A bit of a wealth conundrum. 

Rich-on-Rich Warfare in U.S. Politics

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

Speaking in the Senate earlier this month, in favor of a constitutional amendment to neuter the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, Senator Elizabeth Warren discussed the need to balance powerful interests to keep democracy afloat. In Warren's view, corporations, in the wake of the court's 2010 decision to deregulate campaign finance, have been running wild, bending the law "to benefit themselves." This is precisely the concentration of power that the Founders feared, Warren said. To rectify the imbalance, "Power must be opposed to power," she said, quoting John Adams, "force to force, strength to strength, interest to interest, as well as reason to reason, eloquence to eloquence, and passion to passion."

The de facto leader of the liberal wing of the nation's liberal party, Warren was at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York this week in search of counterbalance. She was the luncheon keynote speaker at a fundraiser for Emily's List , a political action committee that backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. More than 300 people, mostly white women, paid to see her. Tickets ranged from $250 for attendees to $5,000 for those listed as hosts.

Politico reported this week that Democrats may be eclipsing Republicans this year in the big money hunt that is essential to political survival. Common sense, a passing acquaintance with human nature and some political science all suggest that wealthy donors enjoy significantly greater access to political leaders. In the course of bemoaning the demands of fundraising, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy told an audience at Yale University in 2013 that in his home state of Connecticut, "You spend a lot of time on the phone with people who work in the financial markets. And so you're hearing a lot about problems that bankers have and not a lot of problems that people who work at the mill in Thomaston Connecticut have."

The poor and working class, of course, aren't a monolith; they're politically fractured by race, ideology and region. Their relatively low turnout in elections doesn't help. And although unions are fighting for power, the soaring price of politics makes it harder for them to remain top-level players. The 2014 U.S. Senate race in Kentucky, where television advertising is relatively inexpensive, has generated $43 million in spending so far -- about $10 for every man, woman and child in the state. Millions more will be spent before Election Day.

While Republicans have been fanatically devoted to serving the "job creators" at the top of the income chain, their lavishing of tax cuts and benefits on the wealthy at least has a certain ideological consistency. Democrats, meanwhile, have managed to take wealthy donors' money while still advocating tax increases on the wealthiest and subsidized health care for the poor and working class.

That's either a testament to strong beliefs or a reflection of wealthy Democrats' preoccupation with social issues. But it's hard to believe the constant attention to, and identification with, the wealthy doesn't come at a cosmic price. Like Murphy, high-level Democrats increasingly hear from one narrow stratum of society, regardless of where their own passions reside.

The narratives conveyed by wealthy donors, wealthy business leaders and wealthy social acquaintances acquire a collective force, even truth. Points of view that challenge that truth are marginalized or discounted. "We can all tell compelling stories," said Kay Schlozman, a political scientist at Boston College, "especially if our competitors aren't in the room."

In a 2013 paper on inequality and political power, authors Adam Bonica, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal noted that of 4,493 board members and chief executive officers of Fortune 500 firms, more than 80 percent had reported contributions in federal elections. (Many of the noncontributors were foreigners barred from contributing to U.S. campaigns.)

The counterbalance to such corporate wealth is simply different wealth. The Senate campaign of Michigan Republican Terri Lynn Land, for example, has benefited from millions in spending on her behalf by groups aligned with the Koch brothers. In return, billionaire Tom Steyer's group, NextGen Climate, aired ads attacking Land (by linking her to the Kochs, layoffs and industrial pollution in Michigan). It's rich on rich warfare.

There's no point lamenting a wholly mythical golden age in which the poor were politically powerful. Things have been worse. But the zero-sum battle for political control recognizes no limits. And in pursuit of the money that enables them to pursue power, politicians can only spare so much time and energy for the nonrich.

Warren told the Emily's List crowd, "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu." In this system, no one will be eating the rich.

  1. For one year in the mid-1990s, I was communications director of Emily's List.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors on this story:
Frank Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net