Anyone who wants to understand how politics actually works in this country should consider two apparently unrelated issues: gay marriage and the estate tax.
It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that the activist core of the Republican Party defines itself by opposition to gay marriage. The party's base is dedicated to the idea that much of our culture is godless and decadent, and that to legalize gay marriage would be a big step toward making the United States indistinguishable from Sodom and Gomorrah.
As for the Democrats, for the past 75 years the party's message to its faithful has been that government by Republicans means government by and for the rich, and that without the organized resistance of the Democratic Party, America's robber barons and corporate overlords will steal everything that isn't nailed down.
Thus nothing could symbolize everything that Democrats are supposed to oppose better than an attempt to eliminate a tax that's paid only by multi-millionaires.
How then can one explain the apparent paradox that these two initiatives are achieving political success? Despite the fact that Republicans control the government, federal attempts to block the drive to legalize gay marriage are failing badly.
And even though eliminating the estate tax will transfer wealth from more than 99 percent of the populace to a tiny slice of the richest Americans, the attempts to do so seem certain to largely or wholly succeed, eventually.
The explanation for these paradoxical outcomes is that, while the respective bases of the Republican and Democratic parties remain committed to certain traditional principles, the elites of both parties actually have much more in common with each other than they do with the vast majority of Americans.
The bait and switch the Republican elites pull on their culturally conservative base has become an election year tradition. Time and again, voters are promised rollbacks on what they see as the epidemic of cultural decadence represented by abortion, affirmative action, gay rights, and pornography. Yet, what these voters end up getting are tax cuts and economic deregulation.
In regard to the issues cultural conservatives care most about, putting Republicans in control of the federal government has been a complete failure. After a generation of gradually increasing Republican power, America still has some of the world's most liberal abortion laws, affirmative action is fully institutionalized, pornography is far more easily available than ever before, and now marriage itself is under assault from what conservatives consider radical cultural forces.
What's less commonly noted is that a similar thing has happened on the left of the political spectrum. Democratic politicians, who are supposed to be devoted to the interests of ordinary working people, have put up very little resistance to the destruction of the labor movement, gigantic tax cuts for the rich, and various other initiatives that have greatly increased the gap between the elites and everybody else.
What the Republican elites really care about is making sure that as much money as possible flows into their bank accounts. To placate their base, they're willing to make sympathetic noises about issues like abortion and gay marriage, but when push comes to shove they either don't care very much about those issues, or, in many cases, they themselves hold liberal views on such matters.
Conversely, what the Democratic elites really care about are cultural issues. They may cluck their tongues about the destruction of another labor union, but what they're actually willing to fight for are things like liberal abortion laws and gay marriage. And, truth be told, they don't find big tax cuts for the rich that distasteful, for reasons which are obvious when one considers that they come from the same economic class as their Republican counterparts.
Hence we'll soon be a nation in which the rich gay married couples will pay no estate taxes.
Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado. Email to: Paul.Campos@)Colorado.edu.
© 2006 Daily Camera and Boulder Publishing, LLC