It’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion when deception is so central to politics. Incumbents lie about how great everything is and imply that anything outside status quo is dangerous. Challengers portray themselves as rebels – only to pursue a slightly-altered sameness once in power.
“Progressives” are actually centrists – ensuring capitalism remains stable to forestall revolution. But (modern) “conservatives” are the biggest liars; their success depends on it.
Right-wing populists consistently position themselves as the representatives of fiscal responsibility and individual rights, but their policies always result in concentration of personal wealth, increased social inequality, decreased social mobility, and long-term fiscal instability. Within a four-year election cycle, such a government can demonstrate short-term gains through privatization, on-paper economic growth, and slashed budgetary spending, but this is like heating a house by setting the rug on fire. Whereas the stated goal is to eliminate deficits, actual budgets reflect a very different intent. One might expect a fiscally-responsible strategy to be based on increasing revenue while reducing spending, but governments of this kind consistently act to *reduce* long-term revenue. The sale of public assets (ie privatization) provides a one-time cash infusion, which looks great on paper, but eliminates an ongoing source of income. But taxation – the main source of governmental income – is where the biggest lies occur.
Most people don’t fully understand how taxation works, which makes these lies particularly easy to tell. Marginal taxation consistently misrepresented to convince people to support tax-cut policies, making them think they’re benefiting from something that mainly affects the wealthy. In a progressive income tax system, higher tax rates only apply to the highest part of your income – not to the whole amount. For example, the first $10k made in a year, essentially not taxed at all. Tax is applied only to the money made after that point, up until the next bracket – where the process repeats again at a higher rate. This means that everyone – including the very poor and very rich – taxed at a relatively low rate on a regular-person amount of money. Wealthy people, then, pay proportionally more tax based on how much money they make. This has the effect of making sure those who can afford it will help support those who can’t, without overburdening the middle class.
— Bruce Lambert (@bruce_lambert) April 20, 2019
When a politician promises tax cuts, they’re almost-never going to benefit you on the whole. As a poor or middle-income person, the total amount of taxes you pay is *tiny* in comparison to that of a wealthy person or corporation (assuming they’re not cheating). Likewise, any reduction in taxation is also proportional; while you may save $100 on your taxes, the CEO of an oil company will save MILLIONS. Of course, the extra grocery/rent/beer money is nice, but you’re not the real beneficiary here – the wealthy are. Trickle-down economic theory holds that the tax savings of the wealthy will be reinvested in job-creation, but the evidence shows just the opposite – this money simply leaves the everyday economy, making the rich ever-richer without any benefit to the rest of us. What’s worse, the drop-in government revenue must be paid for somehow, and usually this means austerity.
The euphemism usually used here is “finding efficiencies”, but what’s really happening: the wholesale and often targeted slashing of social program spending. The programs and projects typically cut are those that benefit the poor and lower-middle classes most. Well-funded public education, healthcare, infrastructure, and financial safety nets are the means of social mobility – the path for those who want a better life to attain it. Austerity cuts make the annual balance sheet look great, but the social and concrete economic costs of these losses don’t become evident until long after the next election. A generation of people without equitable access to these services leaves our society at a distinct disadvantage; those with generational wealth become over represented in the higher echelons of society, while those without will struggle to achieve their goals – often remaining trapped in a cycle of poverty.
Another common deceptive tactic of right-wing populists is “starving the beast”. By under-funding and intentionally mismanaging government programs, their inevitable dysfunction can then be used as proof of the ineptitude of government. Using this as justification, these programs can be sold off to private, profit-driven enterprise or cut altogether. This often takes the form of replacing government-provided services with (usually inadequate) direct payments to be used for (usually substandard) private-sector alternatives. This, like other strategies of its kind, foists responsibility for social ills onto the individual. And blame away from the policymakers who created the problem in the first place.
Why do people vote for this? Although deception is central to the electoral strategy here, it’s not a matter of pure delusional ignorance. Many of those who subscribe to this ideology are *motivated* to believe the lies described above. And when one’s sense of identity depends on a falsehood, it becomes nearly-impossible to see the truth. When we consider the question of motivation, we’re actually making a false assumption about the mindset of the right-wing populist. From their perspective, the purpose of government is not, as we might expect, to maximize equity and benefit all citizens. Instead, government’s role is to maintain the social hierarchy.
Conservatism, at its core, is about sustaining existing societal norms and values, including and especially hierarchy. At the risk of overgeneralizing, those with conservative mindsets tend to view hierarchy as a natural and unavoidable – even beneficial – component of society. From this perspective, every social relation and political act – framed in terms of hierarchical rank order. Including one’s own position in the world – every interaction as a zero-sum transaction where one wins and the other loses. Any social problem, then, necessarily stems from this hierarchy being out of whack – the wrong people being in charge, advantage being given to those who don’t ‘deserve’ it, etc. The solution, likewise, framed in hierarchical terms; for the individual to maintain their position, those in inferior positions must stay there.
Of course, a certain amount of hierarchy and inequality is inevitable in any social arrangement; everyone is different and have different levels of capacity for a given social role. The exercise of hierarchical power can even be productive in the appropriate context – parents over their children, for example. But the kind of hierarchy we’re considering here is different. Conservatism holds that the *existing* structures of power (eg: racial, gender, economic, etc.) are natural and good, and perceive any attempt at increased equality as a threat. Following zero-sum logic, the upward social mobility of a low-ranked person *necessarily* comes at the cost of someone higher up. Right-wing populists get elected by making sure the voter believes that THEY are the one who will pay that cost – regardless of the truth of the matter.
In this light, political persuasion becomes a far greater challenge. Trying to convince a conservative-minded voter of the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian consequences of their favored party’s policy is utterly pointless. They know, and that’s exactly what they want – even if it will ultimately hurt them. In this ideological frame, the goal is not actually to get ahead, but to get other people further behind. Fellow strugglers, rather than the injustice of the system itself, are the enemy to be defeated. Creating an attitude of divisiveness and hostility to anyone who believes otherwise. Ultimately, the main beneficiaries of this mindset are the ultra-wealthy…which leads us to our present situation.
How can we hope to address this problem? Given that it’s a matter of worldview, our intervention must take place on this level. Critiquing the merits of a given political party, and *especially* debasing its leadership figure will only lead to defensiveness. So shuts down any possibility of dialog. Instead, our goal should be to reveal the Other as same. There is an unavoidable inter-connectivity between us. We share the same matter, the same planet of origin, and our paths irrevocably entwined. Life in a truly democratic society is *not* zero-sum; that which benefits the least among us benefits all of us. That which causes harm harms all of us – both human and nature alike. To believe otherwise is the result of the greatest deception of all.
The solutions to the planetary-scale challenges we face will come about through cooperation and mutual solidarity. Not by competition and selfish individualism. If we’re to solve these problems, it will be by coming together as a species. The first step: show people why they should care about each other.
Eric Shepperd, London Ontario