Earlier this week, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that the re-election of British Prime Minister David Cameron, following the reelection of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and the Republican midterm election victory, proves that “the world has not turned left” and instead we are experiencing a “Center-Right Moment.”
“[T]he cutting-edge, progressive economic arguments do not seem to be swaying voters,” he declares. “[L]eft-of-center economic policy has moved from opportunity progressivism to redistributionist progressivism” which “more aggressively raises taxes to shift money down the income scale … This tendency has won elections in Massachusetts (Elizabeth Warren) and New York City (Bill de Blasio) but not in many other places.”
Then, after christening former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair with championing opportunity progressivism, he autopsies the parliamentary election defeat of the UK Labour Party’s second-highest leader, Ed Balls, as the fault of being a redistributionist.
Everything you just read from David Brooks is demonstrably wrong.
First, he’s cherry-picking elections. It was only January when the far-left Syriza party won the Greek election. And it’s not only Massachusetts and New York City where a candidate who supports higher taxes on the wealthy can win. There is a fellow named Barack Obama who ran on such a platform and won a couple of elections in a town called America.
Second, Netanyahu did not win on a conservative economic platform. Quite the opposite: He almost lost because of his conservative economic record. He was being hammered for inaction as housing costs skyrocketed. A member of Likud quit the party and started his own to protest Netanyahu’s housing record. And in the waning days of the election, Bibi groveled, promising to give the defector the Finance Minister portfolio in a coalition government, so he could tackle the housing crisis.
Third, while it is true that the UK Labour Party had a platform that one could deride as redistributionist – specifically, a proposal to levy a “mansion tax” that would fund expanded health services – that’s not why Labour lost. The mansion tax was popular, yielding 63 percent support just days before the election.
Similar tax increases on the wealthy and corporations remain popular in America. A January ABC/Washington Post poll found 65 percent believe corporations “pay too little” in taxes. That same poll also found that 83 percent think it’s a problem that we have an “income gap between wealthy Americans and those who are less well off.” And in a CBS poll taken around the same time, 55 percent said “corporations pay less than their fair share” and the same amount said “the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.”
Brooks awkwardly tries to gloss over Obama’s successes, campaigning on and enacting policies that made the tax code more progressive. “The British electorate and the American electorate sometimes mirror each other,” notes Brooks, “In policy terms, Cameron is a more conservative version of President Obama.”
Why yes, Cameron and Obama are both heads of the state. And Cameron is the more conservative one.
But these two did not get elected side-by-side because they are cut from the same political cloth. What ties the current British and American electorates is their distaste for the governments that brought us the 2008 financial market crash. Here, it was the Republicans. There, it was Labour.
Miliband tried to make the case he represented a break from the past Labour government. But since he served in that government, albeit in a minor role, he was constantly harangued on the campaign trail for Labour’s past failings. Like Obama, Cameron could survive presiding over an imperfect economy because he can accurately argue the economy was better on his watch than on the last guy’s watch.
Beyond Brooks’ factual misfires, his grasp of modern progressivism is fundamentally flawed. His bifurcation into “opportunity” and “redistributionist” schools is fictional.
Brooks oddly slams the “Report of the Commission on Inclusive Prosperity,” the name of which reflected the authors’ desire to “address inequality without embracing a politics of envy.” In fact, the word “opportunity” is slathered all over the document. “Redistribution” is not.
Yes, Democrats want to raise taxes on the wealthy and increase public investments. But the goal is not close the income gap through crude redistribution. The goal is to close the income gap through responsibly funded investments that expand opportunity – establishing universal preschool, eliminating student debt, providing paid leave, creating green jobs, revitalizing infrastructure, increasing work options via mass transit, guaranteeing health coverage and shoring up pensions.
The fatter paychecks progressives want to see would not come from government taking hard-earned money from the 1 percent, but from policies that reward work: higher minimum wages, labor rules that strengthen collective bargaining, and policies that encourage businesses to embrace profit-sharing with their workers.
What Brooks wants to do is stigmatize any idea that requires additional revenue most easily tapped from the wealthiest among us. He can oppose such plans on the merits if he chooses. But he can’t get away with arguing that those ideas are political dead letters, especially since none of the elections he cites backs up his case.