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Will Big Money Defeat Bernie Sanders?

Thomas Ferguson

Thomas Ferguson’s work traces the history of how big money buys politics in America. He recently sat down with Jacobin to talk about Bernie Sanders, the superrich, and how the flood of corporate cash is shaping the Democratic primary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Grand Park on March 23, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. Mario Tama / Getty

Interview by
Paul Heideman

If anyone had any lingering doubts about the dominating role of money in American politics, the 2020 Democratic primary should put them to rest. While all of the leading candidates have been raising record-breaking sums, they have, in the last month, nonetheless been eclipsed by the self-financed ad buys of billionaires Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg. Though neither is well known in much of the country, together, they have spent more than $300 million on political advertising, and they have been rewarded with polling results that have surpassed far more well-established figures.

Steyer’s and Bloomberg’s runs are only one part of a more general political agitation of the superrich. Billionaires are warning one another that a Bernie Sanders presidency is a real possibility and readying their arsenal to defeat him.

The political scientist Thomas Ferguson has tracked the influence of the rich on American politics for many years. To understand politics in the United States, he has argued, you merely need to know the “golden rule”: “To see who rules, follow the gold.” In the following interview, Jacobin’s Paul Heideman spoke to Ferguson about the unusually direct role of the superrich in this election, and how they can be countered.


PH

For several decades now, you’ve been tracing the role of money in politics. Often this has involved painstaking efforts to track various kinds of disguised money, filtered through many different forms of intermediary organizations, and devising tests to show whether big money follows or leads the polls.

In this election, though, it seems as though the mask has been ripped off. We have Donald Trump — a member of the Forbes 400 — in the White House, and the Democratic primary is attracting legions of super-wealthy candidates. Why are the superrich bypassing intermediaries and jumping directly into politics?

TF

Most American presidents were quite well-off by the time they decided to run. When they weren’t, some group of very wealthy supporters often did something about it, as when a bloc of Gilded Age magnates recapitalized William McKinley just before the 1896 election.

Indeed, a classic nineteenth-century formula was for major Eastern interests to take advantage of the steady westward march of the frontier and search out someone born in a log cabin who they knew very well — Lincoln, the railroad attorney, was a perfect example. Then, with a straight face, they would run him as a “man of the people,” with most newspapers playing along.

Exceptions prove the rule: Samuel Tilden, the Democratic nominee who was probably counted out in 1876 by a bipartisan agreement that embraced the Pennsylvania Railroad, was known as the “Great Forecloser,” for his work on behalf of New York banks.

That said, the optics of Trump perhaps facing off against Michael Bloomberg do rather boggle one’s mind. The first impression is overwhelming: US elections are becoming like soccer matches, in which teams owned and operated by billionaires battle it out while ordinary citizens cheer from the sidelines.

But to pick up on your question directly, I think the influx of the superrich as candidates reflects the media bubbles of our new Gilded Age. Even after the 2008 financial collapse and the advent of “single-payer” insurance for high finance, billionaires continue to be worshipped in public.

There are a host of reasons for this. The major media are now mostly directly owned by one or another of them, with private equity firms expanding rapidly into the sector, especially the new online media companies.

Facebook, Google, and other tech firms also exercise massive direct and indirect influences on communications. Leaders of think tanks, NGOs, and educational institutions spend much of their time holding out begging bowls, while leaders of most foundations have little or no critical distance from their funders. A whole circuit of affluently supported “thought” has grown up for audiences of the superrich and journalists with, in my view, often mediocre intellectual standards. I will refrain from the obvious reason why most political leaders just join the jubilant chorus.

As a result, the superrich live in a bubble. The absence of criticism convinces many that they are geniuses and that they possess some special insight denied to ordinary mortals even in fields about which they know next to nothing. Just look at the wave of nonsense a few years ago about how easy it would be to transform education through “disruptive” technology. If you study the shocked reactions to Elizabeth Warren’s and Sanders’s policy proposals, you can see how many of the superrich at first could hardly believe they were being criticized. Before they became angry, they were dumbfounded.

Since the most important ingredient in getting ahead in politics is money, you can see what happens. They’ve got plenty of it. Some percentage inevitably cannot resist the temptation to plunge into politics. But we are still talking very small numbers here. Most of the Forbes 400 are not running for anything, though virtually all donate directly or indirectly, often on a colossal scale. In this respect, not much has changed. New Gilded Age or old Gilded Age, it’s pretty much the same — the voice of the people is usually the sound of money talking.

There is another factor, though. A fair number of candidates and politicians, such as former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick, go back and forth between the public and private sectors, becoming very wealthy in the process. That also reflects the reality of how much money can be made out of politics nowadays. The Clintons, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and other leaders are exceptional, but they are far from alone.

PH

With so much talk about what a disaster it would be if Sanders is elected, are the 1 percent — for once — actually scared?

TF

The short answer for many, not everyone, is yes. The long answer is more complicated. I think the period of peak anxiety has crested temporarily, though if Sanders or Warren break out on top once voting starts, we will go right back to the situation in the fall, when some billionaires actually began crying on TV.

The run-up to the UK election witnessed something like a transatlantic nervous breakdown, as many of the superrich contemplated the possibility that Corbyn and Sanders, or even Warren, might triumph.

More broadly, the upsurge in protests around the world fueled a sense that things were becoming unglued everywhere. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other countries witnessed major demonstrations and changes in political alignments. In Europe, governments look shaky, though the French case has resonated here less than one might expect. It is, after all, a major power now almost immobilized by civil unrest.

The Tory victory in the UK and the obvious discomfiture of the Labour Party clearly lightened the mood of many 1 percenters. I think it probably is the case that Boris Johnson’s unexpectedly strong showing also swung many observers to the view that the radical Democrats would be contained, one way or another.

PH

Besides giving billionaires direct airtime, it seems that the press has been sowing confusion, from elevating nonentities like Beto O’Rourke to simply ignoring Sanders. What’s your sense of how the media shapes the political moment?

TF

I have been struck by the way many putatively bold progressives have failed to take to heart the key lesson that two old friends of mine, Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of American populism, and Bill Greider, constantly drove home in their work: the idea that real change is going to come to America through the establishment press is an illusion. The major press promoted every form of economic nonsense in the run-up to 2008 and continues to shrink from analyzing money and politics in any serious way.

It’s crazy to read stories in which Pete Buttigieg, who comes right out of Mark Zuckerberg’s circle at Harvard, is presented as a spokesperson for average Americans. Or the way Joe Biden, who kicked off his campaign with a fundraiser organized in part by a strongly anti-union lawyer, is billed as somehow representative of working people. On such questions, we are not all that far from “up is down,” even in the prestige press.

PH

So where do you see the campaign heading now?

TF

First of all, a big qualification. It is now obvious that the shadow of a much wider war in the Middle East or perhaps someplace else is going to loom over the whole election. That sort of thing makes predictions about what is likely to happen more hazardous than usual.

Biden especially is vulnerable here. He supported the disastrous decisions to go into Iraq and to re-up the ante in Afghanistan in 2009. He has no distance at all from the establishment’s defense of endless wars. For him, I think the return of the Middle East to the front pages will be like the frenzy over Ukraine. The questions are inescapable: Even if he broke no laws, what was his son Hunter doing there or in China with his father?

From the broadest perspective, the race seems to be taking shape as the impending collision of an all but irresistible force and an immovable object. Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen — the very gifted researchers I’ve been working with — and I have drawn attention to one extraordinary fact from the 2018 congressional election: if you tear yourself away from the horse race and look instead at the percentage of the total possible electorate (including nonvoters) that the Democrats won, the outcome looks more like a presidential race than an off-year election.

Normally, voting turnouts seesaw — they rise in presidential elections and fall off a cliff in off-year contests. Not in 2018. The net swing in favor of the Democrats was enormous and clearly reflects a widespread revulsion against Trump. The surge didn’t come cheap, though — the Democrats broke all records for off-year election spending. But it happened.

It is a good guess that that revulsion still runs deep in 2020, though if the Democrats nominate somebody bland, who thinks they can win just on gun control and acting less mercurial than Trump, turnout might fall enough to cost them the election.

What’s interesting is that Trump has clearly learned the big lesson of the 2016 campaign — not his, but the campaign to save the Senate for the Republicans. As my colleagues and I have documented in excruciating detail, as late as October 25, it looked impossible for the Republicans to retain the Senate. Even Mitch McConnell’s own people were talking about going down with guns blazing. But then a giant wave of money poured in from many iconic Republican donors. What appeared impossible happened.

Trump and his campaign have clearly taken the experience to heart. If you are widely unpopular, make it rain money to win.

How this plays out will be the decisive issue of the election — unless Sanders or Warren succeed in their small-dollar-funded campaigns, which they might.

PH

Let’s explore what could happen in that event. Say Sanders actually wins, the media is perhaps the least of the obstacles he would face. Among Democratic Party liberals, a Republican Senate is usually invoked as the primary barrier. But there are certainly others. How exactly do you think big money would try to obstruct a Sanders presidency?

TF

First of all, the congressional Democratic leadership draws about the same level of support from the 1 percent that Trump or McConnell does.

There is a reason why last year, after everyone expected that the House, at least, would move a bill to control out-of-pocket medical costs (“balance billing”), it somehow just didn’t happen. And Senator Chuck Schumer, whose career is coextensive with the rise of New York as a deregulated financial center, would likely present some unique difficulties. But if the Trump presidency has taught us anything, it’s that a president who wants to get things done has many ways to get them accomplished.

I would not agree that a Sanders presidency is doomed to futility. Over time, he could use the bully pulpit of the presidency in the way Obama ostentatiously did not, to highlight political forces standing in the way of Medicare for All, financial regulation, or fair taxes. He could also bring about significant reforms by executive orders and the simple practice of filling federal positions with people who really want to bust trusts, regulate derivatives, and defend the right to unionize.

Just look at how insurgent Democrats within the party have brought attention to issues like a Green New Deal with essentially no formal power base at all. If you have that kind of talk coming out of the White House, with a president who actually wants real change and is prepared to fight for it? I think a lot would happen.