This Is a Test

Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the ease with which the many are governed by the few.

— David Hume (Essays)

We’re being tested.  Republican politicians and pundits are busy testing the American public, trying to assess how ignorant and distracted we are.  While they already have a pretty good idea, they’re determined to get a precise reading.  Testing is vitally important to these people because, if the United States is to be turned into a plutocracy, our collective ignorance is an absolute necessity.

Republicans are aware that most of us don’t pay attention to stuff like history, government, and public policy.  They’re aware that basic facts and principles tend to elude us.  Some of that stuff is trivial, some isn’t.  Many don’t know that the population of the U.S. is almost 312 million, or that we have 535 congressmen and senators, or that women weren’t allowed to vote until 1920, or that state legislatures, rather than citizens, chose our U.S. senators until 1913 (with passage of the 17th amendment).  Some of this stuff is trivial, some isn’t.

Republicans already know that many middle and lower middle-class Americans don’t want to raise taxes on the rich because they’ve been conditioned to believe such a move represents the redistribution of wealth, and smacks of socialism or communism.  Despite the fact that Barack Obama would have been considered a “Rockefeller Republican” in 1974, people can still get away with referring to him as a “socialist.”  That’s because we’re being tested.

Although many people (including billionaire Warren Buffet) think it’s eminently fair to raise taxes on the rich, many still oppose it.  You ask people (I’m speaking of regular working people) if they think taxes on the rich should be raised, and a significant percentage will say no.  But when you ask if they think taxes on the rich should be lowered, they will also say no.

Apparently, they believe the tax structure is perfect, and that the rich are paying exactly what they should be paying.  But when you ask what that amount is—when you ask them to cite the highest tax rate—they can’t.  They haven’t a clue what it is.  They don’t realize that, at 35-percent, the marginal rate is the lowest it’s been in many decades, and that to be taxed at the maximum, you have to earn more than $379,150.  And that’s why we’re being tested.

We all remember, some time ago, hearing about that Tea Party delegate holding up a placard with the words, “Keep the government out of my Medicare!”  While the irony and ignorance revealed in those words were gist for much nighttime talk-show hilarity,  they were also terrifying.  That bizarre message revealed that we have people out there who approve of, and depend upon, government programs, but have no idea the government provides them.

I have a friend who describes himself as a “libertarian independent,” and who believes that there’s a good chance the 1969 moon landing was, in fact, a hoax.  Although he considers himself a genuine patriot, he hates the government and believes that virtually every elected official in Washington is a liar and a thief.

During a phone conversation, I pulled a prank on him.  Knowing how suspicious he was of political intrigue, I invented the story that the U.S. government had a secret plan to take us off the dollar, and put us on the yuan, China’s unit of currency.  I told him the plan was supposed to be top secret, but word had leaked out.  He became instantly energized by this news.  He was simultaneously outraged, inflamed, excited and utterly focused, as it reinforced every suspicion he’d ever had.

But when I confessed that I’d just made it up in order to demonstrate how gullible he was, the prank backfired.  Instead of taking a moment to step back and re-assess his personal biases, he said it didn’t matter that I’d made it up, because “it’s something that probably is being considered anyway.”  We’re all being tested.

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.