In what can only be described as a remarkable journalistic event, the highly respected, nominally centrist conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks published last Tuesday a scathing analysis of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, following the circulation on the Internet of a video from last May in which Romney, meeting with a group of Republican high rollers, asserted that "47 percent of the country are people who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care of them. . ." and don't pay income taxes.
The claim, Brooks noted, is untrue and shockingly dismissive. Perhaps ironically, huge numbers of those receiving government benefits are white, middle-class Republicans, including veterans, the elderly and students, and many pay more in payroll taxes than Romney does in income tax. Brooks wrote that Romney's remarks suggest he's unknowledgeable about "the country he inhabits" and "has lost any sense of the social compact."
Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of Brooks' column was his reminder that in 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president, nearly two-thirds of Americans believed government has a responsibility to those who cannot help themselves. Today, a Pew Research poll found, not much more than one-third believe so. The country has shifted, Brooks wrote, from "the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers."
A persistent mantra of the libertarian right is "restoring America," implying that an earlier America did not rely on government and scorned those who did as failures at best, inadequate at least. Historically, that America never existed; nor was it imagined by the founders.
Though begun as a property tax revolt in California in 1978, the push right has been nurtured by persistent, organized, anti-government agitation by such archconservatives as Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. It has become a callous fantasy of libertarian individualism, proclaiming a self-reliance that belies the historical realities of government support for and protection of ordinary life across a broad spectrum, from roads and public safety to freedom of expression. It is a fantasy more related to Billy the Kid than to John Wayne.
Alaska also has experienced a move to the political right, though far less comprehensive than nationally. It was engendered by the arrival of Big Oil associated with the Alaska pipeline in the mid-1970s. The Alaska Legislatures of the 1960s and early 1970s were more liberal than today. Spurred by such women's rights activists as Helen Nienheuser, in 1970 John Rader, Kay Poland and others led the Senate in passing Alaska's abortion rights law, three years before Roe vs. Wade. In a special session in 1973 the legislature approved the far-reaching tax package for oil production at Prudhoe Bay (severance and production tax, rents, and the state's royalty share) in the face of oil industry claims that the package would cripple development of the field.
Constitutional Convention delegate Victor Fisher, speaking on public radio earlier this week, commented that in 1955-56 there was a powerful sense of shared pursuit that united political opponents in a common enterprise that facilitated cooperation and compromise in producing a state constitution that would well serve all Alaskans. So much does Fisher believe that spirit is gone today that he advocates against a positive vote on the question of holding a new constitutional convention, which will appear on the state general election ballot in November. He fears that extremists, backed by unlimited funding, will seize control of the proceedings and do significant damage to the existing framework.
Be that as it may, the write-in election of Lisa Murkowski in 2010 seems to demonstrate that Alaska Republicans have not been captured by libertarian Social Darwinism as has the national party.
In fact, through 200 years of national history, the three branches steadily increased the power of the federal government to embrace an expanding national vision of the social compact, constructing a secular social safety net beneath those who find themselves disadvantaged through no fault of their own. The Supreme Court's approval of Obamacare is the latest such expansion. The present libertarian right's discomfiture with that expansion is as out of touch with the country, and with history, as is Mitt Romney.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.