A Democratic president notwithstanding, much of the government is also on the sugar daddies’ side—and not just the radical Republican House. A 2010 Times study of some 1,450 modern Supreme Court decisions prepared by scholars at the University of Chicago and Northwestern, among them the federal appeals judge Richard Posner, found that the Roberts court has ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time—up from 46 percent in the last five years of the Rehnquist court and 42 percent for all courts since 1953. The notion that Obama is anti-business remains a canard, no matter how much it is repeated by aggrieved CEOs in finance and beyond. The administration has approved fewer rules proposed by federal regulatory agencies than its predecessor did; Obama’s SEC has been notable mainly for its unexpectedly lax policing of Wall Street; his health-care bill, like Romney’s in Massachusetts, was in part modeled on principles originally proposed by the Koch-backed Heritage Foundation; the surviving too-big-to-fail banks are all bigger than they were before the crash and the bailout. The so-called jobs act that the president signed this month, with ample Republican support, was in essence a deregulatory bill further loosening already weak protections for investors. Yet to sugar daddies like Harold Simmons, the president is “the most dangerous American alive” because “he would eliminate free enterprise in this country.”
Obama arouses these kind of violent emotions less because of his actual record than because of who he is (emphatically not one of them) and what he says. His two recent, latently populist campaign speeches—one last December in Osawatomie, Kansas, site of Teddy Roosevelt’s legendary “New Nationalism” address of 1910, and one to the Associated Press in Washington this month—drove the right bonkers. In the first, he attacked those who practice the philosophy that “we are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.” Approve of that laissez-faire philosophy or not, surely it cannot be argued that he misstated it. That’s the vulture capitalism evident in both the careers and public pronouncements of many of the sugar daddies. Obama made the right even angrier in his second speech when he likened their ethos to the Gilded Age creed of social Darwinism. Again he was on the money. As the historian Alan Brinkley has written, social Darwinism appealed to late-nineteenth-century corporate buccaneers because its vulgar application of Darwinism to the marketplace—that the fittest are destined to survive and flourish in business as in evolution—could “legitimize their success and confirm their virtues.” It also eased their guilt about the plight of the poor, since the poor had only themselves to blame for “their own laziness, stupidity or carelessness.” These sentiments are regularly echoed today not just by rising conservative politicians like Chris Christie and Paul Ryan but by none other than Rick Warren, the pastor who presided over Obama’s inauguration. “Certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor,” he recently told Jake Tapper of ABC News, before asserting that the poor are robbed of their “dignity” and forced into “dependency” if subsidized by a government safety net. The undeserving poor of the Gilded Age are with us still.
If Obama had wanted to make the sugar daddies squeal even more, he would have pointed out that the vulture capitalists of both the nineteenth century and our own don’t actually believe in the unfettered free-market competition they preach. In the Gilded Age, they formed monopolies that eliminated rivals. Then and now, they buy or rent politicians and judges to stack the regulatory deck, bend the rules, and maintain government subsidies exemplified by the “carried interest” tax loophole for hedge-fund tycoons. As Mark Twain, co-author of The Gilded Age, summed up their credo: “What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must.”
It’s no wonder that in substance and even a bit in style, the 2012 election echoes the climactic Gilded Age election of 1896. John D. Rockefeller Sr., Henry Clay Frick, and their peers were panicked by the prospect of a populist president—in the form of William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat—and rallied around William McKinley, the Republican long cited as a hero by Karl Rove. McKinley’s campaign manager was the hard-driving Mark Hanna, a millionaire businessman who formulated a lasting maxim: “There are two things that matter in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” Such was his fund-raising prowess that the GOP outspent the Democrats by a margin of 23 to 1 (an estimated $7 million to $300,000). McKinley won with 51 percent of the popular vote, though his assassination at the start of his second term in 1901 would set the stage for the ascent of his vice-president, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Progressive movement. Many of the reforms that Roosevelt would champion—estate and income taxes, more federal regulation of business and the workplace, fair play in labor disputes, protection of the public from contaminated food and drugs—are nearly identical to those opposed by the social-Darwinist sugar daddies of today.
It was also in the years surrounding the 1896 election that legislators in the South, eager to undo Reconstruction, started suppressing the black vote (and that of poor whites too) by erecting barriers like poll taxes and literacy tests. Another version of that scam is also playing out in 2012. Under the pretext of nonexistent “voter fraud,” seventeen states have passed restrictive legislation to deter voting by those at the lower end of the economic scale: minorities, immigrants, the elderly, and students. These copycat bills have largely been modeled on a template endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council—the same organization that pushed for “stand your ground” laws. Among this group’s backers, needless to say, are the Kochs.
If the sugar daddies get their way in November, we know what it means for the country. But it’s equally worth contemplating what will happen if they don’t. Obama is talking the talk of the two Roosevelts, whose reformist zeal and political courage helped bring America back from the brink after the privileged plundered it in the Gilded Age and the Jazz Age. But if he is willing to take on those interests as forcefully as they did, he has yet to show it in his actions and governance. Unless and until he does, it’s hard to see how the sugar daddies could lose over the long run, even if Obama wins on Election Day. They have, after all, only just begun to spend.