Who “won” the 2022 midterm elections? Who has cause to crow the loudest? Democrats? They averted the traditional midterm swoon. Florida governor — and presidential hopeful — Ron DeSantis? His state GOP team swept away Dems at every level. Republicans in the House? They’re claiming a bare majority, enough to make life hell for President Joe Biden over the rest of his term.
Our pundits will no doubt be endlessly debating questions like these. But this post-election debate will, by and large, ignore November 8’s real winners: America’s wealthiest. We’ve ended up once again with an election season that has ignored the widespread national support for policies and proposals that could put a significant dent in America’s greatest fortunes.
What sort of policies and proposals? This past summer the Harris Poll released major survey findings — based on nearly 2,000 interviews — that offer some clues.
The Harris pollsters found that two-thirds of Americans see economic inequality as “a serious national issue,” with nearly 60 percent of Gen Z’ers and Millennials feeling that billionaires are “getting in the way” of their personal dreams. Nearly as many Americans, 58 percent, believe that “billionaires’ activities contribute to inflation in everyday goods and services.”
How best to address the problems billionaires create? We need, most Americans agree, to start by raising tax rates on our nation’s super rich. Two of every three Americans, Harris found, believe “billionaires don’t pay their fair share of taxes.”
The Harris pollsters also found “a rising interest in capping wealth accumulation.” Nearly half of Americans — 47 percent — now favor limiting just how much personal wealth Americans can sit on. Almost as many Americans would support legislation to prevent billionaires from using their fortunes to buy up newspapers, news websites, and other major media properties.
How often did we see ideas like these pop up on this fall’s campaign circuit?
Why the hesitance on the part of so many Democratic candidates to speak out forcefully — with specifics — against America’s ongoing concentration of wealth and power? These candidates feel they need at least some deep pockets on their side. How else to have any hope of countering the avalanche of dollars the super rich are dropping on right-wingers all too willing to do their bidding?
We have essentially no limits today on how much these rich can shovel into our election campaigns. They can shovel with abandon, both out of their personal grand fortunes and from the corporations they control.
Analysts at the public interest group Open Secrets estimated, just before Election Day, that total campaign spending for state and federal elections in 2022 will hit $16.7 billion, well above the $14 billion spent on the 2018 midterms. Some 38 percent of that total will come from the top 1 percent of donors, with 15.4 percent just from billionaires alone, up from 11.9 percent in 2020.
Billionaires tend to invest their billions strategically. Take the Ohio Senate race, where venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance pocketed $15 million early on from his billionaire investor former boss Peter Thiel. Those millions won Vance the GOP primary, but the fledgling candidate soon found himself struggling in the general election campaign against veteran Rep. Tim Ryan. To the rescue came assorted Super PACs tied to Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
McConnell’s wealthy underwriters ended up “propping up” Vance, Mother Jones notes, with over another $30 million. A candidate seeking to represent people of modest means would have to pick up 1.2 million campaign contribution checks averaging $25 each to offset $30 million.
In Ohio and eight other states, McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund super PAC spent over $205 million on advertising blitzes, becoming, according to the ad tracker AdImpact, the “highest-spending advertiser” in campaign history. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee tied to the House Republican leadership, has spent over $188.1 million.
To remain competitive in this sort of environment, Democrats like Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer have been cultivating their own “dark money” pools of campaign cash. This sort of reliance on the friendly financially favored has consequences. Dollars from deep pockets amount to a political “wet blanket.” They dampen candidate enthusiasm for any proposals that might actually discomfort people of awesome means.
This hesitance to confront the rich, in turn, leaves people of modest means feeling real discomfort as grand fortunes continue to grow at their expense. And all these dynamics keep a vicious political cycle spinning. Proposals that would excite modest-income voters — proposals that openly challenge the lockgrip the super rich hold over so much of our daily lives — get little traction within the Democratic Party hierarchy simply because these proposals might frighten off the potential rich donors the party needs to compete.
The resulting frustrations with everyday life’s continuing squeezes leave many Americans of modest means vulnerable to the Trumps of our world — and worse — who blame those squeezes on society’s out groups.
In this difficult political environment, we do our best to battle the Trumpistas. We rightfully celebrate our victories against them. But the vicious cycle only keeps spinning when these victories leave so many millions of Americans still feeling squeezed. A Donald Trump might fall, a Ron DeSantis waits in the wings.
The best way out of this cycle: taking the rich on directly. Progressives in Massachusetts have just shown the way. On Election Day, their campaign to undo the notorious flat tax in their state constitution and put in place a stiff new levy on the state’s richest won a convincing 52-48 percent victory.
This triumph — won in the face of a massive opposition misinformation campaign — will levy an income surtax of 4 percent on annual individual income above $1 million. The revenue resulting from this new Massachusetts “Fair Share Amendment” will go toward boosting public education and transportation.
The state’s top 1 percent, under current law, have been paying only 6.8 percent of their average $2.4-million annual incomes in state and local taxes. The Fair Share Amendment’s Election Day victory will up that rate to an average 8.7 percent and raise, notes the Fair Share campaign, $2 billion a year in new revenue
“We’ve done,” the Fair Share campaign’s Jeron Mariani noted on Election Day’s day after, “what some thought was impossible: passed the Fair Share Amendment to create a permanently fairer tax system and deliver billions of dollars in new revenue for our public schools, colleges, roads, bridges, and transit systems.”
On that same day, just coincidentally, analysts at the data company Wealth-X released their latest World Ultra Wealth Report. The United States, the report details, now hosts more “ultra high net worth individuals” — deep pockets worth at least $30 million — “than the next five highest-ranked countries combined.”
These 121,465 U.S. ultras make up nearly a third of the world’s super wealthy. By getting serious about challenging these rich, we can improve all our lives. Let efforts like the triumph in Massachusetts light the way.
Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His latest books include The Case for a Maximum Wage and The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970. Twitter: @Too_Much_Online.