by Jennifer Harvey

Any news story on the  wrangling over the “fiscal cliff” yesterday inevitability invoked the name “Grover Norquist.” Norquist is the founder of Americans for Tax Reform. Last year 60 minutes described him “as the person most responsible, more than anyone else, for rewriting the dogma of the Republican Party.”

In the news was Norquist’s “Taxpayers Protection Pledge” which, up until this last election, had been signed by 95% of Republicans in Congress. Those who sign pledge to never vote for any tax increase. Ever. For anything.

There’s much more to be said about Norquist but this blog isn’t really about him.

So here’s the short version of what you need to know about Norquist’s role in the current standoff. Republicans who signed his Pledge have tied their own hands so tightly that despite their missionary zeal for tax cuts and low tax rates they can’t sign a deal that would allow tax cuts to stay in place for 98% of U.S.-Americans (and yes, even Democrats and Republicans agree that this is the percentage we are talking about) come January 1st. Most Republicans in Congress, at least at the moment, are saying they will take us over the fiscal cliff—a choice that means taxes go up for everyone and to the tune of about $2,000 for most middle-class families—in order to avoid “breaking their pledge.”

(Translation: they cannot compromise one iota because they have to protect unprecedented tax cuts from the Bush era for the tippy-top 2% of U.S.-Americans. And, attempting to compromise and engage in actual negotiations somehow means they have no principles because they will have “broken their pledge.”)

Many things struck me yesterday. One was my certainty that most citizens who voted for any of the Republicans involved in this debate are part of the 98% who stand to lose here. Another is that Republicans pride themselves as being the party of fiscal responsibility  gravely concerned about the deficit.

But, the thing that struck me most was that most reporting on the Pledge—aside from an awesome satire in The Onion—focused on which Republicans might break the Pledge, if having signed the Pledge means one is bound to it in subsequent terms in office, and whether the language of the Pledge leaves any wiggle room that would allow a legislator to make a deal having “violated the Pledge.” Norquist was everywhere. I even heard him on NPR’s Morning Edition where he was invited to give his take on precisely these issues.

Why are we hearing about the Pledge instead of about the people?

Norquist is not an elected official for whom any of us have had the chance to give an up or down vote. Norquist is not a political appointee made by any elected official. Norquist is just a citizen. He gets one vote. Just like you and me.

The real news story here is the full naked view of a democracy deeply at risk being put on display for all of us to see. The real news story is the implications for democracy when one (non-elected, non-appointed) person can make an entire political party—I don’t care if it’s Republicans or Democrats—beholden to himself.

I finally got so tired of listening to reports giving Norquist unquestioned legitimacy that I did something I haven’t done in a very long time. I called every single one of my congressional representatives.

You should too.

Norquist has money. But, money a mandate does not make. Citizens who participate give mandates. (And, don’t let bad analysis tell you that the last election was so close that there was no mandate. There was a mandate, and it was given on a host of issues—including taxes.)

I remembered yesterday that some analysts said there was so much hope in the air after Obama was elected in 2008 that citizens forgot Washington only works when we do. I remembered Michael Moore’s letter calling on Obama to—this time around—ask us (that is, citizens) to help. And, I heard Obama himself urge the people to make themselves heard in the halls of Congress.

I frenetically called my legislators almost daily in the lead up to the war in Iraq (I realize that abysmal failure may not be the best advertisement for calling this time around). But even though I felt devastated and furious when we invaded Iraq, I didn’t feel cynical. To me cynicism is apathy with the toxin of arrogance thrown in. The opposite of cynical is engaged. That’s how I felt during the period in which we invaded Iraq.

I felt the same way yesterday.

I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat, if you think the proposed tax cuts or hikes are a great or bad idea. I want us to recognize that this stalemate in Congress and a Pledge-to-a-lobbyist-being-given-hallowed-status-on-the-nightly-news is a moment that is all about you and me and our role as citizens.

Call your representatives. I’m not naïve enough to think a call is somehow enough. But I do know that not enough of us call. (And, let’s be honest, when I tell myself “a call isn’t enough” it doesn’t usually mean that I’m too busy doing more than that!) I also know that as I hung up the phone I realized I am the one responsible for whether or not Norquist’s voice is the only one that gets heard.

The good news is that cracks are starting to show. A few brave Republicans yesterday began to speak of “loyalties to their constituents” coming first—before some pledge. They need support from citizens.

Call your representatives. And, if you honestly believe that even the top 2% should be given huge tax cuts on January 1st—well, I’d love the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee, try to understand why you see it that way and explain why I disagree—but, in the meantime, you call your legislators too. Don’t let Norquist do it for you.

It’s time to roar.

Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.

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