Be More Like Pete

I’ve been in a long conversation with a Trump supporting friend who is convinced that Democrats in general, and the Warren/Sanders gang in particular, are intent on destroying the American ideals of free enterprise and individual responsibility. Toward the end of our time together he offered a parable to prove his point. I first heard it years ago. It doesn’t matter that it’s old, he said, the point is that it explains what left wing socialists, meaning all Democrats, are trying to do. So what does he believe Democrats, and especially Warren/Sanders are up to?

They want to redistribute wealth by taking it away from the top and giving it to the bottom, which they intend to do through uncontested legislation.

They approve of giving money to those who don’t work by taking it from those who do. He points to a few proposals to give everyone a minimum cash income as a plain example.

For him, all taxation is expropriation of what hard work has earned to pay for things he may not approve of. Some taxes are needed for essentials, of course, but they are few and must be limited. Moreover, taxpayers should have a vote on whether any taxes should be levied.

The pie is only so big; it can’t be expanded by dividing it, and that’s exactly what Democrats want to do.

The end point of Democratic plans is a society in which there is no point in working hard to become successful, so no one will and the whole nation dies.

It’s hard to argue against these assumptions if one’s mind is fixated on them and popular forms of right wing media provide constant reinforcement. He can easily point to the Warren/Sanders obsession with income and wealth inequality, and Warren’s wealth tax, as proof certain that his fears are justified. Some Warren/Sanders supporters add to the evidence with their emotionally charged diatribes against rich white people. My friend is a hard working guy who built his successful business up from very little. Now retired, he sees Warren/Sanders, their supporters, and the whole Democratic Party as threats to his future, and to the futures of others like him, whom he sees as the true builders and sustainers of communities. That he has succeeded with an abundance of government support is something only vaguely recognized, and he can recognize not at all that many others have been systematically denied the same benefits. That is the mindset against which the presidential race will be run. That is the mindset Trump will speak to in glowing terms of support, lying all the way and not caring one whit whether it’s obvious.

The powerful but more subtle dynamics of using tax, economic, and civil rights policy to expand the field of opportunity to people against whom the field has been tilted is not easy to explain. Using tax policy to discourage super incomes as fundamentally unjust, yet still permitting the accumulation of wealth, is even harder to explain.

Wealth redistribution can be taking from one and giving to another, and that’s what has been the result of policies that front load the economic system to benefit some while limiting or refusing equal opportunity for others. Redressing the injustice of it does not mean a retributive reversal. It does mean making policy changes that equalize opportunity, which will mean more broadly extending some benefits, and restricting or eliminating others.

It will upset the equilibrium of those who are favored by current policies, and no one likes their equilibrium upset if they believe the changes are not in their favor. Those who favor change have a choice: not give a damn how the opposition feels; or tell a new story that honors what is good in the old story. I strongly recommend a new story.

Part of the new story has to be the celebration of representative democracy where differences are worked out, where the executive doesn’t have the authority to do as he/she autocratically will. It has to reframe taxation as investments that will bear significant, knowable returns benefitting more people more equitably. It has to be rich with generosity of spirit and compassionate consideration for those who are the poorest and weakest. It has to be told without rancor. Finally, it has to avoid getting sucked into stupid arguments laid out as bait by trolls and their cousins. It cannot allow itself to be baited by Trump. When it comes to one-on-one campaigning, it has to speak only to the voting public, never to Trump, who must be treated as if he was a cardboard cutout of himself.

Of the current candidates, Buttigieg has done the best job of articulating what a new story might be, and his surprise Iowa finish is a measure of it. It seems unlikely he will be the nominee, but if Democrats expect to win, the nominee better learn how to be like Pete.

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