By Chrystia Freeland
NEW YORK Nov 8 Among the losers in the United
States this week are the super-rich, who spent unprecedented
millions to evict President Barack Obama from the White House.
The investing class turned sharply and vociferously against the
president many of them had supported in 2008. On Tuesday night,
the plutocrats lost their shirts.
"Boy, they threw away a lot of money," Theda Skocpol, a
Harvard professor, told me. "It was very interesting to hear on
Tuesday night about all the corporate jets packed in Logan
Airport" for Mitt Romney's party in Boston.
One of the important questions in the United States today -
and, eventually, in all democracies where income inequality has
risen sharply, which is to say in pretty much all democracies -
is what impact the political ineffectiveness of the super-rich
at the ballot box will have on how the country is actually
According to Skocpol, the answer will be determined partly
by how we collectively choose to explain the president's
"There will be an attempt to downplay the role economic
populism played," Skocpol said. "I would expect a lot of the
Wall Street Democratic crowd to place the emphasis on social
issues and immigration. There will be an effort to define it
To put it another way, one emerging explanation of Obama's
victory will be that it was about demographics trumping economic
policy. Whether that argument becomes the dominant narrative
matters, because it will shape what sort of a governing mandate
Obama is deemed to have won.
"He clearly got a mandate for using the government to build
an opportunity for the middle class," Skocpol said. "He has a
mandate for higher taxes on the wealthy. He has a mandate for
Obamacare going forward. I think voters understand that these
differences were clear."
David Nasaw, a historian who has written biographies of
Andrew Carnegie and Joseph P. Kennedy - two influential
plutocrats from earlier eras in U.S. history - agrees.
"The media, with all due respect, is still frighteningly
condescending to black and Latino voters," Nasaw said. "The
black and Latino voters did not vote for Obama simply because he
had a black skin. They voted for him because they thought his
policies made more sense."
"This is no longer a nation where white middle-class
suburbanites control the destiny of the country," Nasaw
continued. "Black voters, Latino voters, young voters aren't
going away, and they are going to vote their self-interest.
Their self-interest is with a larger government and with a
government that recognizes that there has been, over the past
couple of decades, a power grab by the wealthy, by corporate
interests, by financial interests."
What makes that mandate particularly powerful is the
president's relationship with the 1 percent during the 2012
election campaign. Much of Wall Street fell in love with Obama
in 2008. The support of some of America's most admired and
forward-thinking financiers had particular impact during the
Democratic primaries, when Obama, then a relatively obscure
Illinois senator, needed all the backing he could get against
Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When it comes to policy, Obama wasn't a particularly bad
leader for the most affluent Americans, particularly those in
the financial sector - incomes at the very highest levels have
recovered much more swiftly from the financial crisis than those
of the middle class, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program was
essential for Wall Street.
But Obama was a severe disappointment when it came to the
softer side of serving his wealthy supporters. The handwritten
letters, White House photos and private policy discussions that
are the accustomed quid pro quo for major donors did not happen.
The result was a business community that nursed something much
more painful than a mere substantive disagreement with the
president - its leaders felt personally disrespected.
That drove many of the president's political supporters to
despair - would it be so hard, they wondered, for him to write a
few thank-you notes? But he didn't - and he won anyway.
"The president really chafed at the idea that he needed to
kiss the ring of Wall Street," said Jacob Hacker, a Yale
political science professor and leading thinker about the role
of money in U.S. politics. "He rightly resisted the calls to do
that, and I think the result will embolden the president a bit."
Hacker believes that money continues to play a huge role in
politics, particularly through lobbying around specific issues,
and in races that have less national visibility, like many
congressional contests. But, overall, he sees in the results
this week a vindication of the power of mass democracy.
"It means that your votes matter," Hacker said. "If you can
mobilize your voters, that is a pretty strong antidote to the
role of money in politics."
The good news for Wall Street, for the 1 percent, and for
the United States as a whole, is that pretty much everyone
expects the president to be magnanimous in victory.
"Obama is not going to turn into some Bolshevik," Skocpol
said. "He is going to try to work with the business community,
as he always has. He is not going to be insulting them now; he's
going to be inviting them to dinner."