By Matthew vonAllmen
During the October 4th vice-presidential debate, Governor Mike Pence argued in favor of suspending the Syrian refugee program. Claiming Syria had been compromised by terrorism, he stated his commitment to “the safety and security of the American people.” In his eyes, a leader has a duty to protect his or her own; subordinating the interests of your constituency to those of a foreign group would be a betrayal of the nation’s trust.
Putting aside factual matters, such as whether Syrian refugees actually pose a threat to the US, Governor Pence’s statements exemplify certain values of the American right. His fatherly caring for his own people, his strong stance against a hostile world—what more could a conservative ask for? One would expect that his opponent, Senator Tim Kaine, would respond by affirming left-wing values. Pence had left himself wide open to several liberal critiques. Wouldn’t his position make him complicit in a humanitarian crisis? What of the innocents locked outside American borders?
Instead, Senator Kaine stated that, just like Governor Pence, he too cared about the safety of the American people. He described how his policies would prevent terrorists from entering the country, and that he differed from Pence only in what methods they would use. Unlike Pence, Kaine said he would vet refugees based on their background information, not their country of origin. Kaine also called out Pence for trying to suspend aid to refugees in the Governor’s home state, Indiana.
These are legitimate criticisms of Pence’s position, but decidedly centrist in their angle of attack. Kaine argued on Pence’s terms. He took Pence’s right-wing first principles and tried to deduce left-wing conclusions from them. Kaine accepted that American security should be a priority, but that a pragmatic approach to refugees could mitigate risk. Why did Kaine not focus on the cruelty inherent in Pence’s position?
This is a tact taken with disturbing frequency by the American left. Consider Senator Elizabeth Warren. In a 2011 speech, she lambasted income inequality with the following reasoning:
“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
Senator Warren buys into the right-wing axiom that one’s wealth determines one’s moral worth. Suppose we lived in an anarcho-capitalist paradise; roads, education, and security are all privately provided. Under such a system, Warren’s justifications for redistribution vanish—but income inequality remains. Is this society more just, as the rich never took advantage of public services to acquire their fortunes? What of present-day America? As of 2015, 45.3 percent of households pay no federal income taxes. Are they due nothing from society until they offer it money in return?
In private, the American left does not talk this way. Good left-leaning folk, when gathered together, will earnestly praise the virtues of cosmopolitanism, denounce the evils of inequality, and discuss visions of a better world. However, when addressing the American public, they are quick to modulate their reasoning.
This stems from a profound separation between America and its left wing, coupled with a conflation of America with its right wing. Unrestrained capitalism is American; guns are American; patriotism is American. Ask anyone for a description of the typical American and they will return with a laundry list of right-wing characteristics. The left feels like an outsider in its own country. Is redistribution American? Is racial equality American? Like oil and vinegar, they don’t seem to mix.
The left doesn’t need to treat America and its right wing as one and the same. By definition, 50 percent of Americans are left of the country’s center. When a left-leaning politician addresses the public, he or she can be sure that some of the audience shares his or her values. Bernie Sanders’ campaign proved that a good portion of Americans are on board with left-wing politics; the rest of the left could easily follow his example.
In addition, the left is incorrect to assume that it is the only group to feel alienated from its country’s political discourse. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick once complained that questions of distributive justice were inherently biased against libertarian conclusions. Goods and services, he argued, were not manna from heaven. They did not fall from the sky, with society then deciding which individuals received a greater share. Instead, he claimed, goods and services originated with individuals and were inseparable from them. The very institution of private property precluded any discussion of social justice. However, he believed that the left had corrupted American discourse about distribution. Phrases such as “divvying up the economic pie” or “spreading the wealth around” had become so commonplace that he despaired of ever reframing the public dialogue. If the right can feel so distanced from the average American, then perhaps the left is not so uniquely disadvantaged as it thinks.
The left needs pride in its values. It cannot afford to accept the right’s conceptual framework; the left must stand up for what it truly believes.
“Full Video: Vice-Presidential Debate.” Election 2016. 4 Oct. 2016. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/politics/100000004687086/full-video-vice-presidential-debate.html>.
Madison, Lucy. “Elizabeth Warren: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own”.” Elizabeth Warren: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own” – CBS News. N.p., 22 Sept. 2011. Bing. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/elizabeth-warren-there-is-nobody-in-this-country-who-got-rich-on-his-own/>.
Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. , New York, Basic Books, 1974.
Zaretsky, Renu. “Who Pays and Who Gains?.” Who Pays and Who Gains? | Tax Policy Center. N.p., 7 Oct. 2015. Bing. Web. 16 Oct. 2016. <http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/daily-deduction/who-pays-and-who-gains>.