This week we may have passed a cultural milestone.
This was a week when the world’s richest and most powerful gathered at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss how to make the world better. As a confab of the elite, Davos has come to symbolize the persistence of a particularly extreme form of capitalism. No one there among the presidents, prime ministers, and billionaires is seriously looking at upending the system that lifts them ever higher while dropping the have-nots ever lower.
But while the Davos set gabs about global poverty, Financial Times commentator Edward Luce points out on the Deep State Radio podcast, the word “inequality” isn’t on the agenda. They are certain they can save the world and maintain their exalted position in it.
The scene is divorced from reality as most Americans experience it. This is all happening during a federal government shutdown now extending into its second month that has made 800,000 federal workers go without pay, plus another 1.2 million contractors who not only aren’t being paid, but won’t receive back pay when the shutdown ends. (As of Friday, Jan. 25, there was a tentative agreement to reopen the government for three weeks so a budget could be negotiated.)
Trump administration officials told them to just suck it up, with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross admitting to CNBC he didn’t know why federal employees were going to food banks when they could just take out loans.
But something else was unfolding at the same time, something even more symbolic. A new crop of progressive congressional representatives arrived in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. Getting the most press among the newbies is 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bronx-born, Twitter-native, and worm in the heads of right wing pundits. She made waves calling for a Green New Deal, proposing a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent to pay for it, and, last week, marched in the second anniversary Women’s March, worked to end the federal shutdown, and called in to a 57-hour livestreamed game of Donkey Kong 64 to support trans rights.
That’s Donkey Kong, the Nintendo video game from the ’80s. The online game was organized as a fundraiser for Mermaids, a U.K. charity that supports trans youth. It was run by Harry Brewis, known online as “Hbomberguy” and for a series of “Measured Response” videos in which he calmly dissects right-wing talking points and conspiracy theories. Brewis ended up raising about $340,000 for the charity.
Most remarkable about the event—besides a congressional representative showing up—is that the video game community has long been seen as a refuge of misogynistic, right-wing “GamerGate” types. That some people are turning that around and opting for inclusion is a sign of culture shift and progress.
The worlds of Davos and Donkey Kong could not be farther apart. There’s the obvious: the world’s wealthiest assembled in one resort location to save the world for capitalists, and a group of gamers raising money for a cause that benefits a marginalized community.
What resonates with people more today: a 70 percent top marginal tax rate (which was the average top rate from the 1930s through the 1960s) or the status quo in which ordinary people have a higher tax burden than the superrich? Who’s more in tune with the world right now, Michael Dell (net worth approximately $23 billion) or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who famously couldn’t afford a second home in Washington, D.C., until she started receiving her congressional paychecks?
Here’s a hint: One poll put support for a 70 percent top marginal tax rate at nearly 60 percent, and even 45 percent of Republicans were in support of it, according to CNBC.
Every once in a while, one of our leaders seems so in tune with the times that they become legends. Think Franklin Roosevelt intoning that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to rally a nation in the depths of the Great Depression, or John F. Kennedy calling the country to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you ….” Even Donald Trump’s revanchist “Make America Great Again” resonated with a large number of people, marking a significant cultural moment in American life—one that we hope will go down in infamy.
When these moments have passed into history, the words linger as a shorthand version for cultural turning points that were in reality more complex, nuanced, and hard-won.
We may be in the next such moment right now, although we haven’t had a pithy quote yet to encapsulate it. (I hope it doesn’t turn out to be Wilbur Ross’ “let them eat cake” gaffe.) Maybe Ocasio-Cortez will become the one to deliver that cultural marker, maybe it will come from someone else. But all the trends are pointing to a shift in collective consciousness.
The Rosses, Dells, and other superrich and superpowerful went to Davos because that’s where their people are, the community they care about, where they could be assured of hobnobbing with their fellow plutocrats. Likewise, Ocasio-Cortez went to her people where they were, where the price for entry into the club wasn’t a nine-figure bank account, but the desire to welcome and lift up one another.
Ocasio-Cortez’s people also wonder if the world can support billionaires, and why anyone should have a billion dollars to begin with. Like the idea of bringing back a 70 percent marginal tax rate, they are questions that are getting asked more often. When enough people ask those questions, that’s a turning point.