Every election season we’re confronted with a friend, relative, or acquaintance who resolutely supports the other party. Perhaps they’re a cousin on Facebook, or maybe it’s the stranger next to you on an airplane. How do you best represent your political beliefs?
I’m a liberal, so this essay explains why I’m a liberal, and why you should be one too. Conservatives should write their own essays, and I’ll look forward to reading them. There’s too little serious dialogue across party lines in our grievously polarized nation.
There are some political differences that are beyond the scope of this essay. Social issues are a good example. If you believe that abortion is murder, I’m not going to chance your mind.
So I’ll lead with the economic case for liberalism. For the past forty years, Republicans have constantly lobbied for tax cuts, especially for the wealthy. Most recently, Trump is pushing a 6.2 trillion dollar tax cut, with 47 percent of the savings going to the top 1 percent. Middle-class taxpayers would see only modest relief. Tax cuts like these are justified on the basis of supply-side economics: lower taxes will induce wealthy Americans to create businesses that will ultimately grow the economy and provide more jobs. Indeed, this growth will supposedly more than make up for the revenue lost from the tax cuts.
But it doesn’t work, has never worked, and can never work. A study by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service showed that tax cuts don’t grow the economy. Both Reagan and George W. Bush presided over enormous growth in deficits following their landmark tax cuts. Indeed, research by the Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels shows consistently greater income growth under Democratic presidents since the debut of supply-side economics under President Reagan. Crucially this economic growth benefits everyone, not just the wealthiest Americans.
The stratospheric growth in deficits midwifed by tax-cutting Republican presidents always seems at cross purposes with another modern conservative shibboleth: the high national debt. President Obama is constantly excoriated for the swelling debt under his watch: 19 trillion dollars! The highest it’s ever been! China will own our grandchildren!
These complaints always ring hollow. Republican tax cuts helped to create the debt in the first place, in part to further a strategy for retaining political power. Republicans will take credit for the tax cuts while blaming Democrats for the consequences, as conservative intellectual Irving Kristol acknowledged in 1980:
And what if the traditionalist-conservatives are right and a… tax cut, without corresponding cuts in expenditures, also leaves us with a fiscal problem? The neo-conservative is willing to leave those problems to be coped with by liberal interregnums. He wants to shape the future, and will leave it up to his opponents to tidy up afterwards.
Another benefit of a large debt is to “starve the beast,” as New York Times columnist and Noble Laureate economist Paul Krugman explains. Conservatives want a large debt as an excuse to cut entitlements like social security and Medicare. Indeed, an under-funded government won’t be able to provide many of the services that Americans’ happiness and prosperity depend on. Coupled with the spectacle of tax cuts largely limited to the wealthy, voters will grow resentful towards a feckless government—and then support Republicans as the anti-government party. The large tax cuts of recent decades therefore serve ends that are both economic and political.
Finally, it’s worth noting the obvious about that ubiquitous 19 trillion dollar figure. Of course our national debt is the highest it’s ever been, in large part because our economy is the largest it’s ever been! Certainly debt reduction has to be a long-term political goal, but it can’t be the priority at a time when borrowing is cheap and economic growth is still sluggish. Austerity—drastic cuts in public spending intended to jumpstart job growth and debt reduction alike—has repeatedly shown to be economic folly.
As the ascendance of Trump has shown, Americans have little interest in the entitlement-cutting dogma championed by Paul Ryan and other leading Republicans. Nearly 90 percent of Americans favor current levels of Medicare spending (or higher spending), and this support cuts across party lines. Support for social security is predictably similar. When it comes to entitlements, Democrats are more in line with the will of the American people than are the Republican leaders in Congress. They’re also in line with my beliefs: these entitlements are the bedrock of the American safety net.
All of these contradictions also apply to the dogged Republican resistance to raising the minimum wage, something over two-thirds of Americans support. A-list economists David Card and Alan Krueger showed over 20 years ago that a higher minimum wage doesn’t reduce employment. More recently, over 600 economists signed a statement calling for a $10.10 minimum wage.
As many HuffPost readers are aware, liberals are better aligned with the facts on numerous other issues. Climate change is real, and caused by people. Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. Voter fraud is vanishingly rare, applying to at most 0.00000336177 percent of in-person votes cast between 2000 and 2014. Even some conservatives, like the pundits David Brooks and Max Boot, have come to bemoan the anti-intellectual tinge the Republican Party has increasingly assumed.
Ten years ago a former NFL quarterback named Heath Schuler was elected to congress representing a conservative North Carolina district. His time in office was relatively short, but his rationale for being a Democrat deserves to persist. In a 2008 interview, he traced the origin of his beliefs to a conversation he had as a child: “Grandma, why are you a Democrat?” She says, “Look, just as we’re taught in church to help those who cannot help themselves.”
I’m a liberal because I believe that government has an obligation to the disadvantaged. Democratic presidents bequeathed to America the minimum wage, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Affordable Care Act. This is a legacy that must be nourished and protected; indeed, it is a legacy that must be conserved. Capitalism, competition, and free trade are vital to a prosperous nation, but they will always result in winners and losers. It is the government’s job to insure that the losers don’t fall too far.
Author’s note: In a follow-up piece I’ll tackle a different but related question: why I’m voting for Democrats in the 2016 election.