Two recent movements have transformed the political landscape. The Occupy movement literally operates in the light of day. The other movement operates in secrecy, with money as its “speech” rather than … well, you know, speech.
The Romney video offers us a rare glimpse of the other movement. This movement of the extremely rich is ruthless, radical, and full of rage. And it’s on the rise.
If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.
Sure, it was stupid for Mitt Romney to insult the non-Federal-tax paying “47 percent” on that video, especially since so many of them are Republican voters. But it was only “stupid” in traditional political terms. For a radical – and make no mistake, Romney is a radical – those rules don’t apply.
The bile flows out of this unscripted Romney. He says of his father, the governor, presidential candidate and car company CEO: “Had he been born of Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot of winning this.” This kind of resentment, as absurd as it is, is a very real emotion for the Radical Rich.
The words seem to sting his lips when he says “they believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, that they are entitled – to health care, to food, to housing, you name it. That’s an entitlement.”
Feast your eyes on the articulated rage of the Radical Rich. Romney and his audience are genuinely angry at people who “don’t pay taxes” – although almost all of the “47 percent” do, counting payroll and sales taxes. That doesn’t matter. The Radical Rich consider all of them – the disabled, the elderly, poor people, veterans – the Other.
From Savanarola to Sarah Palin, from Robespierre to Romney, the psychology never changes: You’re either one of us or one of them.
Private Equity Party People
In his attempt to defend Romney, David Brooks suggested he was a “fundamentally decent” person who only expresses contempt for so many of this country’s citizens because it appeals to his audience.
The only thing that may be less “decent” than hating entire groups of people is pretending to hate them for your own purposes. But this incident reveals something even more important than Romney’s weakness of character, which is:
That’s what appeals to Romney’ audience.
The guests had gathered at the home of Mark Leder, a private equity manager whose business practices are as exploitative and job-killing as Bain Capital’s. Leder’s post-divorce antics earned him the nickname “private equity party boy” and headlines like “Nude frolic in tycoon’s pool.”
Romney and the others keep their clothes on, in case you were wondering, so the video’s work-safe.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not enjoying life. They’ve acquired a level of wealth, power and luxury which ancient pharaohs and kings could never imagine: Their private jets will take them anywhere on the planet at a few minutes’ notice. Rulers of nations flatter and court them. They even seem to be above the law. None of them will ever know hunger, or financial fear, or be denied medical care because they can’t pay for it.
And yet they’re filled with resentment.
Their voices are heard over the the constant clinking of silver forks on fine china. As the night wore on a man at that table undoubtedly loosened his expensive belt – lizard-skin, perhaps, or calfskin – because he’d eaten too much. A slightly tipsy woman left lipstick prints – a Shiseido lacquered rouge perhaps, in a shade like “Savage,” “Nymph,” or “Nocturne” (Mark would like that) – on a half-empty glass of very fine wine.
And yet, beneath the warmth of the meal and the glow of the wine, they were burning with rage.
Meet The Radicals
They’re probably just a small subset of high-earning Americans. But these resentment-fueled party people are a new force in politics, made even more powerful by growing wealth inequity and Citizens United. They are the Radical Rich.
How radical are they?
Romney and his party are already pursuing their radical policies: A dismantling of most government programs, including a self-funded program like Social Security and vitally needed ones like Medicaid, Federal disaster relief, education … even law enforcement and storm warning systems to reduce deaths and property damage.
The country they seek is radically different from the one we all grew up in, or even the troubled one we live in today. It’s a nation without a social safety net, with hungry and ill people in the streets, without free and fair elections, without basic legal protections for consumers or the environment – a United States unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime.
How angry are they?
Their resentment is as great as their wealth. It seemed like an unfortunate slip from an unpleasant individual when another hedge funder, Steve Schwarzman, compared the loss of his tax breaks to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But we now know that this sense of outrage is shared by many, if not most, of his peers: Hedge funder Daniel S. Loeb. The unnamed CEOs of Fareed Zakaria’s acquaintance. Scandal-ridden bank CEO Jamie Dimon.
You’d think they’d be kissing the ground Barack Obama walks on, given their embarrassment – or what should be an “embarrassment” – of riches.
But they’re enraged. Why?
Because it isn’t enough.
At no time in modern history has the top 1 percent – or the top 0.1 percent, or the top 0.01 percent – owned more of our wealth or paid less in taxes.
But it isn’t enough.
The Wall Street executives who broke laws weren’t indicted, and those who ruined their own businesses were saved – their wealth and incomes protected – by the very people who are being financially destroyed by their actions.
It isn’t enough.
Our government relaxed the regulations, razed the rules, and leveled the laws so they could ruin both the economy and the Gulf of Mexico, and has left us vulnerable to their ongoing predations.
It isn’t enough.
What do they want?
They want more – more tax breaks, more protection from the law.
And they want adoration. From the looks of it, nothing short of an Roman Imperial cult – complete with their apotheosis as state deities upon their death – would satisfy them. Obama’s corporate-friendly policies, which have protected their wealth and protected them from judgement, aren’t enough. They want him to pledge his fealty on the White House steps – or they’ll destroy him.
Not every wealthy person is radical, of course. It seems as if a rich person’s level of bitterness and rage is directly proportional to the undeservedness of their riches: Hedge fund managers who exploited the rules are the angriest, while authentically talented business people, artists or genuinely “job-creating” entrepreneurs seem to be the least angry.
Could it be guilt, and a not entirely unreasonable feeling of low self-worth, turned outward? Whatever’s behind it, a Molotov cocktail of wealthy rage has exploded.
David Frum, a conservative and former George W. Bush speechwriter, gets it. Frum writes that “what makes it all both so heart-rending and so outrageous is that all this is occurring at a time when economically disadvantaged Americans have never been so demoralized and passive, never exerted less political clout. No Coxey’s army is marching on Washington, no sit-down strikes are paralyzing factories, no squatters are moving onto farmer’s fields.”
Beautifully said. Frum’s batting average dips slightly as he continues: “Occupy Wall Street immediately fizzled, there is no protest party of the political left.”
Occupy didn’t “fizzle.” It attracted massive support almost overnight. Within weeks it had dramatically transformed the national conversation. Democrats from the president on down were forced to address issues of economic injustice, at least rhetorically, instead of negotiating destructive (and pro-wealthy) austerity deals with the Republican counterparts.
But the powers arrayed against Occupy – in the media, in politics, and elsewhere – combined with the winter winds to force it into hibernation.
Frum’s absolutely right, however, when he says there’s “no protest party of the political left” – although I’d drop the word “protest” and make it simply a party, one that can win rather than just siphon off votes. That won’t happen without a mass movement.
That’s why it’s time to re-Occupy our country. In fact, maybe it should’ve been called “Re-Occupy” all along. It was, and it remains, a re-occupation – of our privatized public spaces and our privatized political discourse. Occupy, or something like it, is the only force that has a chance against the power of the Radical Rich.
Closing the Deal
Mitt can’t close the deal. He’s tanking like Facebook’s IPO. Why? Because he’s one of the Radical Rich, and he can’t control his rage any more than Steve Scharzman can.
The executives I used to know would have laughed off Obama’s populist rhetoric as long as the cash kept pouring in. But the new crowd doesn’t just want an unfair and ill-gotten share of the nation’s wealth. They want it paid as tribute.
This didn’t happen by accident. The Radical Rich have, in David Frum’s words, been “scammed” by political operators playing off their emotions. In the old days demagogues would work a mob into a frenzy until it was ready to burn down Parliament. Nowadays you can work a billionaire or two into a frenzy and buy Parliament instead. That’s much more efficient – and a lot less messy.
And yet, even with all their resources at his disposal, Mitt can’t close the deal. He can’t hide his radicalism long enough.
Next time it’ll be uglier. They may not even try to close the deal. They might just take it. That’s why we need a new movement.
What would a revived Occupy movement – a “Re-Occupy movement” – look like? That topic should dominate the conversation on the American left. This election and the events that follow it should be viewed through the lens of long-term independent activism, with political office only one tool among many.
Romney articulated both his own emotions and those of his crowd when he said of the American majority, “The things that animate us aren’t the things that animate them.” Well, right back at ya, pal.
That’s why it’s time to Re-Occupy the country – now, before it’s too late.