This campaign season, President Barack Obama has run across the country – often on the taxpayer’s dime – to rail against the privileged station of the wealthy. It is Obama and the Democrats who will cut down on the power of the elite and restore the egalitarian ideals of the country’s founding. This is why tax hikes on the wealthy are needed, and why the GOP’s efforts to cut the corporate tax rate must be opposed.
Or so the claims go. In reality, the gap between what Obama and the Democrats say on the stump and what they do in office is greater than what separates the Pittsburgh Steelers from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Like ancient civilizations, both sides in our political debate have mythologies that explain who they are, where they came from, and what the other side is all about. The liberal myth centers on the concept of egalitarianism: The Democratic party is of the people, and the Republican party is of special interests.
This has been an enduring element of the Democratic catechism for centuries. In his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, William Jennings Bryan said, “The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.” In his 1948 Democratic nomination address, for instance, Harry Truman assailed the Republicans as “the party of special interest, and it always has been and always will be.” This rhetoric sounds familiar to our modern ears, as Democrats regularly repeat these nostrums on the stump.
Yet this myth conceals so much of the decidedly anti-egalitarian history of the Democratic party. After all, this is a party that traces its roots not only to Andrew Jackson’s fight for the common man, but also to many of the corrupt urban machines of the 19th century, not to mention the Jim Crow regime of the South. These inconvenient truths mean that Democratic attacks against Republican perfidy always rang a little false throughout history. As Bryan and Truman were railing against the GOP for being the party of privilege, both were happy to maintain the licenses enjoyed by the segregationist South. (Truman’s hypocrisy on civil rights was especially noteworthy, as he worked hard behinds the scenes in the 1948 convention to kill a civil rights plank modeled after his own commission’s proposals!)