Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) wrote some good books and made some good money from them. Now, a band of filthy rich critics and their media enablers are having a field day questioning his integrity because of his bank account. “Can He Still Speak for Working-Class Americans?” asked a recent Washington Post headline. Bloomberg News “congratulated” Sen. Sanders for his wealth before challenging him to “say something constructive” about wealthy people.
Even well-funded Democratic party-connected outlets like ThinkProgress (which presumably should know better) have gotten into the act with quips like, “The one-percenter hopes no one notices that he’s moved up in the world.” It is difficult to find something more cynical than mainstream liberals co-opting the language of the Occupy movement to falsely denigrate a lifelong progressive activist, but that’s the world we live in now. The filthy rich and their collaborators get the joke: It’s a take-down, not an argument.
I have three words in reply: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
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FDR would be a billionaire if he and his money were teleported to the present, yet in his day he shepherded into existence programs that not only served working people, but saved them from the voracious maw of capitalism.
If you allow a ravenous beast like capitalism to have the run of your yard, you accept the premise that there will be winners and losers in the equation. If you are to have an intact soul, accommodations and protections must be in place to protect those who don’t strike it rich or inherit Great-Granddad’s undertaxed bankroll. Those protections include financial industry regulations along with a broad social safety net, and we have sustained this society by investing in some (though not nearly enough) of those protections by way of taxes.
This is not a pro-capitalism argument, but a recognition of the present reality. Hell, even the capitalists are running scared from the monster they have created. The Post ran a remarkable article over the weekend about Silicon Valley billionaires literally living in fear of torches and pitchforks outside their gated manors. “For decades, Democrats and Republicans have hailed America’s business elite, especially in Silicon Valley, as the country’s salvation,” writes Greg Jaffe, the author’s article. “Government’s role was to stay out of the way. Now that consensus is shattering.”
“Realizing people hate your guts has some value,” says Chris Larsen, a billionaire quoted in the article. Rep. Ro Khanna (D – California), co-chairman of the Sanders for President campaign, seeks out people like Larsen; Khanna represents the Silicon Valley district where many of today’s tech billionaires reside. “Without an intervention,” reads the article, “[Khanna] worried that wealth would continue to pile up in Silicon Valley and anger in the country would continue to grow.” Part of that intervention, for Khanna, involves working to make Bernie Sanders president.
Before FDR, protections for working people in the U.S. were thin gruel. Getting old usually meant dying in poverty and pain. Your boss was God, whose absolute power gave him control over whether your family ate and had shelter. FDR’s solutions were not an all-encompassing panacea by any stretch of the imagination; with its overtly racist restrictions on employment, housing and agricultural opportunities, the New Deal was no deal for a great many Black people in the U.S. FDR’s policies, passed in large degree by placating racist Southern members of Congress, represented a first step that was later improved upon significantly, thanks to the civil rights movement and other activist progressive endeavors.
Things were better, for a while, until the rich decided they didn’t have any responsibility to participate in supporting the people doing the hard work that allowed for their massive profits. That’s the truly galling thing about so many wealthy people today: the way they like to crow about “doing it themselves” as an excuse for not paying proper taxes.
They use federally funded highways and federally protected airways. A significant number of their employees were educated at state schools and/or by way of federally funded student loans, as were they themselves in many instances. They are served by state and locally funded fire services. Their tax-funded streets get cleared by tax-funded plows when it snows. Their trash gets picked up every week by tax-funded municipalities. They don’t die by the score at intersections because people stop at tax-funded traffic lights. Their corporations get taxpayer-funded government contracts, and when they run their too-big-to-fail companies into the ground, they get taxpayer-funded government bailouts.
But “they did it themselves,” so screw paying taxes. The truth too many of them refuse to face is the simple fact that they made it to where they are thanks to people before them paying their fair share in taxes to facilitate that advancement, and now that they’ve reached the pinnacle, they use their resources to pull the ladder up behind them so no one else can follow. Even worse are those who inherit vast wealth and act as if they earned it and owe society nothing for the privilege that was created with the sweat and toil of others, workers who pay their taxes because they can’t afford not to. This is selfish “King of the Hill” behavior which erroneously conflates unrestricted capitalism with democracy to the ultimate detriment of everyone but them.
And now, these are the people training their fire on Senator Sanders because he actually earned, through a life of work and the power of his mind, enough to qualify for the millionaire’s club. Calling him a “one-percenter” is to deliberately miss the point of Occupy, and to further miss the point of what Sanders has been arguing over the entire course of his adult life.
Senator Sanders, for his part, is not capitulating to this cynical nonsense. “I didn’t know that it was a crime to write a good book which turns out to be a bestseller,” he told a community gathering in Gary, Indiana, last week. “My view has always been that we need a progressive tax system which demands that the wealthiest people in this country finally start paying their fair share of taxes. If I make a lot of money, you make a lot of money, that is what I believe.”
FDR, along with the union revolution and grassroots organizers who pushed long and hard for a more economically just society, created a robust middle class by sheathing the sword of Damocles hanging over everyone not named Rockefeller. He used tax money to do it, and the country evolved. “We know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob,” he said in 1936. It was as true then as it is now.
And, to reiterate, FDR was stinking rich. Yet he was possessed with two qualities all too absent in many of today’s wealthy elites: 1) An understanding that we are, in fact, responsible to and for each other’s well-being to the fullest extent we are capable of; 2) An enlightened self-interest that knows providing help for hungry, sick, poor, homeless, disabled and elderly people makes everyone safer, smarter and more free. FDR did not lack for glaring flaws – he refused to endorse his wife Eleanor’s campaign to outlaw lynching for fear of alienating white Southern voters, for one example. But many of his New Deal policies and the changes they demanded were necessary then, and necessary now.
Senator Sanders seeks to halt the rollback of FDR’s programs, and then he wants to expand them using taxes from moneyed people like himself. He is volunteering to deflate his own bank account in the service of others, and will see other rich people required to do the same if he gets his way. Certain wealthy Americans think he must be punished for this terrible crime against our financial superiors, and so we have these headlines questioning his integrity and commitment to progressive change because he wrote successful books.
It’s a shabby argument from shabby people. Remember, FDR was despised as a traitor to his class by the wealthy elite of his time, a number of whose progeny are the wealthy elite of our time. Though he famously welcomed their hatred then as Sen. Sanders does today, the hatred for FDR ran so deep that a cadre of rich Wall Street brokers bankrolled an attempted fascist coup against the U.S. government in 1934. These were not European fascists, mind you, but moneyed made-in-the-USA fascists who didn’t want to pay taxes.
Sound familiar? History rhymes.