Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2012. (AP File Photo)

When members of Congress vote for something unpopular, we applaud their courage. Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, recently displayed courage by voting for something popular.

Since when is that hard for politicians? According to a just-published paper, for Republicans the answer appears to be: when what the public wants is not what Grover Norquist wants.

The background: In an April vote forecasting trouble come “Taxmeggedon” — the moment, after the November election, when Congress must choose between extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich or raising taxes on everybody — Collins was the only Republican senator to vote for the “Buffett Rule.” Seven in 10 Americans favored this Obama-backed bill, which would set a minimum tax of 30 percent on millionaires. A majority of Republicans favored it. Only Tea Party members were opposed.

The Republican senators gave plausible reasons for rejecting the Buffett Rule. It would cost jobs, barely cut the deficit, and never pass the Republican House. In short, the bill was meant not to become law but to make Republicans cast a tough vote.

Why tough? Because, Stanford’s Michael Tomz and Berkeley’s Robert Van Houweling write in “Political Pledges as Credible Commitments,” 41 of the 47 Republican senators had signed Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge, and “signatories would almost never find it politically optimal” to break their promise to never, under any circumstances, raise taxes without equivalently cutting other taxes.

Any circumstances? Stephen Colbert asked Norquist in 2011. What if terrorists kidnapped our grandmothers and were holding them in an underground burrow? What if the terrorists were “going to release fire ants into this burrow who’ll bite our grandmothers to death unless we increase the marginal tax rate on the top 2 percent of Americans?”

“I think,” Norquist mordantly replied, “we console ourselves with the fact that we have pictures and memories.”

The authors tested “the electoral power of Norquist’s pledge” during the 2011 debt ceiling debate, when the Republicans refused to allow new borrowing unless President Obama drastically cut spending. The president insisted on spending cuts and tax increases. With Standard & Poor’s threatening to lower the government’s credit rating unless Congress acted, Washington was paralyzed.

At the height of this national crisis, the authors asked survey respondents to choose between anonymous senators, one of whom had taken the pledge but, in a context in which he could claim to be saving the republic from bankruptcy, broken it.

The results reveal a poignant craving for integrity among Americans, for even respondents who wanted cuts-and-taxes deemed the senator who agreed with them but broke the pledge “dishonest, immoral … spineless.” That is, even the putative Democrats in the survey saw breaking the pledge as a “character issue.”

For politicians, overcoming the odium of promise-breaking is all but impossible: “In the most likely general election scenario, pitting a pledged Republican against an unpledged Democrat, breaking the pledge would hurt the Republican’s electoral chances unless nearly all voters (98%) wanted higher taxes.” Only 73 percent favored the Buffett Rule, well below the threshold of safety for a Republican to defy the Norquist Rule.

What gave Collins the political courage to beard Norquist’s enforcers — with a moral public that stigmatizes as untrustworthy politicians who break their word — and vote to raise taxes on millionaires? Having refused to sign the pledge, she was immunized against the “character issue” of breaking it. Once, her comment on the pledge to Norquist — “I pledge allegiance to the flag and the Constitution, and that’s it” — would not have made one want to cheer.

In private life good men and women keep their promises. But Max Weber would tell voters that they go wrong applying that standard to public life. Responsible only for themselves, civilians can afford to live by absolutes. Politicians follow a different code, practicing what Weber called “an ethic of responsibility” to the polis. Politicians measure the good by results, not moral consistency. For Weber, a politician worthy of the people’s trust would consider it a good day’s work to break his word to preserve the “full faith and credit” of the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Larry Merriam

    This is the most devisie man in America.
    Sign the petition to register your opposition to Grover Norquist at

  • vito33

    How easy life must be for these pledge signers! Whenever a contentious or merely complicated issue is on the floor, they don’t have to cogitate, debate, or compromise. They can just open up their ‘pledge folder’ and find out what they think.

    So simple, even a Congressman could do it!

    And this article seems to state that most voters think that that kind of robotic rigidity is a GOOD thing. (Even in a case when the original pledge promise is clearly inappropriate.)

    This is not ‘integrity seeking’ behavior. It is shallow, fear-ridden and dangerous.

  • ScrappyT

    This is the government we deserve. The public is too lazy or too stupid to understand nuance and compromise. I am not saying that this is a new phenomenon, I was not around in the good/bad old days so I don’t know what it was like and will not attempt to harken back to some idealized past. However, today people get their news from places that are heavy on opinion and light on fact. People find it easier to label someone a “socialist” or a “fascist” rather than spend time pondering the ins and outs of tough decisions.

  • kelty

    How’s about this – don’t sign a pledge that interferes with your ability to do your job for the American Public who pays your salary.

  • J__o__h__n

    I hope we can look forward to more essays from Jack Beatty! On Point should have him on more than once a week.

  • Guest

    Look at the educational level of those elected to Congress today. In the past, we had some assurances that our Congress-people had college degrees. Now look at the Tea Party and some others who never went to one day of college and you will see why we have a dysfunctional government, where people sign blind pledges. A “behind the door” or “underground” government by the Republican Party is being ignored by most; journalist and citizen, alike.

    Do they know The Square of Opposition? Then have can they determine the validity of an argument? Have they studied Logic or Symbolic Logic? These are basic functions of government since long before the Pilgrims knew of far off lands. Today, our legislators know nothing to little of the history or the methods of our founding fathers.

    Jack Beatty, are there any journalists that know these rules of logic and can write an essay explaining the corruption and ignorance of today’s Congress? I thank you for possibly beginning this search like the days of Walter Cronkike and Peter Jennings.

    Keep digging and dig deeper!