This weekend, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on 60 Minutes and did more to shift the Overton Window left during her interview than nearly every single Democrat has done throughout the entirety of millennials’ existence on this planet.
The Overton Window is a term describing what is perceived to be politically possible. For example, before the 1980s, high marginal tax rates were the norm, and Ronald Reagan helped shift the mainstream discourse to the right. Now we are left with journalists like Anderson Cooper who believe that the marginal tax rates the United States enjoyed for most of the 20th century are “radical.”
It’s not. This is what shifting the Overton Window looks like. Modern GOP economic orthodoxy is considered “normal,” while past conservative economic orthodoxy is deemed “radical.” We can debate the merits of high marginal tax rates, but saying that a 70% top marginal tax rate is “radical” is another way of saying that you don’t know anything about U.S. tax policy in the 20th century. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed 70% marginal tax rate on high earners is 20% lower than what it was under one of the most beloved Republican presidents ever in Dwight D. Eisenhower.
If Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a radical, what does that make Eisenhower? A communist?
Despite our partisan squabbles, Americans are largely united on a broadly liberal policy front. Four out of five Americans think wealthy people have too much power and influence in Washington. A nice 69% of us think large businesses have too much power and influence in our nation's capital, while 65% think our economic system “unfairly favors powerful interests,” and 59% (43% of Republicans) believe that corporations make “too much profit.” Americans largely identify with the economics of the mid-20th century, while our ruling class wants us to believe that the only economic system that we have ever known is the one we have experienced over the last 40 years.
What we are presently witnessing is the shifting of the Overton Window to the left for really the first time in millennials' lifetimes. In the 1980s, the GOP made austerity politics the “reasonable” kind of economics, and they aggressively shifted the Overton Window towards an austerity economy that the Republicans had not endorsed over the last near-century. Bill Clinton ran on conservative economic orthodoxy, as the supposed story of his political genius at the time was yanking the Democrats to the right on economics. Now, AOC simply floats the idea of returning to the marginal tax rates of the period of U.S. history that Baby Boomers claim to be idyllic, and look at what happens.
This is how politics gets done. We think of the president as having a “bully pulpit” because everything they say is newsworthy given their power, but anyone can have a bully pulpit. All you need is popularity and some media savvy and you can drive the conversation. This is what this last generation of Democrats failed to demonstrate they understand. They are obsessed with West Wing-style civility politics, and believe that scoring amorphous bipartisanship points with the mainstream press is more important than achieving truly liberal policy outcomes. AOC hasn't even been a congresswoman for a week, yet she is setting the terms of the debate inside the Democratic Party. No one had heard of the Green New Deal before she joined Sunrise Movement's protest outside Nancy Pelosi's office a couple months ago, and now Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke have come out in favor of the most ambitious policy proposal of most people's lives.
We have never seriously discussed a 70% marginal tax rate on high earners in millennials' lifetimes. While it may seem “radical,” zooming out even to recent U.S. history proves that it is far closer to the norm than our current low-tax era. In fact, AOC's proposed policy wouldn't even affect the top 1%, it would affect the top 0.05%. This is a very moderate proposal in the context of 20th century American history, and it is anything but “radical.”
If you find yourself pining for the simplicity and broad prosperity of the 1950s, understand that you are advocating a return to an era where a Republican president imposed a marginal rate as high as a 91% on high earners. If it feels like America has gone off the rails recently, it's because we're getting a raw deal on our collective investments in society due to our historically low taxes. Again, this isn't up for debate. A 70% top marginal tax rate is extremely normal in the context of the 20th century.
Here's the reality: stuff like health care, roads and bridges are going to cost a similar amount of money whether we're paying 0% or 100% in taxes. As the success of companies like Costco and Wal-Mart proves, buying in bulk can save you a ton of money. That's all that high taxes are: buying services that we are going to pay for regardless of what we pay in taxes, but approaching the endeavor with more purchasing power. The ultra-rich want lower taxes not just because they get to keep more of their fortune, but because it lowers our collective purchasing power and makes things more expensive for people who don't own capital.
Karl Marx was right: the enduring battle of history is labor versus capital, and unless you are tabulating your ownership shares for tax season, your economic interests fall on the side of labor.
The 1980s to 2020s were successful in shifting the Overton Window away from a half-century of bipartisan consensus around the importance of high taxes on the wealthy and the strength of labor unions. Our economic policy which fueled the post-war boom was rooted in Marx's basic premise that due to the nature of capital, it is vitally important to have a labor/consumer market with serious power, or else this will happen.
Now that the failures of the last forty years of policymaking have become unimpeachable due to the reality that surrounds us, the Overton Window is easier to shift. It is much more difficult to argue on behalf of policies created this past half-century, and ones from the previous half-century are coming back into the fray. This basic dynamic is happening without any help from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
What Ocasio-Cortez is doing is giving what is really a very natural discussion a push to the left. The media is fascinated with her, and that photo of cable news above proves that she is the only Democrat currently capable of taking a news cycle away from Donald Trump. There are others with skills like her, like Ilhan Omar or Rashida “let’s impeach the mother fucker” Tlaib, but her shocking win over a DCCC Death Star in the Bronx was the upset of 2018, and AOC is carrying that momentum into 2019 by infusing it into her policy platform.
We’re not talking about her dunking on people on Twitter or how conservatives tried to nail her over a video from college that shows her having fun and being goofy, but the actual policies that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ideological allies were sent to Washington D.C. to enact. If that feels “radical,” that’s because this kind of progress is radical in the context of the last 40 years. It’s a good kind of radical, and as the Overton Window continues to shift left, the grift that the GOP perpetuated on this country on behalf of the ultra-wealthy will become more indefensible as leftist policy reclaims its rightful place in the lexicon of American politics.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.