Populism in politics can be a dangerous thing when packaged in sound bites and wrapped in cynicism. And we have had more than enough of that this week from the Obama administration. In pushing the Paying a Fair Share Act (affectionately known as the “Buffett Rule” which would raise taxes on millionaires), the president appears more interested in casting political aspersions on his opponents than laying out a detailed plan for long-term fiscal and job recovery. To be sure, Obama knows that any tax plan — to raise or lower taxes — has a snowball’s chance of passing the House or Senate this year. And yet, there he was giving his best kabuki theatre performance in sunny Boca Raton, Florida.
The president made sure to touch all the right themes, “prosperity has never trickled down from the wealthy,” and the Buffett Rule “is something that will get us moving in the right direction toward fairness” and “the folks benefiting from this [the current tax structure] are paying taxes at the lowest rates in 50 years. That’s wrong. That’s not fair.” And then it struck me. There was that word again. “Fair.”
In reality, the word should be banished from our political vernacular because as it is used today either by the Occupy Wall Street crowd or by the president, “fair” means redistributing wealth from you to me based on my need without recognition of or regard for your efforts to create, save, spend or invest such wealth for yourself or your children. No doubt the unfairness of fair has long been accepted by left-wing progressives but they now see the use of the word in this political cycle as the perfect weapon of choice for the president and Democrats heading into the fall campaign.
Moreover, many conservatives have taken note that the fairness argument is nothing more than a ruse for efforts to create class warfare and is contrary to free market principles (Sen. Chuck Schumer protested loudly recently: “there’s no class warfare involved; it’s a question simply of fairness”). But contrary to what conservatives like to think, the Left really does understand the free-market economy. They implement policies that knowingly distort markets (Cash for Clunkers, anyone?) to elicit a response that furthers their social agenda. It's really pretty elegant. They use our own strength against us: the fact that we are a supremely rational and predictable economic animal. When you poke us, we predictably move away from the discomfort. So if you want people to use less gas, drive up the price per gallon. No? Remember Secretary of Energy Steven Chu stating in 2008 that “somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe” (which is roughly equivalent to $10 per gallon) as part of the rationale for enticing Americans into more fuel efficient cars? Or, if you want homeowners and businesses to use a different and more expensive source of electricity, favor one form of power generation over another. Don’t think so? Recall Obama’s slip of the truth — also in 2008 — when, in describing his cap and trade plan, he admitted “If somebody wants to build a coal-fired power plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them,” adding later, “Under my plan … electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.”
Republicans will never win this rhetorical debate on fairness as long as our economic policies are perceived to be grounded in "letting the rich be rich" instead of creating a pathway to the American Dream for the poor and middle class; or if we continue to talk about free markets and equal opportunity as if they were science projects or math equations.
Meanwhile, Democrats pass economic policies (even if unpopular) that result in adoption of their social agenda while calling such policies fair in defense of the common good (e.g. health care — did you really think Obamacare was just about health-care reform? Why else does the government need IRS agents to enforce health-care regulations?).
The use of the word “fair” has clearly become a weapon for the Left and will be used liberally going into the fall campaign to define the GOP and its nominee as being anything but. Likewise, when what is fair is defined in terms of the common good, watch out! This is the heart of the collectivist ideal: That the principles or systems of ownership and control of the means of production and distribution by the people collectively should be under the supervision of the government.
Does that seem fair to you?
Michael Steele served as the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is a former lieutenant governor of Maryland and a political commentator. He will be providing commentary on all things politics for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
BET Politics - Your source for the latest news, photos and videos illuminating key issues and personalities in African-American political life, plus commentary from some of our liveliest voices. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.