Trump’s Taxes and America’s Precarious Community
America, it is said, is the land of individualism. Politically, our individualism can be seen in what we hold to be one of our dearest rights: the right of everyone to do whatever they like, so long as it doesn’t infringe on others’ ability to do the same. In other words, America’s individualism is the right to be left alone.
This wouldn’t be strange, if not for the fact that Americans tend to allow the value of individualism to cloud a clear expression of other values. For an example, look at our legal thinking. Consider the case of Roe v. Wade. Abortion rights advocates hold that abortions are necessary for some pretty basic reasons: to protect a woman’s ability to control the fate of her body and her ability to prevent herself from suffering the psychological consequences and financial stress of an unwanted child – in short, from having the entire trajectory of her life changed by an unwanted pregnancy. These seem like pretty fundamental concerns of human existence. It’s amazing then, that the right to abortion is explained in our jurisprudence as a right to “privacy” - basically, the right to be let alone. Either we have a problem with vocabulary, or the basic goods of human life, in America’s imagination, reduce to the right to be left alone.
The political value of being let alone is held across party lines. Conservative proponents of limited government and limited taxation are animated by the same drive for individual freedom – they just express it in commercial instead of social rights. The right of the individual to make as much money as he wants, without government interference, has the same emotional resonance as declaring the right to abortion under a right to privacy. The message is: we don’t want the government interfering in our lives, other than what’s strictly necessary to insure that we can live as privately as possible.
To consider one last example: the American brand of individualism also seems responsible for our political culture. Americans have a fervent distrust of government. According to a Pew poll from November 2015, “just 19% [of Americans] say they can trust the government always or most of the time, among the lowest levels in the past half-century,” and “[o]nly 20% would describe government programs as being well-run.” Ironically though, this distrust of our government is coupled with a reluctance to engage in politics in a way that might actually make government more effective. Our voter turnout for the 2012 election was an estimated 53.6%, far behind almost every other developed democracy. If the government is a representative of public life, we seem to find it inherently offensive, because it draws us away from our private spheres of existence.
America’s inwardness is given eloquent expression by Thoreau. He too expressed skepticism about the importance of political life. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau writes this about the political process (he’s talking about slavery, but it’s clear that for him it’s applicable to any political issue):
“It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong...As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.”
Thoreau felt that political life was an existential burden. Man’s purpose in life is to “live it, be it good or bad”; spend too much time on politics and “[your] life will be gone.” To me, he is the American individual par excellence. His disgust with government policy is matched by his passionate rejection of any reason to be involved in the political process.
Remarkably, even Thoreau’s civil disobedience isn’t really about a desire to create social change – as it would later be for Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s rather rooted in the individual’s need not to compromise his own conscience. As Thoreau writes, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why then has every man a conscience? I think that we should be men first and subjects afterward.” In other words, because we are “men first”, we have a right to disobey to preserve our integrity. Injustice in society may wind on, but man’s duty is only “to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support.” For the most part then, (he does make a brief reference to individual protest acting as “counter friction” to the “machine” of government), Thoreau’s staunch morality is rooted in individualism and divorced from politics.
Where does this individualism come from? One might say that Americans are simply narcissists. But there’s something to Thoreau’s worldview. I too think that people come into the world, primarily, “to live in it, be it good or bad.” I don’t think that everyone ever born is yoked with being a moral crusader. And if we follow this inward line of thought, there seems something oppressive about the government limiting me in the name of others, taking my income, telling me that I must buy healthcare or can’t buy guns. From the perspective of American individualism, these impositions seem little more than that – impositions. Nonetheless, one can’t avoid feeling that Thoreau comes up short. What’s missing from Thoreau’s perspective is any sense of community, and any sense that the government is a vehicle of communal responsibility. I’m with Thoreau that we should be “men before subjects,” but in what sense, at all, are we subjects? Forget dodging taxes to support an immoral war, as Thoreau did; why should we ever pay our taxes? Donald Trump raised this question emphatically in the first Presidential debate. According to Trump, as a business owner, not paying your income taxes isn’t immoral. It’s smart.
The only way to balance Thoreau’s point - or Trump’s - is to recover an argument for why we should care. And I’ve already said the answer: it’s community. I’m not a psychologist, but I’d venture that, unlike Thoreau, we’d find it lonely to live by ourselves by Walden pond. And so, we supplement Thoreau’s individualism with real ties of obligation and concern. But as one might expect of a nation steeped in individualism, community is a tricky subject in America. It means different things to different people. And if community is the key to how we balance our individual with our political life, our different approaches to community will have drastic implications for national politics.
I think that, currently, there are two models of community at play in America: a conservative model and a liberal model. For conservatives, community is based on shared social realities, such as traditional family roles and shared religion and culture. These social realities are tied to particular group identities, which in turn are rooted in particular group histories. Liberals, however, claim human identity per se as the basis of community, placing common human nature as our most fundamental source of solidarity. This community lacks the immediate historical ties that bind conservative communities; it must reach further back, to a shared biological past and a common human narrative. Its rituals don’t take place in churches or schools, but on internet channels like Upworthy and Humans of New York.
These two models of community lead to very different attitudes toward government. The conservative community is particular to individual affiliations. It therefore exists below the framework of government, independent of it and not accountable to it. The liberal, however, sees community at work within the framework of government. If community is based on shared human identity, than it naturally crosses ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic lines, and manifests in political assembly. According to this view, the government itself is a form of communal action.
The conservative and liberal models of community are so different that their proponents often completely misunderstand each other. For many liberals, conservatives’ desire to preserve traditional community structures (like heterosexual marriage or gendered bathrooms) is simply a vicious attempt to oppress minorities. Liberals often miss the point that that conservatives are afraid of the damage directed at their sense of communal life. On the other hand, conservatives often feel that liberals’ socially progressive policies completely ignore the value of community. They claim that liberals destroy our sense of community by eroding the traditional fabric that links society together. What conservatives don’t realize, however, is that liberals also value community. They just disagree about the basis on which community should be founded.
The short of it is that nobody has a monopoly on the value of community. We all believe that the American ideology of individualism should be limited by a sense of a communal responsibility. The question is, by responsibility toward which community. Or better - by responsibility to a community founded on what?
Conservatives and liberals each advocate for the policies that preserve the communities they hold sacred. For example, for the conservative, there is no inherent injustice in income inequality. After all, there are rich communities and poor communities; if I’m rich, the poor are beyond my immediate community, and so beyond immediate concern. For the liberal, however, income inequality demands action, because it betrays the obligations of our national community. In this view, taxation is not simply an imposition by government authority; it is a communal demarcation of how one must spend their money if they are to earn it our national - that is, communal - economy. Thus, the fiscal liberal is offended by the fiscal conservative’s small-government policies, shocked at his opponent’s lack of “communal values”. But at the same time, the social conservative sees the latest Supreme Court decision as a symptom of the disintegration of society. To his vision of society, it is.
It’s too early to say which of these models of community will win out. But while it far from dominates our political landscape, the language of a national community has been creeping into our jurisprudence for quite some time. Not in the much reviled Roe v. Wade; that decision, based as it is on the “right to privacy,” fits nicely within the conservative framework that divorces government from community. The decision that I’m thinking of is Brown v. Board of Ed., the case that struck down “separate but equal.” In that case, the Supreme Court appealed to the intangible effects of segregation, which made separate but equal “inherently unequal.” In order to explain why these intangible effects should matter to the American public, Chief Justice Warren referred to the fact that all Americans belong to a national community. “To separate [black schoolchildren],” he wrote, “from others of similar age and qualifications generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community (my emphasis) that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” I don’t know if Justice Warren was aware of the revolutionary character of his thinking, but those words no doubt left many Southerners puzzled. “What community, Justice Warren?” To a conservative view of community, in which the government is ever external to communal bonds, Warren’s argument must have seemed nonsensical.
Its interesting to note that at least some Opinion writers have taken up the mantra of national community. In recent months, NYT columnist David Brooks has made the “American community” his personal crusade. His April piece, “How Covenants Make Us,” claims that America’s traditional social fabric, based as it is on racial, cultural and religious homogeneity, is on its way out. “The question,” Brooks says, “is how to how to reweave the social fabric in the face of” this reality. He writes, in terms not dissimilar to the liberal approach to politics, that the new social fabric must lie in a sense of community that crosses ethnic, racial, and economic divides. To Brooks, this sense of community is the real meaning behind the word “patriotism.” As he says:
“Senator Cory Booker nicely defined patriotism by contrasting it with mere tolerance. Tolerance, he said, means, ‘I’m going to stomach your right to be different, but if you disappear off the face of the earth I’m no worse off.’ Patriotism, on the other hand, means ‘love of country, which necessitates love of each other…[it] recognizes that you have worth and dignity and [that] I need you. You are part of my whole, part of the promise of this country.’”
Tolerance is the counterpart to American individualism; in order to live my private life, I must be willing to accommodate your right to do the same. But as Brooks notes, tolerance does not breed obligation. It gives me no reason to pay taxes. It takes community - “patriotism” - to do that. As election day draws near, America seems to be seriously considering its bases of community. It will be interesting to see what the people decide.
This article was written in association with the YU Political Science Journal. Submissions to the journal can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.