November 21, 2019
Giridharadas is a TIME editor-at-large and the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, The True American and India Calling. He is also a political analyst for NBC News and teaches writing at NYU.
Illustration by Shout for TIME
WN: Compelling–and hopeful–analysis in light of what is happening right now in American politics!
A democratic socialist—Bernie Sanders—is among the top contenders to be the next Democratic nominee for U.S. President. His rival and fellow Senator, Elizabeth Warren, is also among the top tier of candidates, declaring herself a capitalist who wishes to transform American capitalism as we know it, with a wealth tax, a Green New Deal and the elimination of private health insurance. A more centrist candidate, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., illustrated the shifting winds when he recently declared that “neo-liberalism is the political–economic consensus that has governed the last 40 years of policy in the U.S. and U.K. Its failure helped to produce the Trump moment. Now we have to replace it with something better.” In 2016, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had 5,000 members; since then, its dues-paying membership has multiplied more than tenfold. This new energy on the left terrifies chief executives and billionaires, and yet many of them have been voicing similar alarms about a crisis of capitalism. Ray Dalio, the billionaire co-chairman of the investment firm Bridgewater Associates, warned in April that America faced a “national emergency” in capitalism’s failure to benefit more people, and he pronounced the American Dream lost. The anti-capitalist impulse has some purchase on the right too. Before he pushed a tax cut that lined the capitalists’ pockets, Donald Trump ran, most improbably, as a Republican skeptical of the financial elite’s loyalty to Americans. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson has entertained a surprising skepticism of capitalist doctrines and said positive things about Warren.
Then, in 2016, something happened. Sanders ran for President. He built a formidable national movement, powered by small donations, and won 22 states—mind you, as a democratic socialist in the United States of America. Sometimes the thing that could never happen happens, and it makes people doubt their sense of reality. And in that election cycle, if Sanders discredited capitalism as a conscious project, his cause received unexpected, unintentional help from the man who would become President. Trump ran as a flamboyant capitalist, wary of certain aspects of capitalism, but promising that his capitalist mind and his capitalist fortune would make him a uniquely gifted, uniquely incorruptible President. When that turned out not to be the case, Trump not only damaged himself but the idea of the selfless billionaire savior too.
As the chances have increased that a candidate outside the neoliberal consensus will win the nomination, we have begun to see the Great Plute Freakout of 2019. A wave of plutes have weighed in about the dangers of a Sanders or Warren presidency. Although their obvious motivation is clear—not wanting to lose their money to the federal government—that’s seldom how they argue it. Instead, they engage in economic concern trolling—framing their self–preservational worries as being, in fact, worries about you and yours. Zuckerberg of Facebook warned us that taxing wealth would limit the diversity of philanthropic efforts in medical research. Leon Cooperman, a hedge-fund billionaire, warned us that taxing wealth would curb the good works that he and his friends do. And then, in the cherry on top, Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and media billionaire, made moves to launch his own bid for the Democratic nomination. Peak billionaire may be a billionaire deciding to possibly attempt to purchase a party nomination because of his fear that some candidates in the race aren’t plutophilic enough—and then running against a maybe–billionaire who promised that being a billionaire would make him specially incorruptible and now is in impeachment proceedings over his alleged corruption.
Giridharadas is a TIME editor at large and the author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World
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