Ronald Reagan may have had one thing right. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Or something to that effect. The brouhaha over Joe Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin, Texas, last month might be dismissed with that old saw. But the debate has deeper significance. While left and right bicker over whether Stack was a “terrorist” or just another angry American, progressives show that, once again, they just don’t get it.
Stack has become a hero manque to large swaths of the American public because he took on the tax system and the federal government in the most direct way possible. Liberals and progressives, leaping to the defense of big government, insist we recognize that Stack’s act was classic terrorism. In doing so they line up as implicit defenders of the “war on terror” and the Patriot Act — so long as the playing field is level: not just Muslims and foreigners but red-blooded Americans, too. That would be bad enough but not unprecedented: it was a liberal president Clinton and his liberal attorney general, Janet Reno, after all, who backed the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the pre-cursor to the Patriot Act, in the face of another act of domestic terrorism.
Maybe more troubling is the evidence that progressives want to ignore what Stack was all about and why he has won his momentary notoriety. Here are some of the frustrations that Stack expressed in the suicide note explaining his act: “Why is it that a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities (and in the case of the GM executives, for scores of years) and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours?” Stack wrote. “Yet at the same time, the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies, are murdering tens of thousands of people a year and stealing from the corpses and victims they cripple, and this country’s leaders don’t see this as important as bailing out a few of their vile, rich cronies. Yet, the political ‘representatives’ (thieves, liars, and self-serving scumbags is far more accurate) have endless time to sit around for year after year and debate the state of the ‘terrible health care problem’. It’s clear they see no crisis as long as the dead people don’t get in the way of their corporate profits rolling in.”
Progressives claim to see the crisis, but they support the system. Some of them insist that the system works, it’s just the incumbents that don’t. More common is the notion that somehow our political leaders have abandoned the Constitution that should have kept us on the straight and narrow. This argument, revealingly, goes back to the Jeffersonian critique of Federalist rule and the National Republicans who succeeded them. For the Jeffersonians (who eventually became the Democrats), proponents of a strong federal government with vigorous taxing authority and the ability to back expensive schemes like canals and railroads had twisted the meaning of the Constitution, adopting Alexander Hamilton’s broad notion of “implied” powers at the expense of the states, who were the true repositories of sovereignty. You see where this goes. First to states-rights and civil war, then to a conservative critique of “big government”. But, while Southern planters led the South war-ward, the Jeffersonian coalition was much bigger, drawing on small farmers North and South and urban workers.
Come the twentieth century, Democrats (still free traders) became proponents of big government, and Republicans, heirs of Federalists and National Republicans, claimed the mantle of populist revolt against big government and big taxes. The trouble is that Republicans today, unlike Joe Stack, have no trouble backing big corporations against big government. But the Joe Stacks — and there are millions of them, maybe a majority of sorts — harken back to Jefferson’s wish to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government in a trial of strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country,” while echoing Thoreau’s very Jeffersonian aphorism, “that government is best which governs least.”
Liberals and progressives in this country have countenanced, if not actively abetted, the rise of the corporation as the dominant economic form. They have also built a big government, often with Republican support, to shape a genuinely national market for these same corporations. Our regulatory system fits these entities to a tee, even when it inconveniences them. Made for bigness, it systematically undermines smaller enterprises and the enterprising spirit. Our system of taxation, certainly as it applies to business, favors the biggest while burdening the smallest with complexities that would be unthinkable in a world not dominated by corporations and the speculative capital that feeds on them. “Liberal corporatism” is the name some scholars have given this political-economic system, but regardless of name this is what “big government” means to most Americans.
Progressives don’t get it. They are convinced, rightly, that big corporations need regulating. They are also convinced that local politics must be hedged with national rules about civil liberties, equity, and care for the environment. They are not wholly wrong on this count either. What they don’t get is the frustration, even outrage, that the liberal corporatist system has come to engender in ordinary Americans, who are subjected to the very rules and regulations progressives hoped (vainly, it turns out) would curb the power of the corporations. And when ordinary folks find the federal government bailing out the banks that exploit them while abandoning struggling homeowners and cash-strapped states to their own devices, when they see Washington devise a health care “reform” that amounts to forcing insurance payments down their throats for the benefit of big companies, they are apt to explode in outrage and turn to the nearest vehicle for their anger, whether it be a small plane or the Tea Party movement.
And still progressive don’t get it. They continue to expect that if Obama can just pass “his” health care bill, any health care bill, if unemployment insurance can just be extended today, if Congress would just pass some banking regulation (again, any regulation), then Democrats will win in November to come back with more meaningful reform next year.
The faith of progressives is pathetic, in the end rather like the faith of those desperate nineteenth century believers, landless farmers and jobless artisans, who turned out over and over again for the Second Coming of Christ. Progressives are always expecting the Second Coming of the Democratic Party. They always insist that the system works, if only we (always we, the people) try harder.
Joe Stack gave up, but he wanted to take down a little of the system with him. He did, and he killed an innocent in the process. Not a pretty or admirable or heroic story. But Joe Stack’s crime and his failure are not simply dismissible as “terrorism.” No act of terrorism should be so dismissed. There is always something behind it that we ignore at our peril. Joe Stack points up the enormous frustration and anger of the American people, an anger directly, rightfully, directed at both government and corporations. An anger that points more profoundly to the failure of the system that progressives are seemingly so ready to defend. And it suggests just how broad is the constituency for fundamental change in this country. Progressives should join the outraged public, not write them off once again.