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Left and Right From Indian Country

Political directions “left” and “right” come from the seating arrangement in the Estates-General (Parliament) at the onset of the French Revolution. Early on, the royalists were seated on the right. Then there were no royalists, but there were still the more or less radical. The seating arrangement remained when the Estates-General dissolved over procedural issues and morphed into a truer National Assembly.

One of the finest ironies of modern politics is that the first leftist radicals of the French Revolution were free market capitalists. The bourgeoisie sat on the left because the working class was not represented.

Left and right as moving targets continue today.

Some U.S. Republicans are crowing about the Conservative landslide in the UK. Others noticed that Jim Messina, a major consultant for Barack Obama’s campaigns, worked for the Conservatives and for a platform that promised to protect the National Health Service and advocated higher taxes on extreme wealth.

I am a leftist in the U.S., but I would be at the center in most of Europe, where people understand the differences between a Socialist and a Communist because both parties often field candidates---against each other.

When I was a student at the University of Texas, I was a teaching assistant for a professor who was a right wing hero for, among other reasons, being sentenced to death in absentia by the Communist government of Czechoslovakia after he defected to the U.S. from his diplomatic post. He was indeed a staunch anti-Communist.

The Young Americans for Freedom who sought him out were shocked to see the leftist from the campus newspaper (me) grading his exams and often appealed their terrible grades when they tried to answer a political science question with a superficial diatribe. The professor had no patience for such nonsense. He kept me on a pretty short leash but I was so indisposed to flunk people that I would practically award a D to anybody who could put their name on the blue book. Convinced I was applying a political test, they would appeal to the prof, who would lower my D to an F.

Most Indians think they are off to the side of these distinctions, with the exception of the late Comanche who claimed to be the voice of conservatism in Indian country, David Yeagley. Clinging to his doctorate in music to give the impression of authority on political science, Yeagley claimed to be a descendent of Bad Eagle but cloaked himself in what he took to be the “reality” of white supremacy.

The white supremacists—many of whom admire Adolf Hitler—define the very fringe of the radical right. Yeagley wrote that “Hitler was partially right” to view the white race as an embattled minority. In the same essay, Yeagley claimed:

Superior beauty is in the white race, with its scintillating varieties of color: red, brown, amber, golden hair... green, blue, light brown, gray eyes. In the darker races, everything is always the same, dark brown and black a beastly bore.

I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, but in my Indian circles, Yeagley was an extreme outlier, a minority of one on the far right lane if not the shoulder of the road.

The Democratic and Republican parties represent a very narrow lane in the autobahn of world politics. A Democrat currently heads my tribal government, but the prior Chief was Republican, and nobody makes a big deal of it.

The dependency imposed purposely on Indians means that, among those who articulate politics not based on personalities, the welfare state is taken for granted. This would not be a particularly leftist position in Europe.

Providing health care as a government responsibility is not controversial there, and that’s why the British Conservatives support the National Health Service. Because the same thing is controversial here, we get chronic underfunding of the Indian Health Service and the Department of Veterans Affairs. The political right would not want people to get the impression that government health care could work here like it does in Europe.

Admission to higher education based on accomplishment in K-12 rather than ability to pay is not controversial there. In this country, since the Reagan Revolution, financial aid is loans rather than grants and the dirt-cheap tuition subsidized by the taxpayers that enabled my education is a thing of the past. Americans now carry over a trillion dollars in student debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and the investment banker elite is busy spinning derivative instruments off from those loans like they did from mortgages in the run up to the Great Recession.

Those of us who think health care and education should be “free” understand that nothing is free. I know the $50 a semester tuition I paid at the University of Texas was heavily subsidized by the taxpayers. I know that bringing the IHS and the VA up to snuff would mean higher taxes and even though I’m retired, I’m still in the income range the higher taxes would hit.

Wouldn’t higher taxes kill the U.S. economy? Only if it lives on a different planet from Europe, but it’s perhaps even more productive to compare the U.S. system to itself. Right now, we have seven income tax brackets ranging from 10 percent to 39.6 percent.

Immediately after WWII, we had 24 brackets ranging from 20 percent to 91 percent. You read that right. The government took nine out of every ten dollars from wage earners at the high end and—guess what? They didn’t quit working. There’s a point where most sane people understand “enough,” and above that point, money is not a necessity. It’s just a method for keeping score. As long as the scorekeeping rules are the same for everybody, the outcome of the game is not affected.

By the time the Reagan Revolution came to redistribute wealth back to the rich people God intended to be rich, we had 16 brackets ranging from 14 percent to 70 percent.

Lots of people don’t understand “top marginal rate,” and so think the entire income is taxed at 91 percent or 70 percent in the examples above. No. Each bracket represents a tier of taxation that is the same for all taxpayers. As the next higher bracket kicks in, it only applies to earnings that fall within that higher bracket rather than the entire income. I wonder if more people understood that before the age of tax software, back when you had to manually look at a tax table and understand that the lower chunks of your income were taxed at lower rates?

FDR’s New Deal forced the farthest right mainstream party in the U.S., the Republicans, to accept things they philosophically opposed. A government guaranteed income for the elderly (Social Security). Government control of the terms of employment (Fair Labor Standards Act). A government guaranteed right to join a labor union (National Labor Relations Act).

Some of the New Deal alphabet soup was in response to the Great Depression, and a government job for all (CCC, WPA) and free food for the hungry (AAA) got retrenched when no longer necessary. The “free food” started in a public reaction to the government destroying great amounts of food purchased to support farm prices at a time when people were literally starving. That beginning created a link between farm subsidies and food for the poor only recently broken by the Republican Congress.

Between the New Deal and the Reagan Revolution, the federal writ expanded to include airline safety, traffic safety, food safety, and cleanliness of air and water. Every expansion meant new regulations, and bureaucratic red tape does impose costs. To Democrats, those costs are the price of dealing with the underlying problems. To Republicans, those costs mean government is the problem.

The U.S. generally is about equally divided over the welfare state. I do not think Indian country is. Europeans look at the tiny political spectrum where the Democrats and Republicans debate and wonder how it is that so many Americans vote against their own interests. Europeans are used to a political debate about the design of the modern welfare state, not the existence of it.

John Steinbeck, who wrote one of the most poignant novels set in the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, diagnosed the U.S. perfectly:

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

The ultimate rebuttal to that misunderstanding came from Reagan’s policies. There is now more social mobility in “old Europe” than in the United States.

The American Revolution has become what it fought, a land of hereditary privilege.

The opportunity to rise from humble beginnings is no longer part of mainstream American reality. That opportunity was never mainstream among the African-Americans who provided the uncompensated labor or the American Indians who provided the “free land” that built American prosperity. Enough of us rose to maintain the myth but now, even for white people, social mobility has become a fairy tale with no left or right.

The relevant political directions have become up and down.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.