Those who want to change the world can’t shape their ideas according to the conventional wisdom about what the public will accept.  Yesterday’s radicalism can become tomorrow’s common sense

February 3, 2019

You might have seen the clip floating around social media. It’s a panel discussion from the World Economic Forum at Davos, in which Michael Dell, the billionaire CEO responds to a question about a 70% marginal tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, a proposal recently floated by US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  “No, I’m not supportive of that,” Dell says, to much laughter from the assembled plutocrats. “And I don’t think it will help the growth of the US economy. Name a country where that’s worked.” At which point his co-panellist, MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, chimes in: “The United States.” As Dell and others sputter incredulously, Brynjolfsson explains that America didn’t always allow the super-rich to pay a mere 37% in tax.  “From about the 1930s to the 1960s the tax rate [on the very rich] averaged about 70%,” he says. “At times it was up as high as 95%. And those were actually pretty good years for growth … There’s actually a lot of economics to suggest that it’s not actually going to hurt growth.”

The response – and, more so, the clip’s massive popularity – illustrates the success of a new style of American politics.

Mainstream Democrats dismissed AOC, running as a socialist, as a “meteor” that would soon fizzle out. Earlier this month, Republican strategist and cable fulminator Ed Rollins described AOC as a “little girl” with a big mouth. When she cast her vote for Speaker, audible boos rang out from the Republicans in the house.

Yet the public approves of precisely those policies that most horrify Beltway insiders. A recent poll shows, for instance, 59% of voters liking AOC’s tax plan, including 57% of Southerners and even 45% of GOP supporters.

Her success deserves consideration outside America, not least because it confounds much of the established political wisdom.

In the 2000s “framing” became an almost ubiquitous preoccupation for liberals, particularly in the wake of Don’t Think of an Elephant! the bestselling book by linguist George Lakoff.

Lakoff noted the political significance of certain metaphorical fames. Conservatives adopt the “strict father” metaphor in which politicians act to protect the public from a dangerous world. If liberals inadvertently use terminology associated with that metaphor they undercut their own message. Instead, the argument goes, they must reframe the debate with rhetoric that metaphorically legitimates their own values.

In practice, throughout the 2000s, the obsession with framing reinforced a longstanding reliance on spin doctors, focus groups and soundbites, with many progressives convinced that reaching the public depended, first and foremost, on perfectly crafted zingers. Then, of course, came 2016 and a presidential election in which Donald Trump destroyed his well-rehearsed opponents, seemingly by blurting out whatever came into his head.  AOC embodies a quite different strategy. Yes, she’s articulate and charismatic, and she positively rules on social media. But the “reframing” she performs relies on message more than the metaphor, resetting the terms of debate not through spin but by politics.

Traditionally Democrats react to socialism like the devil to holy water. But AOC openly embraced the label and helped set a whole generation debating what socialism might mean.  Her statement on tax certainly “reframed” politics. It presented Trump’s billions as a signifier of inequality rather than, as Republicans would have it, proof of his competence and acumen. The proposal cut so deeply precisely because it wasn’t a zinger but a policy – a plan that would make a genuine difference in US society.

The ensuing debate has highlighted the grotesque wealth of almost everyone at the top echelons of American governance, including the media. When, for instance, Fox’s Sean Hannity denounced increased taxation on income over $10m, many noted that, over the last year Hannity, that supposed voice of the white working man, took home, um, $36m.

That’s why – irrespective of how AOC’s career plays out – her success to date offers an important lesson for progressives, in Australia as much as anywhere elsewhere.

Those who want to change the world can’t shape their ideas according to the conventional wisdom about what the public will accept, whether on refugees, climate change or anything else.

For too long, politicians have used the alleged backwardness of the voters to justify their own pusillanimity. But leadership – particularly progressive leadership – entails challenging, rather than simply reflecting, the status quo. It means being prepared to displease media moguls or political insiders; it means fighting to popularise ideas that might initially seem difficult or extreme.

As Danton, who knew something about changing the world, put it: “We need audacity, and yet more audacity, and always audacity!”

Never has that been more important than today, an era in which voters everywhere loathe the stale pieties of conventional politics and crave a strategy that might offer some hope. Under such conditions, yesterday’s radicalism can quickly become tomorrow’s common sense.

We’re told that Bernie Sanders will soon announce his nomination for the 2020 presidential race. If that’s so, a possibility emerges that both America and Britain might soon be led by self-described socialists. Whatever you think of Sanders and Corbyn, their rise represents a quite remarkable shift in the political zeitgeist. Progressives in Australia should take note.