U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ideology And U.S. Intellectual History: Or, What Does Grover Norquist Think About?

About a month ago I asked “Who’s In?” in an effort to explore both the hierarchy of intellectuals and the outer boundary of legitimate topics for intellectual historians. I was reminded of that post when I read a New York Times editorial today titled “Rethinking Their Pledge.”

I haven’t exactly been living under a rock, but I hadn’t attended to a name that came up early in the editorial: Grover Norquist (right). Norquist heads an influential conservative group called Americans for Tax Reform. That group authored the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge,” which guides Tea Party/conservative thinking about tax policy. Here is the substance of the House of Representatives version of the pledge (bolds mine):

ONE, oppose any and all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates for individuals and/or businesses; and
TWO, oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates.”

According to the NYT editorial, the pledge is creating controversy among Republicans, including Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a pledge signer (below, right). The problem is pledge point number two. He was loudly criticized by Norquist for violating that point by asking for an end to federal ethanol subsidies (a $5 billion annual tax credit) without simultaneously proposing a cut to government spending. In other words, Coburn has reached some sort of internal limit on how many programs he wants to cut. That limit apparently coincides with a ‘size’ of government that violates Norquist’s pledge; Coburn, then, is not a true conservative in the view of ATR pledge adherents. Here’s how the NYT summarized the situation:

“[Norquist’s ideological] purity finally ran into a tough-minded pragmatist in Senator Coburn. Though [Coburn’s] zeal to eliminate many worthy government programs is still excessive, he is right to see the wastefulness in the ethanol giveaway — and the extremism of Mr. Norquist’s position. Senator Coburn’s spokesman has even described Mr. Norquist as ‘the chief cleric of Sharia tax law.’ “

I have never heard of Coburn described anywhere else as a pragmatist (read: practical-minded politician), but that is probably reflective of my ignorance of his biography and recent work. What interests me most, however, is how Norquist’s idea of tax policy and the ATR pledge have somehow risen to the plane of dogmatic, faithful adherence. From where—exactly—did this ideology come? The California tax revolts of the 1970s?

An Internet search for Norquist revealed only one reasonably solid source of information apart from his own writings and affiliated organizations: Wikipedia. My personal intellectual signal for a strong Wikipedia page closely correlates with the number of references given. This is not full-proof, but it’s a signal. The Norquist page has 45 citations. The best I have seen is the page for Rush Limbaugh, which currently has 158 citations. Nice.

I was most fascinated with the portion of Norquist’s Wikipedia biography that correlates with the formation of American for Tax Reform (quoted as of 9 am this morning):

“Norquist is best known as the founder of Americans for Tax Reform in 1985, which he did at the request of President Ronald Reagan.[17] The primary policy goal of Americans for Tax Reform is to reduce the percentage of the GDP consumed by the federal government.[8][18] ATR states that it “opposes all tax increases as a matter of principle.”[19] Americans for Tax Reform seeks to curtail government spending by supporting Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) legislation[20] and transparency initiatives,[21] and opposing cap-and-trade legislation[22] and Democratic efforts to overhaul health care.[23]

In 1993, Norquist launched his Wednesday Meetings series at ATR headquarters, initially to help fight President Clinton’s healthcare plan and eventually becoming one of the most significant institutions in American conservative political organizing.[14]”

If we can momentarily take Wikipedia at face value, it appears that future historians and current scholars of the conservative movement will have to reckon with ATR’s history and Norquist’s biography.

That said, I was most interested in the Reagan citation from line one from this excerpt. Source [17] takes you to ATR’s “About us” page. I find this intriguing because the current line of thinking about Reagan seems to me to be—I offer no specific source here—that Reagan was more rhetorically conservative in terms of tax and fiscal policy than he was actually. That may have been a practical position in the face of an obstinate Congress. I would be happy to hear from Reagan scholars on this. It may also be the case that that Norquist is fibbing somewhat about his inspiration? If he isn’t, then it seems clear that Reagan’s fiscal/tax ideology was stronger than is currently in vogue to discuss.

Returning to questions about the line between who is, and is not, a legitimate object of intellectual history, it seems, in the case of Norquist, that it will take some kind of an intellectual-historical study to determine the final answer. Unless one works from the premise that obvious philosophical complexity, evidenced from the strength of one’s publications and orations, determines the legitimacy of study, there is no easy way to determine, up front, whether an inquiry into Norquist’s intellectual background would yield fruitful results. I suppose one would approach the subject with idea that an article (short or long) would be the final product, and then be surprised if the results turned out otherwise.

Does the power of one’s ideology—evidenced by its number of adherents, or the political power of those adherents—legitimize intellectual inquiry, in the form of a “history of ideas” study? I think the answer has to be yes. – TL

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I wonder if this still happens (this “Con-Intern” story is now over 10 years old, but still seems relevant):

    Carlson describes Norquist’s weekly Wednesday morning meetings, where conservative-movement activists, political strategists, congressional staffers, and conservative journalists who are deemed loyal, from places like the National Review and the Washington Times, gather to hash out what can only be called the party line.


  2. Norquist thinks about Reagan:

    The Reagan Legacy Project was formed in 1997 as a project of Americans for Tax Reform, a national taxpayer advocacy organization, itself started in 1986 to promote President Reagan’s historic Tax Reform Act of that year. Grover Norquist heads this project.

    The mission of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project is to honor the legacy of our 40th president, Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Legacy Project aims to fulfill its mission by naming significant public landmarks after President Reagan in the 50 states and over 3,000 counties of the United States, as well as in formerly communist countries across the world.


  3. David Brock’s *Blinded by the Right* paints Norquist as an “anti-communist, anti-statist” who quotes Lenin and reads Gramsci and is pretty theatrical … You often hear the refrain from conservatives “take back the culture” — I wonder if that’s a paraphrase of Gramsci’s “capture the culture” …

  4. JJ: Thanks for the comments. Though Brock’s books was published in 2003, it’s not cited on the Wikipedia page. Someone should insert that—or attempt to—to see if the Wikipedia editors let it fly. Otherwise, thanks for the Brock reference. The “anti-communist” part is interesting. So perhaps Norquist’s future biographer will have to explore the paradox of having a win-the-Cold-War mindset while limiting the ability of the state to operate via its funds. On the other hand, it’s perfectly consistent with the neoconservative/New Right prioritization of defense spending (hence the Tea Party budget doesn’t touch the Dept. of Defense). …That Reagan Legacy Project is quite interesting. I suspect Andrew Hartman’s coming book on the Culture Wars will add something to the New Right with regard to its history priorities in education (remembering history the Right Way). – TL

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