Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Politics of the Other

I have three major problems with Bernie Sanders' campaign for President that I would like to discuss.

Interestingly, these are three serious problems that I also find with Donald Trump's campaign for President. It turns out that the two candidates share some important, and unflattering, characteristics.

The first of these is that both candidates have created campaigns based largely on the politics of "the other". (I will discuss the other two in future posts.)

This is how the playbook goes.

Step 1: Identify some group of people as "the other".

Step 2: Tell the target audience that their problems, their difficulties, the fact that life seems to be treating them unfairly, to be largely due to "the other". If only "the other" was brought to heal, then the members of the target audience would see some significant improvement or realization of something of value to them.

Step 3: Promise the target audience that if they support you, then you will make it a priority to deal with "the other" and deliver to the people these benefits and values.

The only difference here lies with who the candidate identifies as "the other".

In the case of Donald Trump, it's Muslims and foreigners. It's not "some" Muslims and foreigners. He takes no pains to distinguish one from another. His words, his policy proposals, make no distinctions. If one is a Muslim, or a foreigner, one is assumed to be guilty and of a lower quality of life that is not worthy of the considerations and respect due to full human beings. They are all "other".

For Sanders, "the other" are "billionaires".

Sanders makes no attempt to judge billionairs as individuals.

Sanders wants to have the government forcefully redistribute the wealth of billionaires to "those in need".

He almost never mentions the fact that a large number of these billionaires are current working on their own plans to redistribute their own wealth - and to do so in ways that have the largest impact possible.

Consequently, he almost never mentions the fact that if he were to take this money from these billionaires and put it in the federal treasury, a substantial portion of that redistribution would be away from the people that the billionaire would have helped with his or her charitable efforts and into the pockets of whomever can afford the best political lobbyists and can afford to bend the ear of some senator or representative.

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates lead this list of philanthropic billionaires. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which will receive almost 100% of the combined wealth of both Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates) will fully redistribute this wealth over the next several decades.

Furthermore, the Foundation is focused on spending the money on those projects that would wring the most benefit out of each of those dollars. Projects are vetted to determine the magnitude of the impact. As a private organization dedicated to providing help, the Foundation is immune from the influence of lobbyists and other types of influence peddlers who would try to divert those billions into the pockets of their sponsors - the way that government money often gets redirected. So, it actually goes to projects that do real good in the real world.

Buffett and Gates have also set up an organization called The Giving Pledge - which lobbies the wealthiest people in the world to give at least have of their wealth to charitable causes. Their website contains the profiles of 141 of these people - targets of Sanders' "politics of the other" who are supposed to be the great oppressors responsible for all of our middle-class ills - who have pledged to redistribute at least half of their wealth to those who can most benefit.

None of this denies that there are billionaires and corporations using their wealth to nefarious ends. While the people listed above are seeking to help those who need it most, lobbyists and public relations firms serving an even larger number of the wealthy are forcing wealth in the other direction. I am not arguing, "everything is fine, trust the billionaires, they are all saintly people who will take care of you."

Just as, against Trump's bigotry, I would not argue that every Muslim and foreigner has the best interests of America at heart and we can perfectly trust all of them to act benevolently towards us. One does not have to take this absurd position to correctly categorize Trump's proposals as bigoted and unjust. One does not have to assume that all billionaires are saints to see that Sanders is being bigoted and unjust.

What I am arguing is that "the politics of the other" is a morally illegitimate way to address these problems. What a politician should do is, when addressing people, respect and acknowledge the difference between the good and the evil, try to work with those who are good, and to target those who are evil in virtue of their individual words and deeds. Rather than turning the world into a battleground between "us" and "them" inflicting mutual injustices on each other, politicians should be working on ending injustice.

Unfortunately, this "politics of the other" works. It attracts large, cheering crowds who want nothing more than a powerful-seeming leader who will stick it to "them" for the benefit of "us". There is something deep in our psychology that makes the politics of the other very attractive and appealing - in spite of the injustice and violence that spawns from it. It is one of those unfortunate human tendencies that we need to keep a lid on. We certainly should not be cheering and supporting politicians who play on this human failing to their own advantage.

What I would have Sanders do is to give up this politics of the other. I would have him acknowledge that billionaires are human beings - some good and some evil, and that it is as unjust to vilify billionaires as a group as it is to vilify Muslims as a group. Unfortunately, this would lose him some of his cheering crowds - because there are a lot of voters in both parties who are wildly enthusiastic supporters of this way of seeing the world.

This is one reform that I would like to see Sanders make. There are a couple of others that I will write about in the days ahead.

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