But What About the People? was the title of book by Terry Sanford, former North Carolina U.S. Senator, governor, and Duke University president. When political cynicism becomes overwhelming, I often think of Terry Sanford and his book title.
Sanford's name is unfamiliar to many. But from the 1950s into the 1990s he was a standup hero unafraid to espouse causes far more progressive than his North Carolina home constituency. A former World War II paratrooper, he became the first southern governor to identify himself actively with civil rights. A young Jesse Jackson was a student intern in his gubernatorial office.
He also convinced North Carolineans to invest massively in public education and to make the state's public schools a cut above those in other states south of the Mason-Dixon. He had the idea for the Research Triangle, the new-economy center which brought prosperity and economic stability to the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. He lifted Duke University, too often known as a southern party school for the privileged, into first-tier academic rank nationally.
In 1960 he was a prominent early supporter of John Kennedy's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Rumor had it, just prior to Kennedy's 1963 assassination, that JFK was considering replacing Lyndon Johnson with Sanford as his vice-presidential running mate in 1964.
Sanford did all of this in a reasonable, gentlemanly manner which got results he could never have achieved through confrontation or low politics. He never talked down to any constituency. He was a populist of the highest order — embracing all as his equals and leaving no doubt that his only interest was the larger public interest.
There were many in Sanford's political generation who were guided by a "What about the people?" philosophy, not least our own Washington state Senators Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson. They pushed hard for their progressive objectives but did not vilify their opponents or insult voters' intelligence. First and foremost, in the phrase of the time, they were "for the people."
As I think now of those leaders I am particularly dismayed by actions large and small in our current politics.
•Current economic-stimulus and deficit-reduction debate: Facing falling public-approval ratings, President Obama has issued stimulus and debt-reduction proposals aimed at recapturing a shaky Democratic political base but which do not seriously address the need to give the economy a needed jolt while also, down the road, reducing our crippling long-term debt burden. With the exception of short-term extensions of payroll-tax relief and unemployment benefits, no parts of those proposals seem headed to congressional enactment.
Obama clearly does not recognize that his present soak-the-rich strategy will do little to address our economic ills. It will also cede the moderate vote to Republicans who have done little to earn it. (One thing Obama and his advisers apparently do not recognize: A majority of voters, of all income levels, do not like punish-the-rich policies. Most still hold to the American dream that their children should have the chance to become rich in the future.)
I've been through similar policy-review exercises many times. I have no objection to raising taxes of those in the highest income brackets. They can afford to pay more. But raising their taxes will do little to generate growth, reduce deficits, or cut long-term debt. The numbers have changed over the years but the present ones are quite similar to those of the past 50 years. Right now, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the 10 percent of the households with the highest income pay 50 percent of all federal taxes and more than 70 percent of federal income taxes. Households making more than $1 million pay an average of 29.1 percent of their income in federal taxes; those making between $50-75,000 pay an average 15 percent; those between $40-50,000 pay 12.5 percent; those between $20-30,000 only 5.7 percent.
Obama's proposals to tax more heavily individuals earning above $200,000, and couples above $250,000, throw meat to people animated by class anger or envy. But they also would hit owners of small businesses — the principal job generators in the economy — especially hard. And the revenues they would raise would be minimal.
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