The Magazine

Millionaires' Brawl

America's real power struggle: super rich liberals vs. ordinary plutocrats.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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With the economy floundering, Wall Street in disgrace, and American capitalism facing its most serious ideological challenge in one, two, or three generations (you can take your pick), it's a good moment to remember Lenin. While the bearded Bolshevik's grasp of economics was never the best and his stock picks remain a mystery, he would have grasped the politics of our present situation all too well. The old butcher would not have found anything especially surprising about the rise of Barack Obama, the nature of his supporters, or the evolution of his policies. He would have simply asked his usual question: Kto/kogo ("Who/whom"). The answer would tell him almost everything he needed to know. Lenin regarded politics as binary--a zero sum game with winners, losers, and nothing in between. For him it was a bare-knuckled brawl that ultimately could be reduced to that single brutal question: who was on top and who was not. Who was giving orders to whom. Hope and Change, nyet so much.

Of course, it would be foolish to deny the role that things like idealism, sanctimony, fashion, hysteria, exhaustion, restlessness, changing demographics, Hurricane Katrina, an unpopular war, George W. Bush, and mounting economic alarm played in shaping last November's Democratic triumph. Nevertheless if we peer through the smug, self-congratulatory smog that enveloped the Obama campaign, the outlines of a harder-edged narrative can be discerned, a narrative that bolsters the idea that Lenin's cynical maxim has held up better than the state he created.

So, who in 2008 was Who, and who Whom?

In a Democratic year, it's no surprise that organized labor emerged as Who and large swaths of the private sector as Whom. Many of the other, sometimes overlapping, constituencies (whether it's minorities, the young, or the gay, to name but three) who saw themselves benefiting from an Obama presidency were equally easy to predict. After all, whether by the accident of his birth or the design of his campaign, Obama's victorious coalition was, even more than most, a creation of meticulously assembled blocks, more pluribus than unum, and each with plenty to gain from his arrival in the White House.

That said, for all the smiles, the reassuring vagueness, and the this-isn't-going-to-hurt (too much) rhetoric, it was somewhat less predictable that a large slice of the upper crust would succumb to Obama's deftly articulated pitch. Yes, it's true that there had been signs that some richer, more upscale voters were being driven into the Democratic camp by the culture wars (and the fact that prosperity had left them free to put a priority on such issues). Nevertheless, even after taking account of the impact of an unusually unpopular incumbent, it's striking how much this process intensified in 2008--a year in which the Democrats were not only running their most leftwing candidate since George McGovern, but also running a leftwing candidate with every chance of winning. Voting for Obama would not be a cost-free virtuecratic nod, but a choice with consequences. At first glance therefore it makes little sense that 49 percent of those from households making more than $100,000 a year (26 percent of the electorate) opted for the Democrat, up from 41 percent in 2004, as did 52 percent of those raking in over $200,000 (6 percent of voters), up from 35 percent last go round.

Yet, this shift in voting patterns is more rational than it initially seems: more Lenin than lemming. Class conflict is inherent in all higher primate societies (even this one). It can manifest itself at every level, right up to the very top, and certain aspects of the 2008 campaign came to resemble a millionaires' brawl--one that was, of course, decorous, sotto voce, and rarely mentioned.

In a shrewd article written for Politico shortly after the election, Clinton adviser Mark Penn tried to pin down who exactly these higher echelon Obama voters were ("professional," corporate rather than small business, highly educated, and so on). Possibly uncomfortable with acknowledging anything so allegedly un-American as class yet politically very comfortable with this obvious class's obvious electoral clout, he eulogized its supposedly shared characteristics: teamwork, pragmatism, collective action, trust in government intervention, a preference for the scientific over the faith-based, and a belief in the "interconnectedness of the world." We could doubtless add an appreciation of NPR and a fondness for a bracing decaf venti latte to the list, and as we did so we would try hard to forget this disquieting passage from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: "The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians."