Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

On Harry Reid’s Opposition to (Some) Plutocrats

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Not long ago, elite Democrats began to reflect the concerns of ordinary people by talking about rampant and increasing inequality. This is a particularly good frame for Democrats seeking public support, but they soon abandoned it in favor of more bland talk about ‘opportunity’.  I suspect this is because ‘inequality’ is a very bad frame for anyone seeking support from financial elites–the donor class–which is necessary but often ignored in our talk about politics. As I’ve insisted repeatedly, our political talk often begins from the premise that the public drives politics and policy, while certain things (like money) can  interfere in this process. But in reality, money drives much of the process, with the public having influence within the bounds set by money. That is, assuming they have any influence at all. Organized people can beat organized money, but people who aren’t organized don’t stand a chance. And that describes most of us, most of the time.

Elite Democrats haven’t abandoned this terrain entirely. Certainly the emphasis on the minimum wage is meant to tap concern about inequality. In addition, they have focused on the role of some of the richest people on the planet in elections, with talk of  the Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United and McCutcheon, as well as the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers have served as a stand in for the overpowering influence of money in politics, their names repeated in speeches and fundraising appeals alike. Democrats have made clear they oppose the power of billionaire funders like the Koch Brothers.

Or maybe it’s just those two people.

This story on an interview with Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gives some sense of where elite Democrats really are on the issue of money and politics.

Perhaps the most striking exchange in an interview one of us had with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was his insistence that there’s a difference between the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson. Talking about the Koch Brothers, whom he routinely criticizes on the Senate floor, Reid said: “Understand these are the two richest people in the world. And they are in it to make money. That’s their whole goal here — to add zeroes to their billions.” But then when the conversation turned to Adelson, who gave Republican groups nearly $100 million in 2012, the Senate majority leader said: “I know Sheldon Adelson. He’s not in this for money. He’s got money. He’s in it because he has certain ideological views. Now, Sheldon Adelson’s social views are in keeping with the Democrats on choice, on all kinds of things. He just got a beef with organized labor a few years ago. And he previously was a Democrat.” Wow. Do remember this about Nevada politics: There is sometimes one-party rule in this state, and that party is run by the folks who own the Vegas casinos.

So Reid doesn’t have a problem with billionaire donors, but only some of them. What sets Adelson off? Reid insists that the Kochs are driven purely by financial gain, while Adelson is driven by ideology. Say what you will about the Kochs by I find the idea that they are insufficiently ideological laughable. But it’s just as ridiculous to suggest that Adelson’s anti-labor views have no financial dimension.  Las Vegas casinos are one of the few bright spots for labor in the country.  And he’s been a major player in funding opposition to on-line gambling, which he obviously has a massive financial interests in combating. So the characterizations of both the Kochs and Adelson are ridiculous.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument Reid’s categorization.  It still makes no sense. Why would the motives of a billionaire with too much power in American politics matter? Either way, they are overriding the wishes of the vast majority of the citizenry.  Either way they have too much influence, that comes simply from acquiring a vast fortune. ‘The  Kochs lack politics,’ even if true, wouldn’t matter a bit in judging their role.

The closing line of this paragraph is interesting. I wish beltway journalists would take it seriously more often. The power of the donor class isn’t limited to one state or one industry. It sets the limits of what’s possible in American politics, at least in normal times. Those journalists will only mention this on rare occasions. But if you want to make sense of American politics, it’s best to keep this idea front and center in your mind.

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Written by David Kaib

May 12, 2014 at 10:44 am

One Response

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  1. […] is misplaced if it cannot be reversed via a constitutional amendment. You hear it in talk about the Koch Brothers allegedly controlling our […]


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