A recent article in the Washington Post pointed out a “myth” about the Civil War that relates to why middle and low income people in contemporary America have acquiesced to the continued tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
In an op-ed piece on January 9, 2011 entitled “Five myths about why the South Seceded,” James W. Loewen states that one of the five myths was the belief that, since most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, they wouldn’t secede for slavery.” He states that there were:
“factors [that] caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.”
Without attribution to anyone, it has been said that if you tell a lie enough times people will eventually believe it. Similarly, when a myth based on falsehood is perpetuated, people can come to accept it as truth.
Perhaps there was a time when Americans correctly saw their society as upwardly mobile. However, that is not true now. We are falling back into an economic abyss similar to those of the gilded age and 1929.
Have you ever heard someone say, “If I can lose 75 pounds anyone can?” The words are intended to be encouragement to someone else; in reality they are self-aggrandizement, because the speaker wants us to believe that no one else’s weight loss challenge could be greater than his or hers.
Funny how television is now rife with programs about “get rich quick” schemes and the glory of weight loss competition. If these programs are of any interest, it is only because getting rich quickly or losing pounds by the dozen rarely happen, but we want to believe that it can happen for us.
In America’s 21st century, the odds of a middle or lower income person becoming a millionaire are about as slim as they were for a slave to gain his or her freedom in the ante-bellum South. But many Americans are not very wise at handicapping odds. If they were, they wouldn’t go to the casinos, where the only guaranteed winner is the house.
It’s not that Americans are incapable of resenting wealthy people who want even more. In 1994, when millionaire baseball players and billionaire owners could not reach a working agreement, fans sad a pox on both your houses. The average salary of a player in 1994 was $1.2 million. Fans justifiably asked how could anyone be unsatisfied with making over a million dollars to play a kids game; a game that I would play for free. And sweet resentment was reserved for the owners who pleaded poor, when making more money than ever. If you don’t remember the strike, just wait until a month after the Super Bowl when it is quite feasible that there will be a work stoppage in the NFL. You’ll notice it when there’s no April draft of college players.
If there is a labor stoppage in March, today’s heroes, such as Payton Manning or Adrian Peterson, are likely to become the targets of our ire. But the damage done to the average American by professional athletes or even their “owners” is miniscule compared to the Wall Street barons who have bought a few hundred politicians in order to keep their marginal tax rate at 36% rather than 39.6%.
Part of Republican framing involves displacement; convincing people to demonize the wrong party. When insurance companies are making out like bandits, Republicans call it a government takeover, and many Americans believe it.
So if an NFL strike happens, let’s use it as an opportunity to try to educate the American people that however the labor dispute is resolved, it will have little or no impact on them. Conversely, rescinding the Bush tax giveaways to the wealthy would raise nearly a trillion dollars over a decade. As former Republican Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois once said, “a billion here, a billion there; pretty soon we’re talking real money.” Progressives need to convince more Americans that zeros do mean something, especially when they are strung at the end of an already large number.
Back to the Civil War. Think of how many individuals in gray lost their lives to defend a system that was of no economic gain to them. Similarly, how many of today’s middle and lower income individuals are undermining their real economic self-interests in order to satisfy their economic fantasies.
We need to try to teach Americans a little placement rather than displacement. This will not be an easy task, but opportunities to come along when it’s easier to make the point. If the NFL has a work stoppage, seize the moment!