September 28, 2011

The seductive appeal of the mega-rich politician

During the 2008 presidential election and for a brief time during the current election, there was a boomlet of support for billionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and for windbag Donald Trump to run for president. They were part of an enduring pattern in American politics in which some people yearn for a rich man to ride in and save the nation. The thinking seems to be that since they are so rich, they must be smart and competent and also do not need to seek funding from big money sources and can thus be independent and not beholden to 'special interests'.

A couple of decades ago, H. Ross Perot was the person that elements of a desperate nation turned their eyes to. The Perot phenomenon was a puzzle. Not the man himself, who seemed to be typical of the kind of person who has spent his life acquiring great wealth, used his subsequent power to push people around, and now, in the twilight of his career, wants more power, a bigger stage, and a greater share of the limelight. Nor is it puzzling to observe people with such blatantly autocratic tendencies constantly talking about how much they want to do 'what the people want'. This kind of hypocrisy is so common in public life that it only causes surprise to the most naive of political observers. No, it is not Perot the person that was the enigma. It is the question of why so many millions of people, both in the 1992 presidential campaign and again in 1996, found him so attractive as a leader, just as they do Bloomberg or Trump now.

There is a possible explanation, one that is inspired by a typically lucid essay written by George Orwell over seventy years ago, titled simply Charles Dickens. Orwell analyzed the politics of Dickens as revealed in his writings. He pointed out that Dickens "attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached." In that sense, Dickens "was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel". And yet, Orwell points out, Dickens managed to be a ruthless critic of many venerated aspects of English society without becoming personally disliked, becoming an English institution himself in his own lifetime. "Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody'" Orwell notes. How could this happen?

Orwell answers his own question by pointing out that Dickens' real subject matter in his novels was that of the urban middle class, not the working class. While his protagonists suffered enormous hardships, Dickens seemed to imply that their problems were mainly due to the qualities and personalities of the people with wealth and power who controlled the institutions that impinged on his protagonists' lives, and not because of the structure of the institutions themselves. In other words, Dickens' criticism of society was almost exclusively moral, not structural. Orwell summarizes Dickens' message as simply: If people would behave decently, the world would be decent.

Orwell supports this thesis by pointing out that the happy endings in Dickens' books were largely achieved by the timely arrival of a wealthy person who solved all problems by scattering money around to the deserving. Dickens never seemed to explore the possibility that the institutions themselves, by their very nature, might tend to favor the rise of people with the very qualities he deplored. Dickens also ignored the question of how the rich benefactors who finally saved the day could remain so prosperous if they flouted the laws of the currently operating economic system by giving pay raises and gifts all around.

The huge success of Dickens' books, even in his own lifetime, shows how appealing is his view of the world. It provides a simple explanation for society's problems and, more importantly, provides hope that things could be improved quickly, provided the appropriate well-intentioned rich man shows up. The timelessness of that message was nowhere better illustrated than in the enthusiasm that billionaire H. Ross Perot generated. Journalists breathlessly reported on Perot's activities and people all over the country responded enthusiastically to his candidacy. What is interesting is that the support for Perot came before people had even heard exactly what his message was or what he planned to do for the country. Somehow, that did not seem to matter. Perot, an inexhaustible fount of homespun phrases, was going to 'look under the hood, figure out what was wrong, and fix it.' It was that simple.

In many ways, Perot then and Bloomberg now fit the model of the classic Dickens savior, the rich person whose possibly dubious methods of acquisition of wealth are conveniently obscured by the haze of time. Perot liked to be portrayed as a disinterested rich man who was appalled by the way the country was run and simply wanted to make everything right and was willing to use his own money to do so. Even his lack of experience in politics and government was seen as a plus. Given Orwell's analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that many members of the middle-class seized on his presence in politics as the one that provided the most hope for them. If Warren Buffett were twenty years younger, you would see likely similar enthusiasm for him to run for president too.

Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the periodic upsurges of enthusiasm for Perot then, and Bloomberg and Trump now, may be that they provide a measure of the number of voters who feel left out of the system, fearful for their future, and yet unable to see that the root cause of their problems lie with the nature of the institutions of power and the kind of people they nurture and produce. For such voters, the search is still going on for Dickens' good, rich man, untainted by the evils of the system, who will solve all their problems.


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It would appear that even Ralph Nader is not immune to this fatal attraction. His 2009 book Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us Now imagined what would happen if 17 billionaires banded together to re-make America. Describing it as neither a novel nor nonfiction, Nader sought to portray "a practical utopia" in which these saviors push Wal-Mart to unionize, campaign for renewable energy, and do a myriad of other things that have a snowball's chance in hell of actually happening.

Of course, it may be that Nader understands the attraction to these people better than anyone, and is simply using it as a literary device to get readers to at least conceive of a better country. But, ultimately, this is a misleading exercise in pure fantasy and a depressing admission of defeat.

Posted by Richard Frost on September 28, 2011 10:10 AM

Do you think the rich coming to save the oppressed middle class and the poor is any different from Dumbledoor coming to save Harry Potter from the Dursleys or the hope that the Wizard of Oz will save Dorothy or that God will rapture the good people away? There's a reason it's called fantasy.

Posted by John on September 28, 2011 11:54 AM

I never understood the appeal of Perot and their ilk. Perot struck me as Lyndon Larouche without the pomposity, and Bloomberg is a blooming idiot.

Bill Gates is a wealthy atheist who fits the same mould, and I wouldn't trust him either. Like most capitalists, he is an anti-capitalist who tries to destroy his competitors. He has fought tooth and nail against legal actions that challenged his monopoly.

Any "concern" Gates has ever shown (e.g. rights for gay employees, donations to charity) were always done with commercial motives in mind, not common decency. His "computers for schools" program is crap, just another way to get Windoze into schools, and it's "educational value" has been shown to be detrimental to students.


Posted by P Smith on September 28, 2011 02:32 PM