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An old but still potent critique has re-emerged in American politics, one that holds concentrated wealth, and perhaps American capitalism itself, as inimical to the democratic society we want to build.
The basic idea holds capitalism as at best an uneasy partner with our democratic values. At worst, it erodes them completely, undermining the social and material basis of republican citizenship as envisioned by the American revolutionaries.
Since the start of the new year, this thinking has become especially prominent. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, came out in favor of high marginal tax rates on the rich, arguing last week that “a system that allows billionaires to exist” while others live in extreme poverty is “wrong.”
This thinking is also present in a new proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to tax the nation’s largest fortunes. The plan, which would impose an annual 2 percent wealth tax on fortunes greater than $50 million and a 3 percent tax on ones greater than $1 billion, is geared as much toward protecting democracy as it is toward raising revenue. It’s an attempt to arrest the many types of economic inequality that threaten political equality — the ability of everyone to have something like an equal say in the democratic process.
Most Americans tend not to think of these egalitarian (even anti-capitalist) sentiments as part of the nation’s intellectual heritage. But Warren, Ocasio-Cortez and similarly situated politicians like Bernie Sanders are drawing on influential currents in American political history.
America invented progressive taxation. And there was a time when leading American politicians were proud to proclaim their willingness to tax the wealthy, not just to raise revenue, but to limit excessive concentration of economic power.
“It is important,” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, “to grapple with the problems connected with the amassing of enormous fortunes” — some of them, he declared, “swollen beyond all healthy limits.”
Today we are once again living in an era of extraordinary wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, with the net worth of the wealthiest 0.1 percent of Americans almost equal to that of the bottom 90 percent combined. And this concentration of wealth is growing; as Thomas Piketty famously argued in his book “Capital in the 21st Century,” we seem to be heading toward a society dominated by vast, often inherited fortunes.
So can today’s politicians rise to the challenge? Well, Elizabeth Warren has released an impressive proposal for taxing extreme wealth. And whether or not she herself becomes the Democratic nominee for president, it says good things about her party that something this smart and daring is even part of the discussion.
Unlike Donald Trump, the former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz is a genuinely successful businessman who built a company that’s become part of the daily lives of people across America. For this, those of us who are horrified by Trump’s relentless grifting should be grateful. It gives us something concrete to boycott should Schultz decide to launch a narcissistic spoiler campaign for president.
In an interview with Scott Pelley on “60 Minutes” on Sunday, Schultz decried “extremes on both sides” and said he’s considering a run for president as a “centrist independent.” He hasn’t yet made up his mind, and perhaps the overwhelmingly negative reaction from almost all segments of the Democratic Party, as well as some NeverTrump Republicans, will dissuade him. There’s a danger, though, that the reality-distorting effects of being a billionaire will warp his judgment, convincing him that his business acumen is transferable to the realm of politics. If so, he could end up helping Donald Trump get re-elected
So, having won round one so resoundingly, what should the Democrats do next about the wall?
One thing: Remember that this is Donald Trump’s problem. And Mitch McConnell’s, and Kevin McCarthy’s (who? The House minority leader). They’re the ones who are trying to push a minority position down the country’s throat. The president in particular, of course. But majorities of Americans are against the wall and always have been. So let Trump turn that around, if he can.
It’s worth chortling again for a few paragraphs over how ridiculous and weak they made Trump look. Remember, this is a man who spent years, going way back before he started campaigning in 2015, saying over and over and over how easy being president would be. Bring the Chinese to heel? Very easy. Make Middle East peace? Please. Get Mexico to pay for the wall? Piece of cake. He’s been saying these things in books and television appearances for years.
I can’t imagine who believed him—and if anyone out there was a big enough idiot to do so, that’s their problem. But the point is that he believed it. He actually thought being president would be easy (and the way he does it, watching TV for hours a day and calling Sean Hannity and ignoring 95 percent of what the government under him does, it sort of is, but that’s another matter).
For two years, it was kind of easy. But in January, he met reality.
The contest for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination seemed to have little relationship to the madness that engulfed the nation’s capital over the government shutdown. But there is a much closer relationship between the Washington meltdown and the campaign than you might think.
You also hear a lot about Democrats veering left. This, too, misses the point.
What we’re actually seeing is a shift in the intellectual energy of American politics. This is the lesson of the disarray in the Republican Party, and the ultimate capitulation of President Trump in the shutdown fight he initiated. Trump’s decision to close the government in the vain pursuit of an essentially meaningless goal showed a party and ideological movement lost in the wilderness. [..]
Trump has asked his blue-collar loyalists to live on a diet of rhetoric and empty symbols — the border wall being Symbol No. 1. Trump’s deteriorating poll numbers showed that all but the most extreme of his supporters were losing faith in his project.
In the meantime, liberals and the left have absorbed key lessons from the Trump insurgency. One of them is that a progressive movement seen as speaking primarily for affluent metropolitan areas will never command a durable majority. Another is that there is room for bolder political thinking given the discontent in the country with unevenly shared economic growth.