(Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register prior to the election.)
In this predictably difficult year for the Democrats, the party of the people is turning, of all people, to its plutocrats. However much the party stigmatizes right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, a growing proportion of America’s ultra-rich have become devoted Democrats, giving them an edge in fund-raising. Indeed, an analysis of billionaire contributors this year by Politifact found that 13 supported liberals while only nine backed Republicans.
The left plutocracy helps explain how Harry Reid’s Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has greatly outraised their Republican rivals. Overall, Democratic-aligned committees have achieved a lopsided edge in fundraising – $453 million opposed to $289 million, according to Politico. Overall, the top three donors to the political Super PACs this year all lean to the left.
Democrats counter that many Republican groups, notably the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, generally don’t reveal their finances. But as the New York Times’ Tom Edsall notes, “Liberals do the same, and the press in large part gives them a pass.” He points particularly to the “Democracy Alliance,” a conglomerate of some 100 very rich donors who contribute some $30 million annually to progressive organizations and causes.
All this reflects a changing class system far more nuanced than the overworked meme about the “1 percent” arrayed against the toiling masses. Instead, we have a plutocracy increasingly divided, mostly along regional and industry lines, among themselves. It’s no surprise voters, notes columnist John Kass, are confused by this recent headline in the Chicago Tribune: “Obama decries income inequality in speech after $50,000-a-person fundraiser for Quinn.”
The Democrats’ Plutocrats
The Democratic plutocracy is largely rooted in such industries as telecommunications, entertainment, software, legal services and, surprisingly, a large section of Wall Street. Financial firms, such as Goldman Sachs, supported the president even before his first election. Although the firm did shift towards Mitt Romney in 2012, it maintains close, even intimate, ties to the president, as spelled out in the left-leaning Huffington Post. Wall Street has been the big winner in the Obama economy due to the Federal Reserve’s policy of ultra-low interest rates, which work to force investors into stocks.
Others sectors also have good reasons to embrace the Democrats. Lawyers often benefit from increased regulation, although that does not apply to most businesses. Overall, legal firms have contributed more than twice as much to Democrats than they have to Republicans.
Another powerful force for the Democrats lies in the high-tech sector. The same Fed policy that helps Wall Street asset managers also boosts venture capitalists by making investment in even dodgy start-ups irresistible. Once a minor force in campaigns, the tech firms, including software, have greatly expanded their campaign spending, up three-fold since 2000, with a tilt that, in 2012, saw Democrats harvest roughly twice as much high- tech cash as their GOP rivals.
Most of the leading tech industry figures – Yahoo’s Melissa Mayer, Google’s Sergei Brin, venture capitalist Reid Hoffman as well as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg – strongly tilt toward the Democrats. The grassroots nerdistan may be even more bluish; 91 percent of the contributions of Apple employees in the 2012 presidential race went to President Obama.
Concerns over climate change are a big plus for the Democrats with Silicon Valley. Mega-figures like Google’s Eric Schmidt and Tom Steyer, a former big time investor in fossil fuels, oppose all fossil fuels, including natural gas. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook, who has Al Gore on his board, has even asked that what he considers climate change “deniers” not invest in his company.
Silicon Valley is not just content to proselytize the masses. Firms like Google and investors have been quick to exploit the Democrats’ green politics, investing heavily in highly subsidized renewable fuels. Being green has become yet another business opportunity for some of America’s wealthiest investors and companies.
Then there’s always geography. Most of the major Democratic plutocrats live in solidly blue states such as Washington, California, Illinois and New York, where political influence means, for the most part, appealing to Democrats.
In contrast, being a conservative Republican in Silicon Valley avails one little; you are pretty much excluded from the biggest political events and any ideological misstep, as the former head of Mozilla learned the hard way, can lead to virtual banishment.
The Republican Residue
None of this suggests that the Republicans have become the new de facto populist party. The GOP still gathers in millions of dollars from big businesses, but these tend to be very different industries than those of the Democrats. Particularly prominent are fossil fuel companies, caught in the crosshairs of the White House and its regulatory apparatus. In 2012, oil and gas executives doubled their federal contributions to $70 million, with some 90 percent going to Republicans.
This year, energy firms are again making big bets on the GOP, hoping to block environmentalist-backed regulations by helping Republicans gain a majority in the Senate.
Republicans also do well with old-line oligarchs in agribusiness firms, home builders, casino owners, commercial banks and insurance companies. Once more divided in their loyalties, these appear to becoming increasingly GOP oriented in recent years. The party’s embattled governors have been raising millions from energy moguls like the Kochs, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and tobacco firm Reynolds American.
There’s also a strong regional tilt here. Most strong energy, home-building and agribusiness firms are concentrated in the middle of the country, most prominently in Texas, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas. Voters in these states, particularly Republicans, tend to be more favorable, according to Gallup, to expanding natural gas and oil production than their Democratic counterparts who are generally more partial to wind and solar.
Other players tip the scales to the Democrats.
Traditionally, Democrats have balanced the disproportionate business support for Republicans with strong backing from unions.
Since 1989, six of the largest political donors have come from labor. Today, business may be effectively divided, but organized labor remains rock solid in its backing for President Obama and his party.
Some private sector unions are upset by presidential policies on such things as Keystone XL pipeline.
But increasingly, the dominant union force behind the Democrats is not hard-hats but public employee unions, whose power in many blue states is all but incontestable.
Looking forward: The Gentry Liberal Ascendancy
Despite the fund-raising shortfall, Republicans could do well this November.
Even brilliantly targeted get-out-the-vote efforts, or effective use of social media, may not be enough to save Harry Reid’s Senate majority, and certainly will not be enough to break the GOP stranglehold on the House. But this may prove only a temporary triumph, as most long-term trends in political fund-raising favor the Democrats.
The most profound is the movement of money away from the tangible economy – oil and gas, manufacturing, home-building, logistics – to such activities as financial transactions, digital technology, media and entertainment.
Unless the Democratic Party rediscovers its populist soul, these sectors, and those who derive their fortunes from it, will enjoy friendly treatment from Democrats, whether in mergers, as in the case of Comcast, or in evading privacy controls, which impacts much of the social media sector.
More important will be the progressive orientation of the trustifarians, the inheritor generation, which is just emerging from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.
Already the bulk of nonprofits are now solidly liberal, with roughly 70 percent of their funds going to left-of-center causes. This trend will likely increase in the future. The new gentry – like the inheritors of the fortunes of the once-reactionary Ford, MacArthur and Rockefeller families – is likely to ignore basic business concerns and instead adopt the generally leftist culture in their favored locales.
Ultimately, the American oligarchy is transforming in ways injurious to Republicans and favorable to the Democrats. The Supreme Court has dropped restrictions on fundraising and the economy has boosted the incomes of the super-rich, but not much for anyone else.
That may upset Democrats in principle, but, in the long run, they are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries.
Cross-posted in New Geography.