Bernie Sanders wants to get rid of them. Amy Klobuchar is fine with them, but wants them to pay somewhat higher taxes. Joe Biden promises them that under him, “nothing would fundamentally change.” Tom Steyer is one of them and wouldn’t be in the race if he wasn’t but seems slightly embarrassed about it. Elizabeth Warren wants to break up the companies that made many of them in the first place. Michael Bloomberg is trying to become president largely on the basis of being one. It would take Pete Buttigieg thousands of years to become one at his past rate of adult wealth creation, and yet he seems to be their top choice.
And waiting across the aisle, Donald Trump claims he’s one of them, which, because he’s Trump, means he probably isn’t.
I’m talking about billionaires, of course.
The Democratic debate on Wednesday made it clearer than ever that November’s election has become the billionaire referendum, in which it will be impossible to vote without taking a stand on extreme wealth in a democracy. The word “billionaire” came up more often than “China,” America’s leading geopolitical competitor; “immigration,” among its most contentious issues; and “climate,” its gravest existential threat.
Ms. Warren dominated the night by framing Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign as a bid to “substitute one arrogant billionaire for another.” When Mr. Sanders later confirmed his view that billionaires should not exist, one of the moderators, Chuck Todd, asked, “Mayor Bloomberg, should you exist?” Mr. Bloomberg replied, “I worked very hard for it, and I’m giving it away.”
With the debate careening between billionaire loathing and billionaire self-love, Mr. Buttigieg warned against making voters “choose between a socialist who thinks that capitalism is the root of all evil and a billionaire who thinks that money ought to be the root of all power.”
As the veteran Washington watchers Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, of Axios, have observed, billionaires are less a major topic of this race than the total atmosphere of it. It’s not just the politicians. From Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch, billionaires are the captains of an economy whose cruelties have given this year its populist verve, the boogeypeople for some candidates, the bankrollers of others, and the owners of the platforms of persuasion.
So what should we do about them? Voters are being treated to a vast range of answers to that question — from “Let’s tax them down to mere millionaire status” to “Let’s put them in charge of everything A.S.A.P.”
The debate is testing abiding American assumptions. A country more ardently capitalist than most is asking itself, as seriously as at any time in the modern era, whether the ultrarich, just because they are ultrarich, endanger democracy. And a country just as committed, contrarily, to its founding ideal of equality is asking whether to resign itself to a gilded revolving door in which you unseat billionaire leaders you hate by electing billionaires you don’t mind.
These conditions make it at once utterly remarkable, and totally explicable, that Mr. Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont and a democratic socialist, has become the front-runner for the Democratic nomination — and that Ms. Warren’s debate performance this week resonated as much as it did. You wouldn’t know it from watching cable news, where pundits are often aghast at the tastes of regular people who think green rooms are just rooms that are green, but in recent years, anger at billionaires has risen to a boil. This is thanks to
- the financial crisis, to
- endless wars cheered on by corporate and media elites and to
- yawning inequality.
There is a growing sense that billionaires are not people who just happen to have drifted up from our midst, that in fact they are up there because they are standing on our backs, pinning us down.
Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, have some meaningful differences of policy and personality. But the thread that connects their campaigns is their insistence that the “left behind” in America are not actually being left behind so much as stood on. They each seek to take the passive voice out of the grammar of American hardship: Your health insurance hasn’t somehow, mysteriously been made too expensive; your brick-and-mortar store hasn’t somehow, mysteriously been undercut. Someone did those things to you, probably by rigging the system to secure an undeserved advantage. And that person was probably a billionaire.
The degree of support for these ideas in 2020 is astonishing in a center-right country where, as John Steinbeck once wrote, explaining socialism’s limited growth in America: “We didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” It is a reflection of how fed up many Americans are with the old narratives about how, with a little pluck and patience, they too will rise. And it is a sign of a generational changing of the guard. As the (millennial) journalist Charlotte Alter, author of the new book “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For,” told me, “Socialism is a generational Rorschach test: Boomers think of Soviet gulags and bad shoes, millennials think of Swedish health care and free education.”
In the mainstream of the Democratic Party, it has long been said that billionaires should pay more of their “fair share.” But, until recently, few would have questioned that you’d want more billionaires on the Forbes list, not fewer. Today a vocal chunk of the Democratic electorate is gravitating to a strikingly different conclusion: that America would actually be better off reducing its billionaire population through taxes and profit-trimming regulations.
(In fact, if I could ask one debate question, it would be this: Raise your hand if you would want there to be more billionaires at the end of your presidency than the start; raise your hand if you’d want fewer billionaires. Then, same question, but applied to millionaires. I think it would be revealing.)
Ballooning anti-billionaire sentiment is galvanizing billionaires. Some have been motivated to go on television to cast their critics as naïve and un-American. Others donate to centrist candidates like Mr. Biden, Mr. Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who serve a cocktail of down-home incrementalism shaken with wealth defense. But it took a special billionaire — Mr. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York — to find a more direct way to thwart ascendant progressives. He is seeking to buy the election.
Just when the accountants thought they knew every tax-avoidance trick, here is the ultimate: become the leader of the free world. Of course, Mr. Bloomberg would say that he is running for an entirely different reason, which also happens to be very billionairey: He thinks he’s the only one with the wits and war chest to pull it off. “I alone can fix it,” as Mr. Trump once put it. It is something of a mantra for the billionaires.
There was never a way for Mr. Bloomberg to run as anything but Mr. Billionaire. The pitch he landed on was incorruptibility. “I will be the only candidate in this race who isn’t corruptible,” Mr. Bloomberg told an audience in Phoenix last November, “who isn’t going to take a penny from anyone, and will work for a dollar a year.” This was the best he could do: suggest that being a billionaire would make him more honest because billionaires are so rich they don’t have to listen to other billionaires.
One problem with this approach is that it is eerily similar to that taken by Mr. Trump, whose White House Mr. Bloomberg has called “besotted by lies, chaos and corruption.” As Larry Kudlow, a Trump adviser, put it in 2016, “Why shouldn’t the president surround himself with successful people? Wealthy folks have no need to steal or engage in corruption.” And Mr. Trump also said, “As far as salary is concerned, I won’t take even one dollar.”
The billionaire’s intrinsic incorruptibility is a curious pitch when you seek to run against a maybe-billionaire impeached for corruption. But even if we take Mr. Bloomberg at his word, the notion that being beholden only to your own opinions, and not those of many donors, deserves more scrutiny. Personally, I am not a fan of billionaires pumping any money at all into politics. But I would trust someone who has to juggle the different needs, moods and taboos of multiple billionaire donors over a billionaire who is accountable only to himself.
Mr. Bloomberg’s incorruptibility argument functions as a smokescreen. It can cause you to ignore that his basic enterprise — spending his personal fortune to flood the airwaves with an unprecedented deluge of ads, thereby ginning up votes and arguably purchasing the presidency — is the picture of corruption.
(When I texted my friend Alexander Theodoridis, a political scientist at the University of California, Merced, to ask if any scholarship could shed light on Mr. Bloomberg’s method of campaigning, he answered: “Most of the work on buying votes is about the developing world, which perhaps the U.S. is joining.”)
Yet, simply by running, Mr. Bloomberg is performing a valuable public service: illustrating to the public how billionaire influence complicates any challenges to billionaire influence.
As Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish have documented in these pages, Mr. Bloomberg is a dedicated philanthropist — and has leveraged his giving to develop “a national infrastructure of influence, image-making and unspoken suasion that has helped transform a former Republican mayor of New York City into a plausible contender for the Democratic nomination.” By giving away billions of dollars to nonprofit groups that fight for the most vulnerable, Mr. Bloomberg has made allies out of people who might otherwise be vocally against him.
This, too, is what is at stake in the billionaire referendum. Do we wish to be a society in which wealth purchases fealty? Are we cool with plutocrats taking advantage of a cash-starved state to run their own private policy machinery, thus cultivating the networks required to take over the state from time to time, and run it in ways that further entrench wealth?
Just this week, Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, announced his creation of a $10 billion fund to fight climate change. Once, such a gift might have been greeted with unmitigated gratitude. But now, rightly, people are asking about all the taxes Amazon doesn’t pay, about its own carbon footprint, and about whether any mortal should have that much power over a shared crisis.
This, too, is on the ballot this autumn. There are candidates who would leave undisturbed the opportunity to create wealth on that scale and who encourage the private solution of public problems. (One less thing for the pols to do!) And there are candidates who want the Bezoses of the world to have way less money, and who want citizens to trust that the government having that money instead will mean better solutions.
Never in our lifetimes has it been a prerequisite to have a take on billionaires in order to do your basic civic duty and vote. But it is now. Here are some questions no voter can avoid:
Do you think we shouldn’t have billionaires or should have many more — maybe you?!
Do you think being incredibly wealthy makes you immune to corruption, or prone to it?
Do you think it’s possible to empower those Americans locked in the basement of opportunity while helping billionaires do even better — a win-win? Or do you believe we need to take away a great deal of billionaire wealth to give millions a better life?
Do you trust a news media that sells advertisements to corporations owned by billionaires, and sometimes to billionaire candidates directly, to inform you properly about the level of power billionaires have and what to do about it?
Do you believe only a billionaire is qualified to solve the problems billionaires helped create? Or are you skeptical of the deployment of arsonists as firefighters?
Let’s face it. You’re unlikely to become one of the billionaires. But you can choose whether to resign yourself to living in their country — or to remind them that they live in yours.