It’s not delivery, it’s disaster

Herman Cain’s popularity illustrates Americans’ misguided opinions.

By Ajay Ravichandran

Even though actual voters won’t have a chance to weigh in on the Republican presidential field until next year, the race for the party’s nomination has attracted a remarkable amount of attention (a recent debate drew a record 6.1 million viewers), much of which is likely due to the series of seemingly unpredictable shifts that have marked the contest thus far. The most recent and perhaps most surprising example of this trend is the rapid rise of former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain to frontrunner status—a recent average of major polls places him slightly above the previously dominant Mitt Romney. While it seems clear that a candidate with Cain’s thin political résumé could never win a major-party presidential nomination, this fact should not be taken as a reason to ignore his sudden popularity; thinking seriously about the roots of his appeal can actually teach us a great deal about the current state of the GOP.

An obvious place to begin is the role that Cain’s utter lack of experience in government has played in the race thus far. One might think that a candidate who had never been elected to any office would be hammered repeatedly by his rivals, but Cain’s frequent boasts that he is the only candidate who has never held a government job are in fact huge applause lines that put his career-politician opponents on the defensive. This dimension of Cain’s appeal reveals an important feature of the mindset shared by many Republican primary voters’: the depth of their opposition to the political establishment, in both the party and the nation as a whole. To see a candidate’s lack of experience as a qualification, one must believe that the current political system is so badly flawed that it needs not reform, but demolition.

While this anti-establishment anger could serve as a welcome corrective to the arrogance of elites if it were accompanied by a plausible policy agenda, another key aspect of Cain’s campaign suggests that the latter is unlikely to emerge. This is his infamous 9–9–9 tax plan, which would replace the current tax code with a flat tax of nine percent levied on personal income, corporate income, and consumption. The plan’s support among Republicans likely flows from the extreme manner in which it manifests two tendencies that pervade, to a certain extent, all of the candidates’ policy proposals. The first is an insistence that the nation’s current economic woes are the result of structural problems, such as the skyrocketing national debt and a flawed tax system, which are deterring private investment and must be addressed through long-term reform plans. The second is a growing concern with the supposed problem of low-income families who do not pay income taxes; Cain’s plan is notable for the extraordinary degree to which it shifts the tax burden from the wealthy to ordinary Americans by flattening tax rates and imposing a new tax on consumption, which represents a larger share of income for people who earn less.

The fact that the 9–9–9 plan has helped to boost Cain’s popularity so dramatically suggests that the anti-establishment turn taken by many Republican voters has led to a serious problem: By drawing them away from the political mainstream, it has led them to focus on issues which are irrelevant to most Americans’ actual concerns. The main issue that most voters are worried about is the immediate problem of mass unemployment. Most mainstream economists attribute this to weak consumer demand that stems from the difficulties of accessing credit generated by the recent financial crisis and the large amounts of personal debt accumulated over the past decade. It’s unclear how a radical and complex tax proposal that would need to be phased in over several years would make it easier for consumers to spend money now.

The fixation on the under-taxed working class, which underlies the plan, is even less responsive to the actual political situation. Even if one ignores the poor understanding of the facts which underlies this concern (most Americans who are exempt from the income tax pay other taxes, such as the payroll tax, and are likely to resent efforts to label them as freeloaders), focusing on abstract ideological concerns surrounding redistribution and progressive taxation while millions face the very concrete problems of joblessness and economic insecurity doesn’t seem like a viable approach to politics.

One might think that these points should only worry Republicans concerned about their party’s electoral prospects, but this would be a mistake for at least two reasons. The structure of our political system requires even parties with legislative majorities to cooperate with the opposition, so the existence of a major party which has no plausible solutions to important problems can pose a major obstacle to effective governance (as the last few years have shown). Furthermore, American liberalism will grow lazy and complacent if it does not have to constantly test itself against sharp conservative critiques. We should all hope not only for a halt to Herman Cain’s sudden rise, but also for the gradual disappearance of the attitudes that have made his popularity possible.

Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.