The Corner

The New Oligarchs

Christopher Caldwell has a really interesting and provocative piece in the new Weekly Standard (“The In-Flight Magazine of the O’Hare-Moline leg”). I need to digest it a bit more (and buy the Johnson & Kwak book), but it’s definitely worth reading. An excerpt:

Johnson locates the oligarchy in the upper reaches of the investment banking profession. What he doesn’t note is that these are overwhelmingly Democratic. There is nothing “curious” about a president’s seeking to arm his most reliable supporters with political power. And when you look at it this way, the intermarriage of financial and executive branch elites could only have happened in the Clinton years, simply because there is not sufficient Republican manpower in New York’s investment banks to permit it. Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Jon Corzine, Timothy Geithner  …  one could make no similar list of partisan Republicans who have made the trek from Wall Street to Washington. Josh Bolten, George W. Bush’s chief of staff, who came from Goldman Sachs, is one Republican exception. You might be tempted to list former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as another. But he is better thought of as the closest approximation to a Republican the investment banking world could offer up. His wife is one of Hillary Clinton’s oldest friends and most important fundraisers. In Paulson’s autobiography, On the Brink, he describes his family’s reaction to Bush’s offer of the Treasury post. His wife and son urged him not to take it. His mother wept.

That Democrats are the party of the oligarchy gets more, not less, obvious when you move beyond Wall Street. The cliché that Republicans are the rich people’s party makes a certain amount of common sense if you are just looking around your Middle American suburb. You will notice that the man making $200,000 a year is marginally more likely to vote Republican than his neighbor making $50,000. But in suburbia, the word “rich” is really a kind of slang, meaning “slightly better off.” Johnson isn’t talking about those people. He is talking about people who are rich-with-a-capital-R, the ones who can convert wealth into political power, the ones whose annual income is measured in millions, or tens of millions. Again, how do they vote, and who is their party?

We can formulate a guess by looking at the 20 ZIP codes that pour the most money into the political system. (See the chart on page 23.) This list coincides fairly well with any list of the 20 richest neighborhoods in the United States. All but one of those 20 neighborhoods give the majority of their money to Democrats. (The exception is McLean, Virginia, which gives 48 percent to Democrats.) Most of them give the overwhelming majority of their money to Democrats. For example, none of the 7 Manhattan neighborhoods listed—where we can assume Johnson’s oligarchs live—gives less than 71 percent of its money to Democrats.

That presents a challenge to the usual way of looking at things, doesn’t it? Republicans have been paying a high price in both public opinion and political coherence to defend the prerogatives of a class that despises them. It was to cosset just these people with tax cuts that George W. Bush destroyed the balanced budget. It would seem that Republicans are either an exceptionally idealistic political party (pursuing their ideology to the point of self-destruction) or an exceptionally foolish one (convinced that anyone with a great big pile of money is their friend). There may be another explanation. To paraphrase something Clinton aide David Dreyer said many years ago, Republicans have done Lord Acton one better—they’ve been corrupted by power they don’t even have.

And here’s the chart in question:

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