It’s sometimes said that a national election holds up a mirror to our society. In too many years, though, it’s a funhouse mirror. It’s bent to make the tall look short and the skinny bulge. Regardless of outcome, 2012 has been a campaign in which the only way to see America’s reality has been through contortion and paradox, a funhouse election without much fun.
Remember that a mere year ago, Occupy Wall Street and its scrappy cousins nationwide forced us to have a genuine conversation—for the first time in decades—about the stark and growing inequality in America. Occupy was no revolution, but it was a profound challenge to America’s self-conception. In the ensuing months, a small library of new books—from Chrystia Freeland, James Galbraith, Timothy Noah, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others—have greatly added to our understanding of both inequality’s rise and its pernicious effects. With real wages stagnant for decades and tens of millions un- and underemployed, it seemed like an irresistible frame for an election.
But the message coming down from the 1 percent was clear: Shut up. Don’t talk about the maldistribution of wealth in America, because it upsets people. Mitt Romney labeled the very idea of discussing inequality the product of “envy” and “class warfare.” A political party that extols the virtues of a marketplace of ideas had no room for what Occupy was selling—at least not in public, though Romney did allow that “it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms.”
This and every subsequent revelation about Romney made him seem like a video game villain version of a 1 percenter: the Swiss bank accounts, the “vulture capitalism” perfected at Bain, the $55,000 car elevator for his own California home. By the time the 47 percent video emerged in September, it felt like Romney would fall over if someone in his vicinity merely whispered “Cayman Islands.”
Yet the Democrats have hardly rushed to disturb the quiet room. Aside from a handful of attack ads and some minor debate gibes about corporate jets, Obama in the general election has been largely silent about both his opponent’s affluence and the inequality issue more broadly.
Maybe that’s because he knows he’s vulnerable on the issue; inequality has risen under Obama, by some measures more steeply than under his predecessor. This is not hugely surprising—the overall economy went into a coma before Obama took office and has been groggy ever since—but a problem worsening on your watch doesn’t make for great political posturing.
Related to this is that Obama clearly has no plan to reduce inequality, except as a side effect of his grand economic strategy of finger-crossing. Assuming Obama is re-elected, whatever meager shavings he might be able to scrape off billionaires’ yachts aren’t going to end up lifting the boats of the underclass. They’ll be used for deficit reduction—just look at how many more times debt and deficit issues have shown up in both debates and ads compared to inequality or just about anything else. Call it capitulation or a failure of vision, but on this score, Obama might at least deserve points for pragmatism; with continued Republican control of the House of Representatives a near certainty, crafting the perfect legislative blueprint to redistribute American wealth downward would be about as worthwhile as asking Donald Trump to help pass it.
But there’s a deeper, more insidious reason for the Democrats’ failure to push inequality as a campaign issue, and here Romney’s words speak loudly: It’s not the conversation America’s wealthy want to have. The ultra-rich who were fairly supportive of Obama’s 2008 campaign have grown petulant. They don’t want tax cuts to expire, they resent even modest attempts to rein in the financial sector, and they project from their own indignation that the nation’s leaders want to destroy them (funhouse!).
One could imagine a political system in which the sillier views of rich people (don’t forget that one of the multimillionaires who attended Romney’s 47 percent fundraiser was incensed by the continued existence of pennies) could be safely ignored. But that is not the system we have. Our presidential campaigns are essentially vast consumer marketing schemes, bound only by how quickly advertising outlets can cram the cash into their pockets. Whatever restrictions once existed on campaign fundraising had the pesky effect of distancing wealth from the control of its favored causes and candidates—which is precisely why the current Supreme Court has removed as many restrictions as it could.
When politicians can’t afford to turn off the wealth spigot, the results are easy to predict. As Obama quickly learned, if you attack the locust capitalism of Romney’s Bain, good Northeast liberals like Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer will rush to the barricades to defend private equity and the shadow banking system.
It’s hard, therefore, to see how the money spiral can ever stop. For all the righteous wailing that the left does about Citizens United, one of the decision’s biggest beneficiaries has been organized labor. That’s why the Democratic Party is no more eager or likely to push for renewed campaign finance restrictions than it has been to eliminate that silly anachronism that seemed so evil in 2000 but now looks like the only thing that might keep Obama in office: the electoral college.
This is how we end up with one campaign denouncing class warfare, when the reality is that the other one never fired a shot. The left expends all its political energy fighting to hold ground that should have been permanently won decades ago, so drained by the assault from accumulated wealth that it’s unable to see that the battlefield itself is tilted—as in a funhouse.
And so Romney’s right: The wealthy bought the room, and they’re paying to keep it quiet. If it’s ever going to change, somebody’s going to have to make some noise.