In April, Elizabeth Warren rolled out her public lands platform with the following tweet:
"It's time to make America's public lands part of our climate change solution. That means we need to stop corporations from pillaging our public lands and leaving taxpayers to clean up the mess. My new idea puts our environment and our communities first."
The platform is progressive and clear-sighted, as anyone who has followed Senator Warren's career would expect. Yet by using the word "taxpayer," she is reinforcing a dangerous narrative about how the government works and who it is ultimately responsible for.
Warren is certainly not the only candidate who uses the term. It's become commonplace in the political lexicon, but that doesn't make it any less pernicious. When elected officials talk about being responsible to the so-called "taxpayer"—as opposed to the public as a whole—they are adopting a right-wing worldview, one that suggests that there are two kinds of people in the world: the selfless taxpayer who can't catch a break and the parasite—a person, a policy, or a system—that leeches off the taxpayer.
We've seen with Hillary Clinton's basket of deplorables comment, Mitt Romney's 47 percent, and Reagan's fabricated welfare queen, how powerful language is, especially as a tool to divide people, lump them into groups based on their perceived contributions to society.
When we prize the self-interest of the taxpayer over the collective interest of the broader public, we grease the wheels for conservatives to come in and push austerity measures that devastate struggling communities and line the pockets of the obscenely wealthy.
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The left can no longer afford to play into this false dichotomy: between us and them, who we think are the givers and who we think are the takers. When we prize the self-interest of the taxpayer over the collective interest of the broader public, we grease the wheels for conservatives to come in and push austerity measures that devastate struggling communities and line the pockets of the obscenely wealthy. We further marginalize undocumented people, who make our communities better in innumerable ways (and do pay taxes, but this is beside the point). And we signal to upper and middle-class white men—who the term "taxpayer" is most likely to resonate with—that public policy should cater to their narrow set of interests.
In New York, where candidates can run for office on multiple ballot lines, the Democratic candidate for Suffolk County Comptroller Jay Schneiderman created a new ballot line called "Protect the Taxpayer." This May, Democrat Steve Bellone, the incumbent Suffolk County Executive, filed more than 8,000 signatures to get his name on the Protect the Taxpayer line for November. "I don't know how valuable it was, but it sent a message," Schneiderman said when asked his reasons for creating the line.
If Democrats want people to understand the problems they're facing, they need to stop casting taxpayers as an aggrieved group. Income taxes are a dwindling share of the total percentage of GDP, partly because anti-tax messaging has taken such deep root in both parties over the past forty years.
Phrases like "protect the taxpayer" promote the idea that taxation is theft—and not an indispensable part of a healthy, functioning society. We smartly pool our money to build roads and bridges, educate our children, put our fires, keep trains and buses running, and create emergency funds for the unemployed and underemployed. There is no moral or compassionate society without taxation.
Progressives must make a choice between parroting the failed language of the neoliberal era, or developing new messages that support a shared vision for the country, one in which all people have what they need to thrive, health care is a human right, and the ultra rich actually pay their fair share in taxes.