Why can't a Democrat be more like a Republican?
At least when it comes to crafting — and sticking to — a compelling narrative on taxes
By Ted Cox
You won’t catch us saying this very often, but we have to hand it to the Illinois Policy Institute.
It has a set story on taxation — namely that all taxes are bad — and it’s sticking to it.
Oh, it’s not just the IPI, which is what makes it so aggravating. Conservatives across the right-wing political spectrum have a unified, consistent message on taxes.
They’re bad. They’re taking your money right out of your pocket. Wouldn’t you rather keep more of your own hard-earned money instead of just handing it over to the government?
They never bother pointing out that your taxes go to maintain your roads, to educate your kids in your schools, to keep your water and your food supply safe, and yes sometimes to provide tax breaks to your employer to keep your business and your job in place.
That doesn’t seem such a hard case to make, but Democrats and other factions on the left have a hard time crafting it into a message as simple as: “Your money belongs to you.”
Your state belongs to you, too, and so does your government, and it’s your obligation as a citizen to make sure it operates efficiently and effectively in doing the people’s business — your government business. But that’s a bit more of a mouthful, isn’t it.
It’s enough to make a Democrat — or any kind of a leftist — envious of Republicans. It doesn’t matter who it is — Bruce Rauner or Dick Uhlein locally, or the Koch brothers or Grover Norquist nationally, or Rupert Murdoch or even, yes, President Trump internationally — the Republicans have a consistent message on taxes. They craft a narrative that taxes are bad, and they make voters feel it in their own wallets and pocketbooks.
Where is the answer on the left? Where is the unified narrative? Instead, Democratic big money is fractured by issues, all battling for what special-interest groups perceive as their own little piece of the social-justice pie. Civil rights, reproductive rights, bike lanes, criminal justice, climate change, net neutrality, affordable housing, sex equality, racial equality: groups mobilize on individual issues, but rarely on a big, all-encompassing issue like income inequality.
It’s a rare politician like Sen. Bernie Sanders nationally or, we have to insist, Gov. J.B. Pritzker locally who says they’re all tied up in what we expect the government to do and, above all, how we fund that government, how equitable we are in agreeing on a way to pay for the things we want it to provide.
There’s a notable quote we keep returning to. “Oh, they want the stuff,” retired state Sen. Denny Jacobs recently said of Illinois taxpayers. “They don’t want to pay for it.”
How does the left make the simple case that if this is what you want — and we all want safe roads, good schools, clean water, fresh food, robust health, a vital planet, and a fair shot at that pursuit of happiness we enshrined in our Declaration of Independence — then we simply have to find a way to pay for it?
The left hasn’t had a unified narrative on that elevated plane since President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Great Society and the War on Poverty in the ‘60s. Those goals were quashed, however, with the protracted war in Vietnam and the descent into recession with high inflation later in the ‘70s. Then in the ‘80s President Reagan, proud to insist he had once been a New Deal Democrat, cut Democrats off at the knees by labeling them the “tax-and-spend” party.
What Democrats must communicate, in a way that makes voters feel it the way they feel taxes in their wallets, is that a tax or fee can be worth it if what you spend it on is beneficial. Fishing licenses serve to stock and maintain lakes, water fees serve to maintain and protect the water system, and, yes, a hike in the gas tax just might provide enough revenue to float bonds for a much-needed statewide capital spending bill on infrastructure.
And a progressive income tax on a graduated scale — what Gov. Pritzker calls a “fair tax” — just might be necessary to sustain all those government services.
Republicans and conservatives don’t want that tax. What tax do they want? When Pritzker made the case that it would cut taxes or hold them steady for 97 percent of Illinois residents, the IPI and other right-wing groups pivoted to say that the government can’t be trusted with your money. Again, it’s your money, keep it in your pocket!
Yet a study just this week by the Better Government Association found that, under the state’s flat tax, when taxes simply had to be raised on all Illinoisans, it was high-income taxpayers who benefited (they were paying a far lower percentage of their overall earnings) and it was poorer and middle-income residents who felt the pinch. Income inequality worsened.
Conservatives fought the tax on the grounds that it would drive “job creators” from the state, but they actually stayed put and prospered, according to the BGA, while it was poorer residents, especially downstate and in urban minority communities, who fled.
Redistribution of wealth? That used to be a pet peeve of the right. But we’ve seen it in action over the past four decades in government policies that have redistributed wealth increasingly to the wealthy and away from the middle class and working families, in part through devices like the state’s flat tax. No wonder Republicans have dropped their whining about the redistribution of wealth.
The governor’s “fair tax” is meant to address and help reverse that income inequality while providing the government with adequate funding across its range of services, many of them provided by those special-interest groups that can’t seem to bring themselves to come out and actually support a progressive tax. You get what you pay for, it’s true, but what Illinois residents need to recognize is you have to pay for the government services you want, the services you require, and those you absolutely need to sustain the state and its people. That goes for you, for me, and for all of us together as one Illinois.