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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Redistribution, Growth and Morality

At 538.com, Tom Schaller has taken on the task (using some of Jonah Goldberg’s loose utterances on “Tax Freedom Day” as a foil) of explaining that the total tax burden of Americans is relatively low as compared to residents European countries, and that U.S. tax and spending policies do very little to redistribute income from the top to the bottom.
I don’t know if Tom’s analysis will cut much ice with conservatives who typically think of Europe as a decadent socialist backwater, but his posts do raise some pretty important distinctions about conservative anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric and the popular attitudes they are designed to exploit.
Conservatives often make economic arguments for smaller government and lower taxes, based largely on the notion that government programs, taxes and regulations are essentially parasitical and thus drain resources and vitality from the wealth-generating private sector. These arguments, of course, are readily debatable through the use of empirical data on macroeconomic performance, and conservatives frequently struggle with the fact that some of the most explosive economic booms in U.S. history have occurred under “liberal” national management and in periods of high marginal tax rates (not to mention the economic success of more “socialist” countries).
But the kind of anti-governement, anti-tax arguments that are becoming especially prevelant today (particularly with the rise of the Tea Party Movement and its strong influence on the Republican Party) are essentially moral: government activity illegitimately redistributes income from virtuous people to less virtuous people, and its size and weight are eroding basic liberties. These arguments, obviously enough, aren’t immediately subject to empirical verification or repudiation. And being moral arguments, they tend to be invested with an emotional intensity that you don’t generally see in discussions of GDP growth rates.
I’m personally convinced that at the emotional heart of today’s most passionate anti-government sentiment is the belief that a coalition of rich elitists and shiftless underclassers–perfectly represented by the community-organizing Ivy Leaguer Barack Obama–are looting the virtuous middle class to bail out bankers and welfare-moochers alike. There’s unavoidably a racial subtext to this belief, but it’s certainly possible to hold it without any conscious racial sentiment at all; after all, most people who think of themselves as “virtuous” don’t find racism virtuous at all.
This belief has been fed by decades of conservative rhetoric about the “New Class” of unproductive elitists who hold bourgeois values in contempt, and who seek power via manipulation of favor-seeking poor and minority people. And now this anti-middle-class alliance seems to be running the country. Having wrecked the economy via profitable but fradulent mortgages given to uncreditworthy people, they’ve bailed themselves out and are now trying to hold on by bribing voters with still more goodies at taxpayer expense, from stimulus dollars aimed at maintaining public employment rolls to universal health coverage.
Many progressives view this belief system as too ridiculous to take seriously. After all, isn’t the demographic category most hostile to Obama in general, and to health reform in particular–white seniors–disqualified from anti-government feelings because of its dependence on (and fierce support for) Social Security and Medicare? Not necessarily. As I argued at the beginning of the health reform battle, most seniors view Social Security and Medicare as earned benefits, not as “welfare” or “redistribution” in any real sense. This, in fact, is the reality that progressive single-payer fans don’t quite grasp when they advocate “Medicare for all” as a can’t-miss political proposition. Many seniors would violently oppose making “their” Medicare benefits available to people who haven’t been paying payroll taxes for forty to fifty years, and who haven’t, more generally, proved their virtue by a lifetime of rules-observing and often unrewarding work.
So what can progressives do about this moral argument against government and taxes? It obviously would help to dissociate liberalism from corporate welfare in any form: to treat TARP and the auto industry bailouts as essential emergency measures rather than a permanent industrial policy, and to stress the public accountability via regulation that comes with government “aid.” More fundamentally, some educational efforts are clearly in order laying out the basic facts about the actual size of government and taxes, its actual beneficiaries, and the actual impact of conservative policies–the sort of educational efforts at which unions have excelled for so many years. It is helpful to explain to seniors that Social Security and (particularly) Medicare aren’t really self-financing forced savings programs or “earned benefits.” And the loonier conspiracy-theory arguments, such as the very popular but completely hallucinatory idea that “liberals” are conspiring to take away gun ownership rights, should simply be mocked as the fabrications they are.
But the broader effort must be to tear down the alienation of middle-class folk from government and liberalism, and build up a sense of solidarity with the national community as a whole, and with the people who need an active public sector to cope with the universal risks and pitfalls of contemporary life. Plenty of “virtuous” people are not treated very well by our economic system, and they look a lot more like middle-class Tea Party activists than like the well-heeled people (viz. the Young Eagles) richly rewarded by the Invisible Hand of the marketplace regardless of merit, whose economic ideology the Tea Party Movement has adopted.
Ultimately, progressives must convince as many Americans as possible that an active but accountable public sector is not antithetical, but is actually essential, to basic traditional values like “freedom,” and to a society in which individual “virtue” is understood as something to be enabled and expanded, not angrily defended as a fixed and endangered commodity. How we talk about “middle-class values,” not just on “cultural issues” but on core economic issues, will go a long way towards determining whether we can maintain the Democratic Party’s longstanding position as the party of the masses, not the classes.

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