communism and all the things good people are supposed to hate, but they are also beginning to wonder just why they have to give up so much of their income to fight those very same Commies Nixon likes to dine with in Peking and Moscow.

The fact is that our present governors are not very bright, and this may be our salvation. In 1968 they absentmindedly gave us a president whose schizophrenic behavior and prose style (“This is not an invasion of Cambodia”) is creepily apparent to even the most woolly-headed yeoman. Now three new books provide useful information about the small group who own the United States, how our economic and foreign policies are manipulated, how members of Congress are bought, how presidential candidates are selected and financed.

The mold that cast the mind of C. Wright Mills was not broken at his flesh’s departure. Another such mind was promptly cast and labeled G. William Domhoff (those first initials and middle names are reminiscent of a generation of three-named Episcopalian clergymen). A Mills disciple, Domhoff has published Who Rules America? (1967) and The Higher Circles (1970). The subjects of those books are exactly what their titles suggest. Domhoff has now written another illuminating treatise called Fat Cats and Democrats: The Role of the Big Rich in the Party of the Common Man.

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