The 1 percent's most ruinous sin: How they sap our politicians of all decency

How the sad story of Mitt Romney explains everything that's wrong with American democracy

Published February 1, 2014 11:30AM (EST)

 Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein                                          (<a href=''>lev radin</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)
Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Lloyd Blankfein (lev radin via Shutterstock/Reuters/Steve Marcus/Jim Young/Salon)

"Mitt," Netflix's recently released documentary chronicling the two failed presidential campaigns of Willard Mitt Romney, has, on the whole, been rather well-received. And not just by the New York Post's reliably wingnutty film critic, Kyle Smith. Business Insider's Brett LoGiurato called it "fantastic," Sahil Kapur of Talking Points Memo described it as a "fascinatingly personal" portrait, Time's James Poniewozik said it was "interesting" and "humanly sympathetic."

Not everyone believes that the film succeeds in giving viewers a behind-the-scenes look at two presidential campaigns — but most seem to have found it, at the very least, a humanizing depiction of a seemingly decent man. A few have even gone so far as to argue that "Mitt," had it been released during the 2012 campaign, could've helped Romney shed his image as a robotic plutocrat. Maybe it could've even helped him win the election. (Vanishingly unlikely, if one believes in political science; but at this point, it feels somewhat churlish to point that out.)

Even if the man in "Mitt" is not so charming and sympathetic a figure as to counterbalance the woeful policies on which he ran, there is the lingering question of why there is such a great distance between Candidate Romney and Mitt Romney. How could the same guy who at one point in the film acknowledges the immense privilege he was born into repeatedly insist, on the campaign trail, that he was a self-made man, a testament to the American meritocracy? How could the guy who infamously sneered that roughly half of the country were irresponsible, entitled, greedy moochers seem, in another context, to be kind, thoughtful, polite and fundamentally well-meaning?

Sure, people are complicated; and yes, the intensity of the politico-media complex often renders us incapable of seeing the men and women on the other side as fully formed human beings until well after the final ballot is counted. That's all true. But I think there's another explanation, one that has more to do with power and economics than ideology and partisanship.

To explain, allow me to turn for a moment to another one of January’s most talked-about happenings in the political world: The debut (to a wider audience, at least) of Thomas Perkins, an octogenarian venture capitalist and multimillionaire.

Last Saturday, Perkins kicked off a full week’s worth of outrage, befuddlement and frustration when the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor he had written in which he compared liberal America to Nazi Germany, and the wealthiest 1 percent to the Third Reich’s Jews. Making matters worse, Perkins subsequently appeared on Bloomberg TV, ostensibly to apologize, but in truth to argue that while his warnings of a looming “progressive Kristallnacht” were hyperbolic, his fundamental point — that the nation’s economic 1 percent was demonized and oppressed — held true. (The impetus for all of this, for what it’s worth, was the fact that some people had made fun of his multi-millionaire ex-wife’s oversize hedges.)

While Perkins’ ahistorical and narcissistic ramblings were roundly mocked, they also inspired greater interest in discovering whether or not his fellow members of the 1 percent felt the same way he did. As it turns out, many, if not most, of them do. Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joshua Green explained how in the Obama years, “a class of financiers whose wealth shields them from the effects of practically any government policy has come to develop … a powerful persecution complex.”

Politico’s Ben White took it further, reporting on how the 1 percent is seized with a consuming anxiety in response to the public’s new focus on income and wealth inequality. As one psychologist who works mainly with the hyper-rich told White, the disruption of Occupy Wall Street and the resurgence of (a mild) class-consciousness in American politics has created “a worry among our clients that they are being judged and people are making assumptions about who they are based on their wealth.”

Now, if Perkins and his ilk were as isolated from American society and politics as they feel they are, this kind of “frothing paranoia” would still be annoying and ridiculous, but also fundamentally harmless. Plenty of people in America walk around harboring all sorts of crazy ideas and, for the most part, so long as they keep these ideas to themselves — or at least don’t force the rest of us to listen — no one gives a damn. But the problem with 1 percenters afflicted with Perkins syndrome is that, in crucial ways, they’re decidedly not set apart from the rest of America. In fact, when it comes to politics, they’re everywhere.

As the Sunlight Foundation revealed during the summer of last year, more than a quarter of all the disclosed political donations in the 2012 election (nearly $6 billion) came from a mere 31,385 people. And as the Sunlight Foundation rightly points out, these are Tom Perkins’ people:

The nation’s biggest campaign donors have little in common with average Americans. They hail predominantly from big cities, such as New York and Washington. They work for blue-chip corporations, such as Goldman Sachs and Microsoft. One in five works in the finance, insurance and real estate sector. One in 10 works in law or lobbying.

Since the very lifeblood of American politics is money, this infinitesimally small group of Americans wields an outrageously disproportionate amount of influence. These are the people any aspiring politician has to cozy up to, the people a would-be president has to massage, charm, humor and indulge. A Huffington Post report once found that members of Congress are encouraged — and not gently, mind you — to spend as much as five hours of every day fundraising.

Imagine spending five hours of every day talking to Tom Perkins and not only having to listen to his nonsense, but do so in such a way that he’ll feel inclined to give you huge amounts of money afterward as a reward. Imagine having to hear Lloyd Blankfein claim he's doing "God's work" and bite your tongue, or even nod as you reach out your palm to collect a check. Imagine having to associate yourself with vulgar 1 percenter Donald Trump.

And this is just for being a member of Congress. The financial demands of running a presidential campaign are much, much worse.

So, getting back to Mitt Romney, keep in mind that during the roughly six years he was running for president — from 2006 to 2012 — Romney was spending an unfathomable amount of his time engaging in the soul-destroying process of pretending to listen, pretending to agree, pretending to care, all in the hopes of securing a big, fat paycheck … and then doing it again, and again, and again.

Think back to the infamous 47 percent video, which was taken during a high-priced Romney fundraiser. Romney’s a Republican, so I don’t doubt that on some fundamental level he believes that what separates Democrats and GOPers is an ethic of responsibility and self-reliance. But at the same time, you can easily imagine that Romney, long numb to the entire process of humoring the wealthy, was acting like any modern politician: telling his audience what it wanted to hear. And his audience wants to hear that they're true Masters of the Universe, real champions of the meritocracy.

One of the most remarked upon moments in "Mitt" features Josh Romney explaining why "good people" don't run for office. Referring to the nonstop criticism, scrutiny and abuse a candidate for president must endure, Josh says:

This is why you don’t get good people running for president. What better guy is there than my dad? Is he perfect? Absolutely not. He’s made mistakes. He’s done all sorts of things wrong. But for goodness sakes, here’s a brilliant guy who's had experience turning things around, which is what we need in this country. I mean, it’s like, this is the guy for the moment. And we’re in this, and you just get beat up constantly.

It's a common complaint, and people of all stripes tend to enjoy bashing "the media," so it has quite a few adherents. But it's got the dynamic all wrong. It's not what happens on the big stage, in front of all the flashing lights and snapping cameras and hovering microphones and outstretched tape recorders, that keeps "good people" from wanting to run. It's what happens behind the curtain, during those thousands upon thousands of moments spent greasing the Tom Perkinses of this world, that turns a seemingly decent guy like Mitt Romney into that most vacuous and disturbing figure: the presidential nominee.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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