Young, rich and politically ignorant:
A young billionaire adorably thinks he can solve Washington’s problems through centrism! Why our democracy’s a mess
Those who own the country ought to govern it -- Founder John Jay
That quote may be apocryphal, but the sentiment has been with us since the beginning of the Republic. I think we all know he wasn’t talking about that amorphous mass known as “the people,” don’t you? Much better for the real stakeholders of democracy to be in charge. You know, the people with money and property.
And it appears as though they got what they wanted. According to this blockbuster study from Martin Gilens and Benjamin Gage, the fact that the people sometimes have their policy preferences enacted is purely a matter of coincidence: It only happens if it happens to coincide with the preferences of the wealthy. If not, we’re just out of luck. The practical result of that is that while the wealthy might view certain issues along progressives lines, such as gay rights or maybe even gun control, it’s highly unlikely they will ever allow us to get too far out on the egalitarian limb. They tend to draw the line at anything that affects their own interest. And that interest is to keep most of the money and all of the power within their own control, regardless of whether they see themselves as liberals or conservatives.
Take, for instance, what Thomas Frank in this piece astutely described as liberal Mugwumpery, the “reformist” strain among aristocrats in which they take it upon themselves to reform the state and better the characters of the lower orders. Yes, they may want to clean up government corruption and coerce the “unhealthy” to change their ways, whether through temperance or prohibition, but they cannot be counted upon to fully engage on issues that infringe on their own interests. Frank quotes historian Richard Hofstadter describing the “Mugwump types” of the 19th century:
[T]he most serious abuses of the unfolding economic order of the Gilded Age he either resolutely ignored or accepted complacently as an inevitable result of the struggle for existence or the improvidence and laziness of the masses. As a rule, he was dogmatically committed to the prevailing theoretical economics of laissez faire. . . . He imagined that most of the economic ills that were remediable at all could be remedied by free trade, just as he believed that the essence of government lay in honest dealing by honest and competent men.
Frank applied that term specifically to Michael Bloomberg, who has pledged to spend $50 million to defeat the NRA, a worthy cause if there ever was one. As he points out, however, as much as this particular pledge might benefit the population at large, Bloomberg will also use his power to defeat anything that looks to directly benefit working people economically. Just as the Gilens-Gage paper suggests, as long as the billionaires’ interests align with the people, there is a chance it might get done. Where they diverge, it might as well be impossible. That is a very odd definition of democracy.
Not all of our wealthy warriors for liberal causes are as openly hostile to the economic reforms at the center of the progressive agenda as a Wall Street billionaire like Bloomberg. In fact, many of them are probably just unaware of it, as they are the scions of great wealth who are flush with the idealism of youth and simply wish to make a difference. These Baby Mugwumps have good intentions, but somehow their focus also tends to be directed at worthy causes that don’t upset the economic apple cart.
For instance, these nice young would-be philanthropists who were invited to the White House last week to share their thoughts on how to fix the problems of the world:
“Moon shots!” one administration official said, kicking off the day on an inspirational note to embrace the White House as a partner and catalyst for putting their personal idealism into practice.
The well-heeled group seemed receptive. “I think it’s fantastic,” said Patrick Gage, a 19-year-old heir to the multibillion-dollar Carlson hotel and hospitality fortune. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Mr. Gage, physically boyish with naturally swooping Bieber bangs, wore a conservative pinstripe suit and a white oxford shirt. His family’s Carlson company, which owns Radisson hotels, Country Inns and Suites, T.G.I. Friday’s and other brands, is an industry leader in enforcing measures to combat trafficking and involuntary prostitution.
A freshman at Georgetown University, Mr. Gage was among the presenters at a breakout session, titled “Combating Human Trafficking,” that attracted a notable group of his peers. “The person two seats away from me was a Marriott,“ he said. “And when I told her about trafficking, right away she was like, ‘Uh, yeah, I want to do that.’ ”
Of course. Who wouldn’t be against human trafficking? Or limiting the proliferation of guns, either? But I think one can see with those two examples just how limited the scope of our patrician betters’ interest in the public good really is. Whether undertaken through the prism of their own self-interest or a youthful idealism born of privilege, it represents causes, not any real challenge to the status quo.
But what should we make of the latest audacious entry into the political arena? Sean Parker, Napster inventor and Facebook billionaire, announced that he’s jumping into politics with both feet. He’s not signing on to any specific cause or even a vague political philosophy. In fact, it’s almost impossible to figure out what it’s about.
One of the nice things about being a billionaire is that even if you have no idea about what you believe or any sense of how the political system works in theory or in practice you can meet with the actual players and have them explain it to you. That’s what Parker has been doing, meeting with politicians of such disparate ideologies as Rand Paul, Bill DeBlasio and Charlie Christ. I’m sure they all told him to put them on speed dial and to call day or night if he had any questions.
His plan, if one can call it that, makes the naive young heirs to the great fortunes look like grizzled old political veterans by comparison:
Unlike other politically-inclined billionaires, such as the conservative Koch brothers and liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer, Parker hopes to avoid a purely partisan role as he ventures more deeply into politics.
Having donated almost exclusively to Democrats up to this point, Parker made a trip to Washington in December for the purpose of meeting quietly with Republican officeholders and strategists around town. He plans to donate to both sides starting this year, associates say, for the first time committing big sums to aid Republicans he views as credible deal-makers in a bitterly divided Congress.
He’s not even a Mugwump. He’s just a mess. Apparently, he thinks he can “make Washington work” by financing a group of deal makers in both parties who will knock some heads together and get the job done. What, exactly, it is they are supposed to get done remains a mystery. Indeed, from the sound of it, it doesn’t really matter.
I have an idea for Parker. There’s a group of “activists” out there who are right up his alley. He could just buy their outfit outright and rebrand it to his liking. It’s called “No-Labels” and they’ve been flogging this idea of bipartisan nothingness for a very long time. For some unknown reason it just hasn’t taken hold with the public. But if anyone can market this dog to the public, the guy who made hundreds of millions for the singular advice to take “the” out of “The Facebook” seems like just the guy to make it happen.
According to the article, a battalion of opportunistic political consultants from across the ideological spectrum are already on the payroll and are going to make a whole lot of money from this quixotic venture, however it goes, so no matter what, I suppose he’s at least trickling some of his wealth down to lower orders. In the current political environment run by radical right-wing billionaires, Mugwumps and fools, that may be the best we can hope for.
Heather Digby Parton is a writer also well-known as “Digby.” Her political and cultural observations can be found at www.digbysblog.blogspot.com.