Last week, I (and a lot of other folk) became a big of a fan of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an exciting young new House of Representatives member, a seeming champion of the poor and forgotten, a Boston University alum (great choice, I say unbiasedly) and an excellent dancer, to boot. Since then, the asinine non-controversy of rooftop dancing (I’m still pushing for the Trump-Pelosi breakdancing battle) have given way to real criticisms, from AOC’s seemingly dismissing the extent to which facts matter when formulating policy to her sometimes-rocky relationship with more established Democratic leaders to heated debate over her proposal of a 70% top marginal tax rate to fund a “Green New Deal.” In addition to somehow putting Fox News and Whoopi Goldberg in agreement, these issues fit into a developing narrative that AOC is bringing an ideologically-based rather than fact-based approach to political discourse, and that her youth and newness to politics is a political liability more than a strength.
This debate of course led me to think of the Biblical stories of Solomon [okay…?] and Rehoboam [who?]. Wait, bear with me a moment. If you grew up learning the Hebrew Bible or sitting in Sunday school, you probably know the basics of King Solomon: King David’s son; builder of the Temple in Jerusalem; Mr. “Let’s just cut the baby in half. No, don’t want to? Good, you take him.” and so on – he had a rep). Solomon was the richest and wisest man on earth – imagine Barack Obama’s intellect and charm and Donald Trump’s lifestyle rolled into one person.
What you might not remember is that Solomon had a scandalous background (his mom and David initially hooked up in an affair, David had her husband killed, major Game of Thrones style drama), and he was chosen to be the new king despite being younger than David’s other sons. In fact, Solomon was well aware of his youth and inexperience and prays to God to give him wisdom, which God grants him (and because he doesn’t ask for riches and fame and all that stuff, God gives him those too). Solomon goes on to be a young king renowned for his wisdom.
When Solomon eventually dies after a long reign, his young son Rehoboam inherits the throne of Israel. Solomon’s crowning achievement had been to build the Temple in Jerusalem (oh, and a big palace for himself too) using compulsory labor – essentially, high taxes, and a group of citizens approach the new king urging him to ease their burdens. Rehoboam seeks advice first from the wise old men, who advise him to “speak good words” to his citizens (whether that means lightening the tax burden or simply addressing them in a politically prudent way is unclear) and win their goodwill, and then from young advisors, who urge him to be even tougher on the people to demand their respect. Rehoboam listens to the young guys, citizens revolt, and most of the kingdom secedes, creating two antagonistic states and ensuring that there are a lot less people being named “Rehoboam” than “Solomon” or “David” today.
While some commentators have pointed out the historical and global precedents for AOC’s tax plan (top marginal tax rates used to be really high, even if they came with more loopholes for those actually making that kind of money, and some rich countries have similarly high rates now) and the economic wisdom of it (she does have economists who agree with the idea), her plan ignores both the politics and some of the human element of setting policy.
It’s not just that the working and middle classes naively envision themselves being wealthy one day (whether you call that the American Dream or another trick of the Republican Party); it’s also that many Americans, including both conservatives and even otherwise progressive ones, have somewhat of a problem with the idea of giving the majority of a wage or benefit that they feel (rightly or wrongly) they’ve earned to a government, especially a government with priorities that may not line up with their own and that is seen as generally dysfunctional (or, with the shutdown in its second week, not functional at all). This is not to say that higher taxes on the wealthy aren’t useful or popular (they are), but that there are important limits and considerations for how that policy is implemented and how it’s presented – the details do matter.
Rehoboam had historical and legal basis for his policies, but he failed to weigh both sides of the debate and to read the temperature of the country, even though the data was available. Instead, he alienated all but his base and lost the support of most of his country. Solomon, by contrast, sought and obtained the wisdom to make major, even radical changes in a way that was popular and long-lasting. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has the potential to be a wise legislator, regardless of age, if she masters the ability to combine her goals with a thorough reading of the evidence and the people.