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The Self-Pity of the Never-Warren Democratic Donors

November 20, 2019
The Self-Pity of the Never-Warren Democratic Donors
(Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Shutterstock)

Passing through the summer precincts of the privileged, one routinely heard the touching plaints of America’s most afflicted class: wealthy Democratic donors whose febrile feelings had been wounded by the scarifying aspersions of that menacing modern Robespierre—Elizabeth Warren.

How unappreciated they were, how badly misunderstood, how unfairly maligned: listening to their hurt and indignation, one could conjure the tumbrils beckoning. Warren was “stirring up envy”; “vilifying success”; fomenting “class warfare”; “breaking the backbone of philanthropy”—and, above all, tearing down those “wealth creators” to whom America owes so much: themselves.

So dire was the threat that, despite their rarefied progressive sensibilities, this cadre of rich Democrats proclaim they might feel compelled to protect themselves from Warren by supporting Donald Trump.

Unsurprisingly, CNBC became their sympathetic Boswell. “I want to help the party,” it quoted a private equity executive as saying, “but she’s going to hurt me, so I’m going to help President Trump.” His stance “is becoming widely shared” among wealthy Democratic donors and bundlers, CNBC reported, warning that bank executives “will not support her” and that “several high- dollar Democratic donors and fundraisers in the business community” might sit out the general election or support Trump over Warren. Indeed, Jim Cramer related, Wall Street executives are determined that Warren “has got to be stopped.”

Less sympathetic observers might wonder if levels of privilege unparalleled in global history tend to create a worldview which precludes all but self. A wider lens would reveal that their proposed alternative, Donald Trump, is provoking a constitutional crisis by refusing to honor subpoenas in the House impeachment inquiry and that this is just the latest front in his ongoing war against the Constitution, rule of law, and constraints on executive authority. In Trump’s reinvention of America, no one has the power to hold him to account—which neatly defines the demise of democracy.

One might imagine that all of this gives Democratic donors pause. Yet many seem prepared to dismiss the dangers of reelecting a president whose personal pathology would appall them in a business partner, son-in-law, or neighbor.


Given the irreconcilable antagonism between Trump and the stated values of the Democratic party, one wonders what would—what possibly could—push wealthy Democrats to choose him over Elizabeth Warren. And how did never-Warren become a cacophony in certain monied precincts of the party?

The most obvious explanation is that the anti- Warren donors are spooked by her attack on their great, silent benefactor: income inequality and the four decades within which the American economy and government have cooperated in redistributing wealth and income upward to a privileged sliver of Americans

The central focus of Warren’s career has been documenting the growing struggles of ordinary Americans—in particular, the growth of corporate profits and upper-crust wealth as average Americans tread water. This phenomenon has been abetted by politicians who are supported and financed by both corporate interests and the wealthy. As Warren puts it, “The constant tension in a democracy is that those with money will try to capture the government to turn it to their purposes.” That privileged nexus between economic and political power explains much about why the top 0.1 percent of Americans now control nearly as much in wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

A few statistics illustrate how sharply America has diverged from our historical norm since 1980. Over the last five decades, the top 1 percent have nearly doubled their share of national income—a concentration of earnings not seen since the 1920s. CEOs head roughly two-thirds of America’s richest 1 percent of households. And in 2017, the gap between CEOs and workers was nearly 9 times larger than it was in 1980. The gap gets bigger the higher you go: The CEOs at the S&P 500 are paid 61 times as much as the average employee. Inevitably, this wealth gap fortifies the donor classes.

The ever-swelling political sway of this group is derived from a system of campaign finance which is an elegant form of bribery, and which has been accelerated by the Citizens United decision and massive corporate lobbying. The result is more reminiscent of plutocracy than democracy. As the classic 2013 study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page concluded, “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in effecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.” The result, they found, is that the “American political system has done less than other rich democracies to address growing inequality in ‘market’ incomes, and may also have done more to exacerbate that inequality in the first place.”

Gently put. Unsurprisingly, Gilens and Page further noted that, in general, “the wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth” and “are significantly less favorable to increasing government regulation of Wall Street firms, the healthcare industry, small business, and especially big corporations.” Little wonder, then, that these preferences help define America’s dominant economic policies.

As suggested by the outcry over Warren, among its gilded beneficiaries this tyranny of the minority breeds a near-impermeable insularity, smugness, and entitlement. Far too many donors expect politicians to sing for their $2,000 a plate supper, prostrating themselves to placate their benefactors and swapping economic policy for cash.

Warren offends not only their policy preferences, but their sense of place.

Thus cosseted, the donor class ignores the politically and socially destabilizing effects of their own dominance. Polling consistently shows that the public—meaning everyone else—believes that corporations and the wealthy do not pay their fair share of taxes. As a corollary, a 2017 Pew Research Center poll showed that two-thirds of Americans are dissatisfied with “the way income and wealth are distributed in the US.”

What they perceive is America’s reality. According to a new book by Warren advisors Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, in 2018 the average effective tax rate paid by the richest 400 families in America was a full percentage point lower than that paid by the bottom half. This is the result of deliberate policy choices made by politicians on behalf of the ultra- rich: cutting top income tax rates, lowering taxes on capital gains and estates, and gutting the IRS.

Which is why most Americans support raising taxes on the wealthy.

The Trump tax legislation of 2017 is a classic case. It cut the average effective tax rate for the top 0.1 percent by 2.5 percentage points. It also exploded the deficit while failing to produce the promised higher rates of growth and business investment. Instead, it financed $1 trillion dollars in stock buybacks, which primarily benefit the wealthy.

But what most perturbs Warren’s Wall Street critics is not the seamy reality of this con game, but that Warren might expose it to their disadvantage. One hedge fund executive told CNBC: “I think if she can show that the tax code of 2017 was basically nonsense and only helped corporations, Wall Street would not like the public thinking about that.”

No kidding.

The rebellion against Warren among large-dollar funding sources reflects a shift in influence within the Democratic party: As large donors have become more prominent over the last three decades, they re-directed the party’s policies and ideology. The party’s traditional base was comprised of organized labor, unions, minorities, and economic reformers. But since the Clinton administration, the Democrats have also attracted major precincts of the ultra-rich: Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, New York financiers, Hollywood moguls. And the rising purchase of the uber-privileged has wrought a party more attuned to their narrow financial interests.

No doubt many wealthy donors are comfortable with the party’s liberal stance on social issues. Often they are admirably philanthropic. Some, such as Warren Buffet, decry economic inequities and advocate meaningful tax increases. But, as the overall financial influence of Wall Street and Silicon Valley swells, the party has become increasingly tepid about reinvigorating antitrust enforcement, revitalizing unions, regulating financial institutions, combating income inequality, or passing serious tax increases on the wealthy.

Over time, the economic policies of Democrats have, sub silentio, become more congruent with those of Republicans—and with the often interchangeable donor elites of both parties.

Hence their fear and loathing of Elizabeth Warren.

So what, precisely, has Warren said and done which make these wealthy Democrats prefer Donald Trump?

To start, she won’t take their money. In any form. Avows Warren: “Wealthy donors don’t buy this process.” Says a spokeswoman: “That means no PAC money. No federal lobbyist money. No special access or call time with rich donors or big-dollar fund-raisers to underwrite our campaign.”

This refusal of special interest money captures her aversion to 40 years of ersatz capitalism slanted toward a wealthy few. Warren calls herself “a capitalist to my bones,” but her definition of the term differs from that of the Never-Warren Democrats.

“I believe in markets,” she says, “markets that work, markets that have a cop on the beat and have real rules and everybody follows them. I believe in a level playing field.” Lest anyone miss her point, she argues that “to raise wages, help small businesses, and spur economic growth, we need to shut down Wall Street giveaways and rein in the financial industry so it stops sucking money out of the rest of the economy.”

According to Markets Insider, Warren’s plans “include breaking up the big banks, dividing commercial and investment banking, and forcing private equity firms to shoulder debts and pension costs tied to businesses they buy.” In short, to restore the more benign standards of corporate behavior which benefited America writ large in the decades after World War II.

Similarly, she invokes our now-dormant antitrust laws to combat overconcentration of economic power in the hands of tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon. Further, she proposes to strengthen unions and promote worker representation on the boards of large corporations, the better to humanize their practices and enlarge their sense of corporate citizenship to include the welfare of employees and the communities in which they operate.

Seeking to replenish the more equitable capitalist ethic which prevailed before 1980 is hardly revolutionary. Yet for her opponents among the donor class—those who have benefited most from the current practice of capitalism as economic and political Darwinism—that is socialism incarnate. But perhaps most menacing to their view of themselves as capitalism’s richly-deserving winners is how she would redress the resulting disparities in wealth and income which have distorted our economy and destabilized our society.

Warren proposes to counteract our widening economic inequality through ambitious programs which include providing single-payer healthcare, universal childcare, and free public college. To cover the cost, she would increase taxes on corporations, Wall Street, and the wealthy. The centerpiece is her signature “wealth tax”—a 2 cent surcharge on every dollar of household wealth over $50 million, and 6 cents per dollar of net worth over $1 billion.

This proposal neatly captures the contours of our burgeoning wealth disparity: it is supported by a great majority of Americans while, unsurprisingly, Warren’s wealthy opponents view it as a tyrannical imposition of confiscatory taxation by unconstrained majority rule. Never mind that during our halcyon days of post-World War II prosperity, income taxes on the wealthy were much higher. In 1960 the top marginal rate was 91 percent on income over $200,000 for single filers, or $400,000 per family—in today’s dollars; roughly $1.5 million and $3 million respectively. But such was the relative equity in income distribution that only 0.00235 percent of households paid marginal taxes at this rate.

No matter to Warrenphobes among the Democratic donor class.Historical perspective has never been an area of strength for the wealthy and aggrieved.

Perhaps the most obstreperously wounded Never Warren-ite is hedge fund magnate Leon Cooperman. Variously, Cooperman has complained that Warren was “shitting on” free enterprise; suggesting that “capitalism is a dirty word”; “trying to demonize wealthy people because there are more poor people” and portraying the wealthy “are ingrates who didn’t earn their riches.”

But numerous other anti-Warren Democrats joined Cooperman’s alarums. Michael Bloomberg worried that Warren would turn America into Venezuela. The admirably philanthropic Bill Gates left the door open to choosing Donald Trump. Jamie Dimon of J.P. Morgan Chase—whose net worth is $1.6 billion and who was paid $29.5 million in 2017—complained that Warren ” villainizes successful people.” For the prominent Democratic donor, financier and economic commentator Steven Rattner “what scares the hell out of me is the way she would fundamentally change our free-enterprise system.”

Despite all that afflicts America under Donald Trump, Warren seems to have focused much of the donor class on the unrealized travails of a single constituency—themselves.

The president of Drucker Wealth management complained that “these tax proposals are scaring the bejeezus out of people who have accumulated a lot of wealth.” A Washington-based policy analyst for Raymond James reported in November that “I had many more conversations about Elizabeth Warren in the last week that I did about impeachment.”

Another financial planner related that “as the frustration mounts and tax burdens rise, people consider…leaving the country and renouncing citizenship.” Regrettably for those whose patriotism declines as their marginal tax rate rises, the diabolical Warren has a plan for that, too: a 40 percent exit tax on wealth over $50 million.

The best argument against Warren’s program came from Bill Gates, who warned of the potential impact of a wealth tax on philanthropy. For Gates, this is not academic: his Gates Foundation dispenses billions every year to combat disease, relieve poverty, and improve education—the contributions totaling over $50.1 billion since it was established in 2000. (Full disclosure: My oldest son is a program officer for the Gates Foundation.) Moreover, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett created the Giving Pledge, whose wealthy adherents promise to donate more than half their worth to philanthropy.

As reported by the New York Times, if Warren’s wealth tax had taken effect in 1982, Gates’ net worth would be nearly $14 billion instead $97 billion. So while Gates would still be rich beyond imagining, he could not have given away anything like the estimated $35.8 billion he has personally invested in philanthropy.

This raises interesting questions about the balance between philanthropy and taxation. But, in itself, individual philanthropy can’t address our pressing social needs—from infrastructure to environmental protection to closing the yawning deficit opened by tax cuts—let alone narrow the wealth and income gap. Only government can do that.

This is the essential truth that Never Warren donors dismiss.

One can fairly criticize Warren’s policy prescriptions on the grounds of political or practical efficacy. But in their bubble of entitlement, the Never Warren Democrats not only accept riches as their just reward, but believe that money is itself a license to redirect public policy to preserve and extend their advantages. Moreover, unlike Gates—who helped invent something of revolutionary importance—many of them got rich simply in the arbitrage casino of finance. Quick question: How would your life be different today if no one had invented the hedge fund?

The answer, of course, is that it wouldn’t.

The rise of small, individual donations to Warren and Bernie Sanders—whatever one thinks of their candidacies—is a hopeful sign because it points the way to marginalizing self-interested Democratic donors as a funding source. Those willing to jettison their presumptive principles and political loyalties for the marginal dollar are poor stewards for a party which proposes to serve the populace at large.

A cold-eyed look at reality puts the objections of the Democratic donor class in a particularly merciless light. Today the wealthiest Americans are paying a much smaller share of taxes than they did 40 years ago. And the decades of tax cuts which helped swell their riches have left the government deeply in debt, at a time when we need to invest in lifting our populace as a whole, and in economic imperatives like improving our flagging infrastructure.

That’s Warren’s message. Here she finds an unlikely advocate: billionaire former Goldman Sachs partner Michael Novogratz. Urging his fellow billionaires to “lighten up” about her wealth tax, Novogratz admonishes: “You’re not victims; you’re the richest people in the world. How in God’s name do you feel like a victim?”

“It’s insanity. ‘They’re going to come get us.’ No! You’re going to get taxed a little more.” After all, he adds, “the way the country is functioning today, the bottom 60 percent aren’t doing very well.”

Precisely. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, the most privileged Americans in our history should quit complaining and invest more time in empathy.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.