Preserving the America I Grew Up In

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, House Minority Leader John Boehner said of the Democrats and President Obama:

"They're snuffing out the America that I grew up in," Boehner said. "Right now, we've got more Americans engaged in their government than at any time in our history. There's a political rebellion brewing, and I don't think we've seen anything like it since 1776."

Boehner can be forgiven his hyperbole, given that the political rebellion of 1861 may have been slightly more astonishing than anything we are seeing today. But it is his musing about the Democrats "snuffing out the America I grew up in" that attracted the attention of several liberals, including Michael Tomasky, the Guardian's editor-at-large:

In the America John Boehner grew up in [1950s], the top marginal tax rate on wealthy earners was 90%. It had gone up there during the war, and five, 10, 15 years after armistice, no sizable group, Democrat or Republican, felt any strong urge to lower it.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, private-sector union membership was around or above 30%. Today's figure is 7%. The right to form a union was broadly accepted. Outside of a few small turbulent pockets, there was no such thing as today's union-busting law firms hired by management to go into workplaces and intimidate workers.

Tomasky is either being cheeky or disingenuous. There was no urge to lower those rates because only the super rich paid them. He makes no mention of the inflation of the 1970s that pushed millions of people into those higher marginal tax brackets where few Americans had previously been taxed. Nor does he write about skyrocketing state taxes, social security taxes, and local taxes that brought millions of wage earners to their knees. In Boehner's childhood, taxes were low for the vast majority of Americans.

And perhaps Tomasky would ask why union representation was so high. There may not have been union-busting lawyers "intimidating" workers to reject unions, but there sure were mobbed-up union thugs intimidating workers to join. Somehow, that part of the narrative of U.S. labor relations gets lost in the telling.

The broad point Tomasky is trying to make is that the America Boehner grew up in was actually a liberal-friendly place, complete with a president who said:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.

Eisenhower was right about Social Security, unemployment insurance, and most labor laws. But if Ike had lived long enough to see what a titanic boondoggle farm price supports have become, he would have ordered up another D-Day for the American heartland. Yet Tomasky seems to be trying to say that Republicans want to get rid of all these things. It's a wonderful set of straw men he sets up, including the notion that voting against a bill that would grant another extension to unemployed workers who have been collecting for 100 weeks or more after voting three other times to extend the program is tantamount to wanting to scrap unemployment insurance altogether. Or wanting to reform Social Security is the same as trying to kill it.

And yet, this isn't really what Boehner was talking about when he wondered aloud about where the America of his youth had gone. For liberals like Tomasky, it is very difficult to grasp the inexpressible sadness in Boehner's words. The congressman is not referring to the grand plans of statesmen and social engineers, or the yardsticks of social progress that so enamor the left. Boehner was referring to a state of mind about America that is disappearing.

What else is America except a place that has lived in the dreams of men since we organized ourselves into nation-states? Each of us alone defines our own America, imbuing it with our own hopes, animating it with our own definitions of liberty, consecrating it by our embrace of its traditions and values. It is this feeling about America that Boehner believes is threatened. But is he right? Is his implication that the growth of government under the current administration -- the largest expansion in history -- can destroy what we "grew up with" as a vision of America in our minds?