In politics, as in life, there is a major distinction between “I” and “we.” And because “you” can be both singular and plural, the gulf between “I” and “we” is often glossed over without a mention. However, it is time that America took stock of what it is doing to its national character by so often ignoring the distinction between “I” and “we” in the intense debate about the nation’s future.
Every four years in America’s seemingly endless presidential election scheme, pundits trot out the old Ronald Reagan notion of whether or not “you” are better off now than you were four years ago. What does that mean and who exactly is the “you” in question? It is likely that Reagan was trying to speak to each of us as the singular “you.” And it is also likely that most who use the phrase today as some kind of voter test question are seeking a singular “I” answer — yes I am or no I am not. Furthermore, what does “better off” mean?
Can the Democratic Party Unite Behind Bernie Sanders?
Trump and his acolytes rely on the narrowest version of “I.” The question seems directed at each individual who has money in play in the stock market, owns real estate or is trying to decide between a new Bimmer and a new Benz. In Trump world, “better off” is understood to mean economically better off. Trump will trumpet his tax breaks and a rising stock market as a win for him, his wealthy friends and family members, and each of the rest of us with money in play. Sooner or later, we are certain to see Ivanka Trump assure us that she is better off.
Reagan used the pronoun “you” to cover the same ground that Trump and his acolytes want to cover this time around. But what if we make a simple change in syntax — substitute “we” for “I” and use “you” in its plural form. Once done, the focus can shift to what “better off” actually means if we are talking about more than one individual. Then we can talk about collective character instead of individual character, collective greed instead of individual greed and collective well-being instead of individual well-being.
This simple shift in focus completely reshapes the debate about a nation’s priorities. If a key measure of prosperity is the number of three-car garages in a locality, it tells us that the “I’s” have it. On the other hand, if a key measure of prosperity is the overall access to affordable transportation options in a locality, “we” are better off with less three car garages and more buses.
In this space not long ago, I wrote:
“If all that matters in today’s America is the amount of money in your pocket, your bank account or your stock account, Trump will win reelection. However, if the Democrats can make it mean something else, something different, something more than Reagan meant, there may be a path to reversing the cynical undermining of governance that further paves the way for only greed and corruption to triumph.
Maybe the nation needed Trump’s callous immorality to see Reagan’s words in a communal context that neither Reagan nor Trump intended, that each of us is only ‘better off’ if those around us are ‘better off.’ That a communal conscience can feed the soul in ways that individual economic excess never will.”
The Appeal of Bernie Sanders
If you are looking for a way to explain the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders, maybe it has a lot to do with his appeal to those in America who have long sought an actual national commitment that matched the nation’s American exceptionalism propaganda. Before dismissing Sanders as a cranky old guy who has a lifelong commitment to a more just and egalitarian society that resonates with a few kids, try thinking about Bernie as a cranky old guy who is committed to us, to the “we” and to the plural “you.”
If you do that, maybe you can begin to comprehend that there just might be an America out there with lots of people who care about those around them, who care about the sick, the homeless, the under-educated and the quality of life in the communities in which they choose to live. This is Bernie’s audience, and it appears to be growing. It is an audience that increasingly believes in the spiritual wealth that springs from a collective conscience. That audience has a voice, a leader — and that leader is Bernie Sanders.
As for “socialism,” there may be more people than you think who have figured out that a form of “socialism” has worked out so well for the wealthy that it might now be a good time to give it a try for the rest of us. That mortgage interest tax deduction is a housing subsidy for those who own a home and borrow to do so. The more you can borrow, the more taxes you can claw back from the government based on that borrowing power. But understand that a housing subsidy for the wealthy is no less of a subsidy than a housing subsidy for the poor would be to supplement a rent payment.
Farm subsidies are just that, government subsidies, the government determining that your tax dollars should be spent on assisting farmers in need. If these decisions are made fairly with solid guidelines (and not just a giveaway to wealthy agricultural corporations), the same logic should apply to government programs to help the sick, the homeless and the under-educated. Likewise, tax “breaks” that allow both wealthy individuals and huge corporations to avoid taxes are also government subsidies, and the capital gains tax “break” subsidizes investment income over ordinary income.
While there is surely much more to discuss on this latter topic, the commentariat echo chamber of anti-socialism patter may not fully reflect that many who are choosing to educate themselves on the topic are opening their minds to a different message. And many of those people can vote and may well vote like never before.
I write this hoping that those who understand what Bernie Sanders is talking about will, at this stage of the electoral process, take every opportunity to help others understand. When the votes really start getting counted, there will be plenty of time for progressives like me to assess all the candidates in the Democratic race for their critical capacity to beat Trump.
No one wants the scourge of the present regime to end more than I do. Maybe there are a lot of people who are thinking the same thing and are ready to take back our government from the craven oligarchs in our midst who have stolen it and are stealing our future.
*[A version of this article was cross-posted on the author’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]
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