As President Trump keeps fighting to keep his tax returns secret, several Democrats hoping to challenge him in 2020 — including Kirsten Gillibrand, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren — have already released several years worth of tax returns. Soon, Bernie Sanders will join them.
Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, told CNN on Wednesday that they will release ten years of returns by April 15, the deadline for filing taxes. Though we don’t know the broader story they’ll tell about Sanders’s finances, one point has already drawn a lot of attention: Sanders has become a millionaire since his first presidential run in 2015. The candidate confirmed his financial status in an interview with the New York Times on Tuesday. “I wrote a best-selling book,” he said. “If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.”
Shakir told CNN that the candidate still “believes in opportunity for all, and the fact that he is somebody who has personally benefited from that opportunity is something that he feels should be a shared opportunity with everyone else. He’s made some money off a book. And I think that the opportunity that he has had is evaporating for so many others. He feels that strongly.”
Unsurprisingly, Sanders still received some flak for his millionaire status. “Bernie is lucky to live in a capitalist society,” CNN’s Erin Burnett remarked on a Tuesday episode of her show. “It’s all very off-brand and embarrassing, but Senator Bernie Sanders is a millionaire,” announced one ThinkProgress piece. But alleging that Sanders’s wealth makes him a hypocrite relies on a misunderstanding of his political views, and at the same time, obscures the real red flag his tax-return saga raises.
Candidates should publish their tax returns as a matter of principle (and except for Trump, every presidential candidate has, dating back to Richard Nixon). That goes double for a candidate like Sanders, who is running as a champion of working people. Until it’s easier for working-class people to run for public office, chances are high that a presidential candidate will be richer than the average voter. By revealing the sources and extent of their wealth, candidates at least make themselves more accountable to voters. Trump, for example, ran for office not just as a populist focused on the concerns of white workers, but as a successful businessman. There’s reason to believe his tax returns would contradict that claim, and even reveal the extent of his corruption — information that might have shifted voters’ views. Warren ably summarized the argument on Wednesday. “I’ve put out eleven years of my tax returns because no one should ever have to guess who their elected officials are working for,” she told CNBC. “Doing this should be law.”
If Sanders is a hypocrite, it’s for delaying the release of his tax returns. The size of his bank account has nothing to do with it. A person can criticize capitalism, or even categorically oppose capitalism, despite being wealthy. Left-wing movements always have their class traitors, as any college freshman who is passingly familiar with Friedrich Engels could remind us. In a similar vein, socialism’s antagonists haven’t updated their arguments much over the last century or so. Leftists have frequently been accused of either lusting for other people’s money, or betraying their own cause because they do not live in cardboard boxes. Sanders has been subjected to similar attacks for years. “Bernie Sanders slams billionaires, gets reminded he owns 3 houses,” the Washington Examiner trumpeted in 2017. “Socialist Bernie Sanders Wears a $700 Jacket While Complaining About Rich People,” Newsweek jabbed a year later. (The jacket happened to be a gift.)
Sanders does not appear to be an anti-capitalist in the strictest sense — his brand of social democracy is compatible with capitalism, even as it seeks to regulate it and loosen its grip on the American worker — but even if he were, his wealth wouldn’t make him a fraud. Socialism does not demand asceticism. As the old labor slogan says, workers need bread and roses, too — small luxuries that make life more tolerable. The point isn’t to accumulate excess, but to elevate the human dignity of the worker — a radical shift from the current the political reality. When the U.S. government does offer help to low-income people, it typically does so under punitive conditions. People who need welfare have to prove they’re looking for work, as if they’re lazy bums who must be goaded into productivity. Similarly, there’s no real financial reason for the Women, Infants, and Children food aid program to ban beneficiaries from purchasing herbs or spices, but it does. One F-35 fighter jet can buy a lot of dried basil, and only one of these items works as advertised on a regular basis. (It’s not the jet.) The government could improve the material circumstances of vulnerable Americans with relative ease, if it chose to do so — that’s the core argument Sanders, and like-minded politicians, have put forward.
So Sanders owns too many roses. If he suddenly promoted Trump’s tax cuts, his detractors would be right to call him a hypocrite. The proof is in his policy. Sanders should have released his tax returns long ago. But whatever his faults, he is no Smaug, defending his horde from all comers. He has repeatedly endorsed higher taxes on wealth to fund an expansion of the welfare state, and though he isn’t the only Democratic candidate to do so, his consistency is a point in his favor. His recent wealth may even make him more credible to voters as he offers it up in the name of progress. Even as a millionaire, Sanders stands in sharp contrast to Trump.