Alastair McTaggart is a true inspiration. A self-made man who used a substantial portion of his fortune to fight successfully to improve our privacy protections online. McTaggart is not a professional politician. He could have lived his life without getting involved. As Nicholas Confessore called him in The New York Times, he’s an “unlikely activist.”
There’s also George Soros. Not only a self-made man, but an immigrant to our country. He also put his money where his mouth is, helping start MoveOn.org as well as other liberal organizations.
We cheer for Democratic candidates like Dianne Feinstein or David Trone who can spend millions of their own fortunes on their campaigns to help eliminate the Republicans’ funding advantages.
These folks represent the American dream. Self-made millionaires and billionaires, you would expect them to be active supporters of the Republicans. Instead, they commit themselves to liberal causes.
Of course, most billionaires are Republicans. But the enthusiasm liberals have for their wealthy backers raises an important question: do you need to be rich to be politically active?
Ironically, our country, the beacon of democracy, has something of a tradition of favoring the wealthy elite to lead us. After all, at our country’s birth, ownership of real property was often a requirement to vote. Senators were not directly elected by the people but were appointed by the state legislatures, themselves made up of relatively wealthy individuals.
If there is any trend that has been consistent over the past two hundred years, it has been the move to make our system more democratic, more accountable to the public. The vote was extended to women, African-Americans, young people. Property requirements to vote were banned. The direct election of Senators was established, and the smoke-filled rooms were banned with the selection of Presidential candidates by primaries. Campaign finance disclosure requirements have at least made the system more transparent.
The wealthy, however, have rebelled, fighting a rear-guard action to protect their prerogatives. They have been helped by the Supreme Court — itself, in general, a bastion of elitism — with its rulings that money is the equivalent of speech and so is protected by the First Amendment. This holding from Buckley v. Valeo has been the basis for much of the recent flow of money into politics, the striking down of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reforms, and of course, Citizens United v. FEC.
These efforts have succeeded beyond all expectations. At this time, the allies of the wealthy have control of a majority of the state governments and every branch of the federal government. They have created structural barriers though gerrymandering that give them power despite their minority status.
They have delivered for the wealthy. Most notably are the recent tax cuts, which were basically a tax on the poor, middle class and future generations to benefit the today’s rich folks.
The enthusiasm liberals have for the contributions of their own rich is a reflection of the frustration we feel over our relative lack of power despite the popularity of our ideas. We are glad to see that not all rich people are selfish and bad.
In so doing, however, we have taken us off the path toward greater democracy and accountability. After all, the rich are only accountable to themselves. Even our rich folks.
I wonder whether their involvement in our party has directed our attention away from some of the issues that defined us. We should be fighting for economic populism. Instead, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were tagged quite correctly for taking the side of Wall Street against average folks.
Perhaps the greatest structural damage the Republicans have done to the liberal cause has been in the destruction of unions. Research has shown that where unions are present and active, Democrats do better. In close elections like the one Trump just won, that can be enough.
While I applaud the contributions of wealthy liberals, I hope their generosity does not lead to lower participation at the grassroots. People need to feel that they are making a difference to be involved. Remember the primary reason people don’t vote is because they feel their vote doesn’t matter. Efforts need to be made to keep the grassroots vital. If such efforts don’t persist, then no amount of money from wealthy liberals will save us.
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