Paul Krugman argues that suspicion of plutocratic power is an American tradition:
People on the right often insist that expressing any concern about highly concentrated wealth is “un-American.” The truth, however, is that worrying about the dangers great wealth poses for democracy is very much part of the American tradition. And our nation basically invented progressive taxation, which was traditionally seen not just as a source of revenue but also as a way to limit excessive wealth.
In fact, if you read what prominent figures said during the Progressive Era, many expressed views that would be hysterically denounced as class warfare today. Theodore Roosevelt warned against “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” Woodrow Wilson declared, “If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it.”
What is the root of plutocratic power?
Campaign finance is dominated by a tiny number of extremely rich donors. But there are several other channels of influence.
Until recently I would have said that outright corruption — direct purchase of favors from policymakers — was rare. ProPublica’s revelation that Justice Thomas enjoyed many lavish, undisclosed vacations at Crow’s expense suggests that I may have been insufficiently cynical.
Beyond that, there’s the revolving door: Former politicians and officials who supported the interests of the wealthy find comfortable sinecures at billionaire-supported lobbying firms, think tanks and media organizations. These organizations also help shape what military analysts call the “information space,” defining public discourse in ways that favor the interests of the superrich.
It’s a simplification, but I think fundamentally true, to say that the U.S. right has won many elections, despite an inherently unpopular economic agenda, by appealing to intolerance — racism, homophobia and these days anti-“wokeness.” Yet there’s a risk in that strategy: Plutocrats who imagine that the forces of intolerance are working for them can wake up and discover that it’s the other way around.
That may be what's happening now. But, in the end, the backlash may burn the whole place down.
Image: Financial Times