Since the publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, the mainstream news media has been paying attention to the impact of the super-rich on the political system. We see a growing number of candidates for major offices who are multi-millionaires and billionaires without elective experience, such as Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, Matt Bevin, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, Rick Scott, Bruce Rauner and probably Ben Carson. Many, though not all, have managed to spend their way into office.
As The New York Times and others have noted, the ultra-rich are also spending more money than ever before to help the candidates they like, thanks to the Supreme Court’s ill-thought decision in Citizens United. We’ve probably all seen the number 158 a lot over the past few months—it refers to the number of families who all by themselves give half of all campaign contributions, primarily to candidates who oppose unions, government regulation and taxes. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story about a small group of the ultra-wealthy who, led by billionaire hedge fund honcho Kenneth C. Griffin, are remaking Illinois government. They elected fellow rich guy Bruce Rauner as governor and are using their money and influence to aggressively support his plan to cut spending, weaken unions and restructure (AKA rip off) the state pension system.
Perhaps the most pernicious influence of the ultra-wealthy is their support of bogus research to support their positions, long disproven by responsible research. The ultra-wealthy support the think tanks whose employees crank out the countless articles in the mainstream media denying climate change, advocating lowering taxes on the wealthy, slamming unions and the minimum wage, delinking government policies with growing inequality, telling us how great corporate inversions and carried interest tax rules are, and supporting greater military spending as a means to solve all foreign policies. This investment in propaganda yields an ignorant electorate and an elected class usually focused on the wrong problems and the wrong solutions. Wrong, that is, for everyone other than the wealthy.
Certain of the wealthy such as Griffin, the Koch brothers and Phillip Anschutz have outsized power because of their ability to guide the political ”investments” of their wealthy friends and cronies.
While reading the Times article on the take-over of Illinois, my unconscious memory suddenly spewed out a name I hadn’t encountered in decades: Ferdinand Lundberg, a 20th century journalist who wrote about the rich and the power they hold. I read his major work, The Rich and the Super-Rich soon after it appeared in 1968.
In a nutshell, Lundberg’s theory is that in the United States two groups battle for control of society: the super-rich and the government. He traces the battle from the gilded age through Roosevelt’s reform of capitalism and the post-war era.
Lundberg’s theory was rejected by left and right alike. Critics from the right reject any analysis of power that creates a class of wealthy and pits them against other groups. One basic principle of conservatism is the belief in the wisdom of the marketplace in which everyone presents his goods, services—and in the case of politics, ideas—on a supposedly level playing field.
Those on left like C. Wright Mills and William Domhoff said that the analysis was naïve, because, in fact, the super-wealthy have always controlled government and society through a complex web of relationships formed at boards, clubs, private schools, nonprofit organizations and social circles. Domhoff’s model, included in his revision of Who Rules America, depicts wealthy people and corporations forming foundations and financing university research to produce reports advocating policies which filter to the public through the news media and government commissions comprising the very experts whom the wealthy have financed. What’s now becoming increasingly apparent is that over the past 30 years, right-wingers with money have followed the progressive Domhoff’s social policy model to seize and exercise power on such issues as taxation, privatization of government functions, gun control, abortion rights, capital punishment and voting rights.
In his latest book, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy, I believe Domhoff gets the subtleties of power in America right. His broad history has centrist business leaders cooperating with progressives to shape progressive initiatives to their own ends from the New Deal through the mid-1970s. After that, business centrists increasingly turned their backs on their allies among labor unions and progressive centrists to make truck with the ultra-right, who had always been in bed with the religious right and local real estate interests.
If we take a look at the history of U.S. government action over the past 150 years, however, we could conclude that that the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the New Deal created a government that could in fact control and compete with the wealthy. To the degree that that government pursued policies that were against the interests of the wealthy, such as unionization, fair trade laws and workplace safety, it acted as a center of power distinct and separate from the wealthy, as opposed to being an instrument of the wealthy.
In the context of Lundberg’s theory, what is happening today is truly alarming. The only institution in American society powerful enough to serve as a counter force to the network of ultra-wealthy described by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite is rapidly being co-opted and taken over by them. The democratic ideal of government seeking compromise of countervailing forces, which centrist theorists have long postulated, is now transforming to a government for, by and of the wealthy.
A putsch is a secretly planned overthrow of the government. I’m certain that if Lundburg were still alive, he would describe what is happening today as a putsch by the wealthy to overthrow the government and replace it with a facsimile that looks like freedom but delivers a totalitarian oligarchy.