There was a revealing (and for Democrats, deeply foreboding) moment in Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential primary debate, quite apart from the shockingly bad, woefully unprepared, nearly moribund debut of Michael Bloomberg. It came when moderator Chuck Todd raised a question about a past Bernie Sanders statement from the fall, when he introduced a tax plan that his own economists said would reduce the fortunes of most billionaires by some two-thirds.
As reported in the New York Times, Amazon Founder Jeff Bezos’s fortune would shrink from $160 billion to $43 billion under Sanders’s plan. (Elizabeth Warren’s plan would allow Bezos to retain about double that: $87 billion.)
Asked at the time whether he thought billionaires should exist in the United States, Sanders said, “I hope the day comes when they don’t.”
Todd followed up on that Wednesday night in this exchange in which Sanders gave way to all the deepest suspicions regarding his seething anti-capitalism and more pointedly, his oft-pronounced disdain for great wealth.
TODD: Senator Klobuchar, I actually want to get you to say something about—Senator Sanders tweeted last year, “Billionaires should not exist.”
TODD: What say you?
KLOBUCHAR: I believe in capitalism, but I think our—the goal of someone in government and a president of the United States should be a check on that. I’m not going to limit what people make, but I think right now our tax code is so tilted against regular people and that is what’s wrong.
I was thinking of your question about small businesses. The small businesses I talked to, they have trouble getting employees because their employees don’t have childcare. We should have universal childcare.
And we have not been talking enough about Donald Trump and—let’s just talk about Donald Trump, because he signed that tax bill that helped the wealthy, and he went down to Mar-a-Lago and he said to all his friends, “You just got a lot richer.” That is Exhibit A.
And I can tell you, the hard-working people in Nevada were not in that room. So the key to me is to not limit what people can make, but make sure that we have a government that is fair for everyone.
TODD: So, Senator Sanders, what did you mean that you don’t think they should exist?
SANDERS: I’ll tell you what I mean.
TODD: What did that mean?
SANDERS: We have a grotesque and immoral distribution of wealth and income. Mike Bloomberg owns more wealth than the bottom 125 million Americans. That’s wrong. That’s immoral. That should not be the case when we got a half a million people sleeping out on the street, where we have kids who cannot afford to go to college, when we have 45 million people dealing with student debt.
We have enormous problems facing this country, and we cannot continue seeing a situation where, in the last three years, billionaires in this country saw an $850 billion increase in their wealth—congratulations, Mr. Bloomberg—but the average American last year saw less than a 1 percent increase in his or her income. That’s wrong.
TODD: Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?
BLOOMBERG: I can’t speak for all billionaires. All I know is I’ve been very lucky, made a lot of money, and I’m giving it all away to make this country better. And a good chunk of it goes to the Democratic Party, as well.
TODD: Is it too much? Have you earned too much—has it been an obscene amount of—should you have earned that much money?
BLOOMBERG: Yes. I worked very hard for it. And I’m giving it away.
So much packed into that exchange!
Now: I am not here to sing “Poor Jeff!” for Mr. Bezos and the paltry remnant of wealth at $43 billion that Sanders would permit him to retain. (That’s assuming Bezos wouldn’t deputize his accountants to figure out the quickest tax-avoidance schemes money and wiliness could buy.)
Nor to defend Bloomberg’s dubious assertion that “I earned it.” (Though in his defense, he preceded that statement with, “I’ve been very lucky.” But as Sanders reminded him in a followup: “Mr. Bloomberg, it wasn’t you who made all that money. Maybe your workers played some role in that, as well.”)
In the context of a bare-knuckle political campaign, the notion of taking measures to tax billionaires out of existence via Sanders’s ‘democratic socialism’ will come to have echos of Soviet communism rather than Denmarkism. Trump’s campaign will ferociously demagogue and exploit that point to a low information public.
And I understand and share Sanders’s revulsion to the cold current reality that sees hundreds of thousands of Americans sleeping on the streets and millions more barely hanging onto shelter, living in marginal circumstances a paycheck or two away from catastrophe. This while a leisure class of billionaires and multi-millionaires can’t even count the money they have and are awarded more of it all the time by capital gains taxes that are lower than working people pay on their actual labor, and by huge tax cuts for them and corporations as we saw in 2017 under Trump and the Republican Congress.
Those grim realities face us all. This is a question not strictly for the USA, either, even given the more radical disparities in wealth we see here compared to most other capitalist countries.
It is in a larger sense a question for all human beings: How do we countenance some of us living in (varying degrees of) luxury while millions of others around the globe starve? Are we not, to some greater degree than is currently manifest, our brother’s and our sister’s keeper?
This is a moral question first and foremost, and a political question only secondarily. Which is to say: politics has a role in the solution, but morality and its associated human traits of compassion, empathy and equity are what pose the question.
And while one would certainly hope that politics is never altogether separate from morality but is instead grounded in it, it is also true that moral considerations can be tangled and complex, needs and desires of different people vary, self-interest always intrudes to one degree or other on pure altruism, and politics, being an art practiced and jostled over by imperfect people, is an inherently imperfect vehicle at best to achieve moral ends.
Which means this with respect to Sanders’s claims on morality as a proud socialist: He should be applying to Yale Divinity School, where he can get to the serious, much needed work of tending to souls rather than elections and legislatures, because politically, his economic, taxation, and health care plans stand zero chance of ever seeing the light of day.
Furthermore, those plans, very much including the “billionaires shouldn’t exist” idea, will have these far-reaching impacts if he were to become the Democratic nominee: He would lose, and the country and larger world would then be subjected to the seemingly unendurable specter of another four years of the worst human being to inhabit the White House in American history.
Here’s the problem: Sanders’s heavily redistributionist tax policy and his pronounced aversion to great wealth goes against the foundational American myth of limitless horizons, unbridled freedom, and the self-made person who dreams big, overcomes obstacles and naysayers, and makes his or her fortune.
And by “myth,” I do not mean something false or of dubious importance, but instead a core idea and value that carries great weight in a person’s or nation’s self-identity.
The reality is that aside from a few monks and nuns pledged to poverty, everyone would like more money than they have, if only to have greater freedom to give vast swaths of it away, ala Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and their friends.
Accumulating and then giving is fun! (When one has an excess…)
Money built America and everything else in the world, after all, and Americans for the most part do not begrudge the wealthy their huge piles of it—both because they fancy the chance to make a lot more of it themselves, and the idea of “No Limits” and free-range entrepreneurialism is engraved so deeply in the American psyche.
We are, after all, the Land of Opportunity and Supersizing.
Now: Sanders is right about many things, and no one can deny his passion and energy for righting the many wrongs of income distribution in this country. Of course taxes should be higher on the wealthy, the working class should make a good rather than scraping-by wage, everyone should have health coverage, and money should be poured into childcare, education, infrastructure and all the rest, rather than keeping taxes low for corporations and billionaires.
Scores of wealthy people agree, including Bloomberg, Gates, and Warren Buffett. That much is indisputable.
In the context of a bare-knuckle political campaign, though, the notion of taking measures to tax billionaires out of existence via Sanders’s “democratic socialism” will come to have echos of Soviet communism rather than Denmarkism. Trump’s campaign will ferociously demagogue and exploit that point to a low information public, and the Sanders campaign’s curious, years-long ineptness to clearly and emphatically distinguish between his brand of Scandinavian socialism and the gulags of Russia will be the death knell for Democrats.
It will be as if Sanders has a permanent sandwich board hung tightly on wire around his neck:
I hate capitalism.
Which, unfortunately, he gives most every indication he does. That may be belied, however, by the fact that he and his wife have enjoyed more than a touch of capitalism’s rewards, something Bloomberg alluded to in perhaps his one good line the other night: “The best-known socialist in the country is a millionaire who owns three homes.”
For the record, Sanders and his wife have a reported net worth of approximately $2.5 million, not profligate by any means, but still…(Fortunately, none of his competitors, at least to my knowledge, has yet proposed that mere multi-millionaires “should not exist.”)
All of which begets the questions: How much money is too much? Should there be an upper limit, beyond which it should be capped and confiscated as Sanders is suggesting? Who decides?
Every inch of that discussion is a slippery slope, with any absolute caps running counter to American history and psychology from our very first days.
Final point: Has there ever been a more visibly, relentlessly angry politician than Bernie Sanders?
He shouts virtually every sentence from first to last in every debate, most of the time accompanied by hunched shoulders and pointing, gesticulating forefingers, just in case you don’t feel badly enough already about the horrible rich people and businesses he is inveighing against.
I’m of the mind to start hitting the mute button every time his speaking turn comes in future debates, relying on subtitles to grasp the content so I don’t have to listen to his haranguing tone set at only one volume level: “Loud.”
Anger can be a powerful tool in a politician’s arsenal, no doubt. Trump, far more malevolent, mendacious and bitter than Sanders, uses it masterfully to fire up his base, who are, however, having a good time as Trump toys with them and incites their laughter in ridiculing his enemies (which are legion, so his speeches tend to be long).
But no one besides the most ardent Bernistas can be having any fun being shouted at incessantly by an overamped, hoarse old man.
Where is the hope, the inspiration, the stirring rhetoric, the profound vision of a future Eden that is the deep backstory, the implicit foundation, to every political speech worth listening to today and waxing nostalgic about tomorrow?
“Fourscore and seven years ago…”
“The only thing we have to fear…”
“Ask not what your country can do…”
“I have a dream…”
With Sanders, we get over and over: “LAST YEAR THE PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRY MADE $100 BILLION IN PROFITS!!”
Railing, impugning, accusing, upbraiding, condemning: everything but lifting up.
It’s an essentially dark vision of revolution rather than transformation, payback rather than come-along, sticking it to the wealthy rather than ennobling the working class, at a time when the country is already awash, flooded even, in anger and enmity.
Besides which, America had a revolution already, and if Sanders thinks he can incite a second one leading us out of the hell of capitalism to the purity of socialism, he is sadly, tragically mistaken.
Wrong person, wrong idea, wrong tone, wrong time. I will vote for him if it comes to it, of course.
But I am terrified it would once again be in a losing cause.
A lamentation here for the disrupted legacies of JFK,RFK, MLK….
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Sanders photo by Gage Skidmore, Surprise, Arizona https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/
Wall St. bull by Stefano F https://www.flickr.com/photos/stefof/
“No Limits” graphic by Zayde Wolf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKBstPFnyMY
I’ll be brief. 1) Hooray, right on point. 2) those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it (the history here being as close as 4 years ago when Bernie cratered Clinton’s campaign) 3) the mirror image of Bernie on the left similar to tDump on the right, is spot on
Thanks for summing up most of the thoughts of the ERHS forum
Thanks, Moon. I would clarify only one point with respect to my own views: I don’t consider Bernie and Trump to be mirror images of each other. Bernie’s heart is in the right place; no one can really doubt his sincerity and conviction in wanting to make things better for more people. Trump, on the other hand, has no heart and no interest in anything other than stoking his ego and building his empire. It’s just that Bernie’s overt socialism won’t play across the heartland, won’t recapture the votes of former Obama voters who broke for Trump in 2016. Without them, the Dems are sunk, with the worst nightmare being winning the popular vote by even more than four years ago, but once again losing the electoral college.
Eloquently put on paper my thoughts. I had to smile when i read your description of Bernie’s. Hunched back, shouting, pointing and angry demeanor. He grated on me so ridiculously! I feel no hope or uplifting there! I’m deathly afraid if he gets the nomination that we will have 4 more trump years! That being said I’m not terribly confident in any of the others. I like Parts of several of them. I keep waiting for an inspirational lightning bolt to get me inspired in one of them!
I hear ya and feel your wanting that bolt of inspiration, Karen! I think if Pete were a 47-year-old straight guy with two terms as a governor or big city mayor under his belt, he would likely be that person for me, but I think his time is not quite here yet, nor is America’s in being ready for a gay president. (Though the mere fact of his strong candidacy is a huge step that we should be celebrating!)
Meanwhile…we wait, watch, and tremble…
Thanks Andrew, you captured with great clarity what many of us are thinking and the associated dread we are feeling. It seems that Warren is trying to re-brand herself as more than the female Bernie, clearly identifying herself as a capitalist and such… The income inequality issue is so profound and obvious however I see no way we will return to the 91% tax rates of the “good old 1950s GOP” under Ike – but there is a move in the Senate by Oregon’s Ron Wyden (see Geo. Will’s recent column in the Wash Post) to “treat wealth like wages” by taxing unrealized capital gains. Of course, this will never become law until Trump and his enablers are long gone and there is at least temporary Dem control of the Congress & White House. Something I hear far too little about is the down ballet problems with Bernie, especially for the 2018 flipped House districts as well as any possible chance of gaining traction in the “battleground” states. It is not just getting Trump out of office (clearly Job #1) but it is passing legislation to shore up all the holes he and his neo-fascist administration have either directly caused or revealed by being the first to challenge historical norms… So who heck to vote for???!! I am still on the fence!
Kevin, I think just about every Dem I know is on the fence, which suggests to me a tremendously fluid race, with all kinds of late-breaking action. Much more a toss-up, i think, than any sure thing that polling data might be suggesting at any given moment.
Yes, I didn’t even get to the down-ballot issue, which has huge consequences, just as you say. And from what I have read & heard, a lot of down-ballot Dem candidates will actively run away from Sanders, not wanting to risk being tarred with the “Socialist!” label.
At the moment, I suspect I could make up my mind on the last day—and then walk into the voting booth and change it!
Today, I feel a bit like statesman George F, Kennan now when he tried to explain his decision-making process. He wrote, “The fact is that one moves through life like someone moving with a lantern in a dark woods. A bit of the path ahead is illuminated, and a bit of the path behind. But the darkness follows hard on one’s steps, and envelops our trails as one proceeds.” At the moment, I’m stumbling around in this proverbial forest without a clear sense of where I’ll be on Super Tuesday. Bernie is loud, often annoying, always arm-waving but the candidate with the fattest donation wallet and momentum. Buttigieg is bright, articulate and speaks with such ease that one might believe he’s rehearsed every line. But can gay win in November? Biden, who many early on figured would have the best chance to defeat Trump, can’t raise money and too often appears lost explaining his positions. His Clarence Thomas moments are problematic. Bloomberg’s debate performance echoes the clash between the Iceberg and the Titanic; Bloomberg’s the boat. Amy, a moderate in moderate Minnesota, may appeal more to mid-America than the rest of the field but lacks money and charisma. Elizabeth, progressive enough and obviously well-schooled on the various issues, can’t break away from Bernie’s socialist shadow. There you have it. I’m like Kennan…it’s hard to see in the dark.
Robert, being the statesman rather than poet Kennan was, he didn’t quite have the economy of words of Paul the Apostle: “We see through a glass darkly.” But then Paul didn’t have Soviet world domination ambitions to contend with, among other 20th century headaches.
As I’ve mentioned to others, I’m as confused as anyone about the best/most meaningful vote to cast—might just have to do some sort of woo-woo seance and have a “spirit guide” move my hand to the right column come Super Tuesday. Then I can blame it for leading me astray if that candidate crashes…
Bravo, so well said, Drew! It’s a quandary — to vote for Bernie or not to vote if he should — God forbid — win the nomination. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it :-(
Oh, Susan, there was no bridge to cross there for me. If Sanders is the nominee, I will vote for him, as I would your lawn jockey or my geranium pot if they came out of the primaries with the most delegates to take on Trump. It is no less than a national emergency to get Trump out of office. On two issues alone (and I could name a hundred)—climate change and corruption—there will be a world of difference between anyone else (including Bernie) and Trump, in a way that makes our world better and relieves us of the spectacle and unsettledness that a 24/7 presidency of chaos and clamor bring. I would be happy to call you the night of Nov. 2 to buck you up, if that would help! :-)
No bucking up needed, I will vote for Bernie if he is the only Democrat name on the ballot opposite Trump!
O.K.! Had me worried there for a moment! Not that your vote as a Californian means all that much, unfortunately, since I believe the state’s votes are already officially lodged in the Dem column in the electoral college. Considered moving to purple North Carolina at all? Every vote matters here! :-)
Well this is thoughtful and well-reasoned, and underneath it all, really an emotional reaction based on how scary any loss to tRump would be….but after the debate this week, I felt more confident in Bernie as a candidate. He explained more than ever how he is using the term “socalist.” And it was very effective. I wish he had decided to say he’s a social Democrat – as the term is used all through Europe. But I don’t think it’s the big issue it would have been a decade ago.
“Trump’s campaign will ferociously demagogue and exploit that point to a low information public,” you said about Bernie’s brand of Socialism. First, I think Bernie will be smart enough to pick a VP who is young and more moderate. Second, I think the harranging, lies-and-hatred fueled machine of tRump will do that exact same thing to *any* candidate. We just know *where* his punch on Bernie will land.
I think Warren would be a better President; but I think Bernie is the best candidate to beat 45.
Hi Jeanette, I hope Bernie does a whole lot more ‘splainin’ & ‘splainin’ about that “socialist” albatross the Trumpies will be pounding him with, but I think you maybe have a more optimistic view that Americans in the heartland (where this election will be won or lost, methinks) will come around and understand it to mean social democracy rather One-Step-From-the-Gulag. I’m not at all confident the Trump propaganda machine won’t be smashingly successful in fanning the flames of that imagery.
As always in these and related matters where I am fearful, I hope I am wrong; I certainly was in 2016, when I thought Trump couldn’t possibly be taken seriously as a candidate. So perhaps I am mistaken again in short-changing the huge pent-up emotion there is from youth and disaffected adults regarding the current state of things, which will drive voter turnout as never before and make for a triumphant President Sanders.
That’s assuming, of course, that his current trajectory holds, and given from what I am seeing of the volatility that has marked this race so far, it is still just about anyone’s to win or lose, seems to me.
So very good to hear from you up in that corner of the world, as always.
2016 clearly demonstrated to many of us (certainly me) that the country we had known for so long changed much more dramatically than we would ever dare to imagine. We talk about “electability” in 2020 as if anyone thought a harebrained, misogynistic, law-defying, anti-constitutionalist candidate could be elected to the U.S. presidency. Sanders’ candidacy frightens me greatly; but not due to “electability.” He and his supporters concern me because they represent such a divisive, ideological position and inspire an “our-view-or-else’ posture. Elizabeth Warren recently shared with Lawrence O’Donnell that she has been consulting with Kamala Harris and Julian Castro about some of their ideas regarding health care, immigration, financial reform, etc. She effectively communicated the type of consultative and thoughtful information seeking that one should expect in a leader. I presume she would do the same with those from across the aisle. Stumbling in the dark with my lantern, Spence, I thought early on that I was headed toward Biden, then my lantern shined on Pete and Amy. After listening to Liz ruminate on consultation and the importance on getting things right as opposed to being right, my lantern now shines on Liz as a team builder a la Doris Kearns Goodwin take on Lincoln Team of Rivals tome.
One last thought to tie back to my first sentence in this post. Perhaps the change that we could not foresee in 2016 has picked up so much steam that core value American myths and values have fallen away; and that Bern has a sense of that. Caucuses and primaries to date indicate that he has grasped something that many of us have not.