Walter Mondale, Martin Buber, and the 1984 convention

The late presidential candidate didn't say THEY'LL pay more in taxes. He said YOU will. Maybe that's worth trying again today.

Lacking much aptitude for philosophical discourse—as the late radical empiricist Roderick Firth made painfully clear to me when I took his class in the late 1970s—I hesitate to invoke Martin Buber’s I and Thou to explain Walter Mondale’s position on taxation during the summer of 1984. But what I think Buber was saying, at the risk of reducing it to psychobabble, is that there’s a difference between talking at a person and talking with that person. “As experience,” Buber wrote,

the world belongs to the primary word I-It. The primary word I-Thou establishes the world of relation…. Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the color of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.

If Buber were a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, instead of a dead professor of philosophy with mystical leanings at the University of Frankfurt am Main and, later, Hebrew University, what I think he would say is this. It’s easy for a politician to say some rich jerks who were never going to vote for me anyway are going to pay more in taxes (I-it). Far more difficult is to ask that you, the person whose vote I am seeking this very moment, do so with full knowledge that I will make you pay more in taxes (I-Thou).

Since Obama, Democratic presidential candidates have been emphatically I-it. I’m going to raise taxes, but only on people you probably don’t even know who make $250,000, or rather, $314,000, or no, let’s make that $450,000, or maybe $1 million, or $5 million. But while it’s certainly true that the tax code should lay in new I-it brackets distinguishing between the haut bourgeoisie and various gradations of “rich,” the haut bourgeoisie should by no means be let off the hook, even if a lot of them vote Democratic. Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution has been sounding this note for some time, questioning why deductions for state and local taxes and exemptions for 529 college savings plans continue to draw liberal support. I don’t agree with Reeves in every instance, but he’s asking the right questions. He’s America’s poet laureate of I-Thou policymaking.

Reeves inherits that mantle from the late Walter Mondale, who died this week at 93. As Buber would say if he were still around, olav hashalom. My latest New Republic column revisits Mondale’s electric I-Thou moment at the Moscone Center in San Francisco in July 1984. (I happened to be in attendance, mostly to hawk copies of the Washington Monthly, where I was then editor.) Mondale’s gambit was very brave; it probably had something to do with Mondale getting creamed by Ronald Reagan the following November; history has vindicated the gesture; and I think it’s time for Democrats to give it another try.