Several billionaires are thinking of running for president - and one is already in office. Is this good for democracy? In this activity, students learn about and discuss the debate over billionaire presidential candidates - and the impact of the growing wealth gap between elected leaders and the rest of us.
To the Teacher
In the early months of 2019, several billionaires made headlines by contemplating runs for the presidency. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he was strongly considering running as an independent. So did Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg seriously considered running, but in the end decided not to.
With multiple billionaires weighing their chances, and with a billionaire currently residing in the White House, it is timely to consider the question: Should we be governed by a billionaire? Supporters argue that the extremely wealthy may have special skills and abilities that make them more fit to run the country. However, critics contend that billionaires’ wealth isolates them from the concerns of most Americans.
This lesson consists of two readings about wealth and democracy. The first reading explores some the public debates about billionaires running for president. The second reading discusses the broader issue of representation and economic inequality: Does it matter that the average net worth of a U.S. senator is $3.2 million? What effect does it have on our democracy when the government is run largely by the wealthy? Questions for discussion will follow each reading.
Reading One: Voting for a Billionaire Candidate
In the early months of this year, several billionaires made headlines by contemplating runs for the presidency. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced that he is strongly considering running as an independent. So did Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg seriously considered running, but in the end decided not to.
With multiple billionaires weighing their chances, and with a billionaire currently residing in the White House, it is timely to consider the question: Should we be governed by a billionaire? To answer this question, it is helpful to look at some of the arguments for and against billionaire politicians.
When Schultz announced that he was considering a run, leading Democrats swiftly criticized the prospect. In a January 30, 2019 article in The Hill, staff writer Tal Axelrod laid out critiques that Schultz is self-centered and inexperienced, and that his run would negatively impact Democrats’ chances of defeating Trump. Axelrod explained:
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday ripped former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz over his possible independent presidential bid, suggesting his lack of political experience pointed to a double standard.
“Why don’t people ever tell billionaires who want to run for President that they need to ‘work their way up’ or that ‘maybe they should start with city council first’?” the 29-year-old congresswoman tweeted.
The freshman lawmaker was referencing criticism she received during her House campaign last year that she should have aspired to a more local position before running for federal office.
Schultz, the son of a truck driver who lived in a housing project, became a billionaire from his time at the helm of Starbucks. He has never held political office before, though has flirted with a potential political run in recent years.
The former CEO angered Democrats on Sunday when he announced he was “seriously considering” an independent presidential campaign in 2020, sparking concerns he could siphon off Democratic votes and help President Trump win reelection. Schultz cast his potential bid as a home for moderate voters who feel alienated by both parties….
Some have responded that Schultz is using his wealth to buy his way onto the presidential ticket in 2020 without having to face a primary challenge.
Other political commentators went beyond Schultz himself to question whether being rich qualifies you to be president of the United States. In a January 29, 2019, article in Vox, staff writer Kelsey Piper made the case that wealthy businesspeople do not necessarily make for talented politicians. She wrote:
Here’s an argument for billionaires in politics, at least as long as they made their fortunes themselves: It takes an incredible work ethic, good management skills, dedication, and a gift for setting priorities to turn a small company into a prosperous multinational one. Those all seem like skills that’d be useful in politics too, right?
This is the case [wealthy technology executive Ross] Perot made for himself, starting in 1992. “See, there’s a lot I don’t understand,” he said in a debate with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. “I do understand business. I do understand creating jobs. I do understand how to make things work. And I got a long history of doing that.”
Billionaires since have echoed him. Bloomberg cited the “pragmatic approach” of business leaders. Schultz’s website prominently features his successes at Starbucks. Trump leaned on his business background, telling voters in early campaign ads, “My opponents have no experience in creating jobs or making deals.”
The problem is that it’s not really clear the skills transfer. In the course of their meteoric professional careers, billionaires mostly interact with people who work for or with them, and lots of political concerns that rank highly for everyday Americans aren’t areas they know anything about.
Schultz is no exception here. He frequently mentions the debt and the deficit and seems inclined to make them a focal point of his campaign, while polls show Americans don’t care about them very much right now — they rank the economy, health care, terrorism, and jobs as higher priorities, with the share concerned with the budget deficit steadily falling since 2012. In business terms, it’s not clear that there’s much demand for the product Schultz wants to offer. Even mediocre politicians typically are more attuned to that.
Some wealthy candidates and their backers argue that their substantial bank accounts make them less beholden to large political donors. This argument has been prevalent since changes in campaign finance law in the 1970s, as Kevin Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton, and Julian Elizer, a political historian at Princeton, noted in a January 29, 2019 article in The Washington Post:
The rising tide of wealthy candidates is also a direct result of an important Supreme Court decision. Two years after Congress reformed the campaign finance system in response to the revelations of Watergate, the Supreme Court undid some of the changes in the 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo. The Court maintained some of the new limits on campaign spending, primarily for those who accepted public funds, but it also ruled that candidates had the right to spend unlimited amounts of their own money on their own campaigns.
The decision gave wealthy candidates a tremendous advantage: They could spend as much of their own fortunes, as they wanted as long as they didn’t accept any public funds. Self-funded campaigns had the ironic consequence of letting wealthy elites present themselves as populist champions. In 1988, for instance, Democratic businessman Herbert Kohl ran for a Senate seat in Wisconsin with a motto that promised he would be beholden only to the voters: “Nobody’s Senator but yours.” Numerous governors such as David Walters in Oklahoma and Kirk Fordice in Mississippi likewise came to office directly from the boardroom. In 2019, when the cost of campaigns has reached astronomical levels, extremely rich business leaders — who have thrived in the era of growing inequality — want to be part of the political action.
Kruse and Elizer argue, however, that opportunities afforded to candidates by personal wealth do not necessarily benefit the public as a whole. “We have created these opportunities at the expense of a value once considered essential in elections: political experience,” they write. “We have thrown out the idea that having worked in government and demonstrated one’s qualifications in a lower-level elected office is one of the best measures to see how a person will handle the awesome responsibilities that come with the Oval Office.”
If popular sentiment about the need to confront economic inequality grows, billionaire candidates could face an electorate skeptical about whether they can champion the economic interests of most Americans.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- What are some arguments for and against billionaires running for President? Which of the arguments do you find most convincing?
- Do the skills necessary to become a billionaire translate into the skills necessary to run a country? Why or why not?
- What are the pluses and minuses of a self-funded campaign? Do you think that self-funded billionaire candidates, who are less dependent on large donors, are more or less likely to be able to represent the economic interests of most Americans? Why?
Reading Two: When Wealth and Democracy Collide
A recent assessment of members of Congress suggested that the average member of Congress is 12 times wealthier than the typical American household. According to the same source, the average net worth of a U.S. senator is $3.2 million.
What effect does it have on our democracy when the government is run largely by the wealthy? Does the wealth gap between elected officials and typical Americans create public policies that worsen inequality in our society?
Observers of wealth in politics note that not only are our elected representatives richer than most of their constituents, but they are also gaining wealth at a faster rate. In a February 27, 2018, article in Roll Call, senior editor David Hawkins pointed out that disparities are growing:
The people’s representatives just keep getting richer, and doing so faster than the people represented.
The cumulative net worth of senators and House members jumped by one-fifth in the two years before the start of this Congress, outperforming the typical American’s improved fortunes as well as the solid performance of investment markets during that time….
The total wealth of all current members was at least $2.43 billion when the 115th Congress began, 20 percent more than the collective riches of the previous Congress….
Millionaire lawmakers have always been a part of the congressional story — from the landed gentry who created and first populated the legislative branch, through the industrialists who wielded outsize influence in the Gilded Age, to the corporate bosses and old money heirs who larded the cloakrooms through the end of the Cold War.
What’s marked recent years, a time when wealth disparity has grown wider than ever in American history, is the arrival of so many of the super-rich. For every 13 members, in fact, one may fairly be dubbed a “1 percenter,” the term of derision imposed by liberal groups on the richest 1 percent of Americans. Data from the Fed pegged the net worth threshold for these people at $10.4 million in 2016, a mark exceeded by 26 Republicans and 17 Democrats.
What effect might wealth have on the decisions politicians make? In a 2016 article for the New York Times, columnist Anand Giridharadas discussed how wealth might impact the votes cast by some politicians:
As it is, the typical lawmaker is dozens of times richer than the typical American. But even within Congress, the researchers Michael W. Kraus and Bennett Callaghan found, relative wealth matters — if you’re a Democrat.
Republicans across the board support policies such as lowering taxes on the rich or reducing business regulation, the authors of the study found. But among Democrats, wealthy lawmakers were more likely to think like Republicans in this regard, while poorer lawmakers were more likely to support such policies as raising the minimum wage or forgiving student debt.
Beyond politics and policy, the research also suggests that wealth makes the rich feel, reason, choose and perceive differently from the less privileged.
One study examined people’s propensity to break rules — in this case, driving rules. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Toronto examined what kind of drivers violated laws at intersections in California.
They found that drivers of luxury vehicles cut off other drivers about 30 percent of the time and cut off pedestrians roughly 45 percent of the time — compared with about 8 percent and 0 percent for drivers of the humblest vehicles.
Their conclusion: The common assumption that resource scarcity fuels most unethical behavior may need updating; the freedom and self-orientation conferred by high status may be far more combustible.
Given the current composition of Congress, the majority of Americans have a right to question whether they feel truly represented by someone of very different economic means, or whether our democracy would be better served by a more economically diverse set of politicians.
- How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
- Why do you think the wealth disparity between the average member of Congress and the average American citizen is growing?
- What do you think: Is a politician’s personal wealth likely to have a strong influence on the way they view policy, or are their personal values and convictions likely to be more decisive? Explain your position.
- Studies of why working-class people are underrepresented in elections point to two main factors: working-class candidates often lack the time and financial resources necessary to run a campaign, and they are often overlooked by party leaders who are used to expecting a candidate to come from a wealthier background. What do you think could be done to make it easier for working-class candidates to run?
- How wealthy are your own representatives in the House and Senate? Do you think their level of wealth affects their stance on issues or their effectiveness? Why or why not?
Research assistance provided by John Bergen.