Maybe it’s not just the economy

19 Mar

Tennessee does not have a state income tax. In fact, it’s the figurative third rail of state politics, the surest route to electoral oblivion for any politician. For example: a once-popular Republican governor, Don Sundquist, left the governor’s mansion all but ostracized from the party for even mentioning it.

I’ve puzzled over that attitude for a long time because it’s been established that a state income tax would have a net benefit to the state (which near the nation’s bottom rung for education spending), it would be almost a wash on middle class tax burdens, and it would actually ease the tax burden on poor people. (I’ve lived in four states, two with and two without state income tax. Being severely middle class, our total tax bill in each place was roughly the same.)

Yet voters reject it time and again. The state legislature is even on the brink of passing a “no income tax, ever” amendment in the state constitution.

Why do Tennesseans vote against their own best interests, I’ve wondered.

One hunch I’ve had — no proof, no hard evidence, no studies to back me up, just a hunch from talking to people and listening to the no-income-tax rhetoric — is that Tennessee’s political history is steeped a screw-you attitude when it comes to governments.

Exhibit A: The Watauga Association, possibly the first attempt at an independent (read: rogue) government on American soil, illegal under British law at the time, was formed in what is now Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1772.

Exhibit B: What is now northeast Tennessee was almost the nation’s 14th state, the state of Franklin, an attempted breakaway from North Carolina, which in the 1700s stretched–in theory, anyway–over the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. A bunch of settlers didn’t like an attempted “land grab” by North Carolina legislators, not to mention the idea of their hard-earned dollars going back east over the mountains to Raleigh. So they petitioned and even shed blood to form a new state.

Underneath these stories is an idea: We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, even if it costs us. We’re independent. (Never mind that Tennesseans receive $1.27 in federal benefits for every $1.00 of federal taxes they pay.)

But Jonathan Haidt puts all this much more neatly and convincingly in an essay last week in the New York Times, “Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness” (March 17). He wasn’t talking about Tennessee and taxes; he has in mind a larger stage. But if the shoe fits, as the saying goes. The author’s name might ring a bell from a previous post.

I encourage you to read Haidt’s entire essay. Here’s an excerpt:

Despite what you might have learned in Economics 101, people aren’t always selfish. In politics, they’re more often groupish. When people feel that a group they value — be it racial, religious, regional or ideological — is under attack, they rally to its defense, even at some cost to themselves. We evolved to be tribal, and politics is a competition among coalitions of tribes.

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

This analysis may also explain why GOP voters generally aren’t thrilled with Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate, especially when compared with the followers of Rick Santorum—as well as Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann before him. Romney’s rivals have stirred up more enthusiasm, if not more votes, because they seem to tap into big themes (even at the risk of getting their facts wrong), while Romney tends to sound more like the very capable office executive he has been: steady but not exciting. (Remember the old cliche about “the one you date and the one you marry”?)

Just this week, Santorum said the election isn’t really about the economy, which seems like a crazy statement at first glance. But he’s trying to tap into a deeper well—something more “fundamental,” to use his word. Or maybe something “sacred,” to use Haidt’s.

Top photo: Jaime Dowell (Manifestation Nation)

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