The Super Power Elite

So on this slow news day, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with a New York Times Magazine piece from this weekend by Nick Confessore, Sarah Cohen and Karen Yourish identifying and analyzing the 158 families that have contributed half of the presidential campaign contributions this cycle.

This isn’t the “top 1%;” it’s a tiny, tiny subset of the top 1%, people who in most respects do not live in ways the rest of us could easily recognize. And they’ve been liberated by the U.S. Supreme Court to buy political influence:

They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male, in a nation that is being remade by the young, by women, and by black and brown voters. Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns. And in an economy that has minted billionaires in a dizzying array of industries, most made their fortunes in just two: finance and energy.

Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, a New York Times investigation found. Not since before Watergate have so few people and businesses provided so much early money in a campaign, most of it through channels legalized by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision five years ago.

These donors’ fortunes reflect the shifting composition of the country’s economic elite. Relatively few work in the traditional ranks of corporate America, or hail from dynasties of inherited wealth. Most built their own businesses, parlaying talent and an appetite for risk into huge wealth: They founded hedge funds in New York, bought up undervalued oil leases in Texas, made blockbusters in Hollywood. More than a dozen of the elite donors were born outside the United States, immigrating from countries like Cuba, the old Soviet Union, Pakistan, India and Israel.

But regardless of industry, the families investing the most in presidential politics overwhelmingly lean right, contributing tens of millions of dollars to support Republican candidates who have pledged to pare regulations; cut taxes on income, capital gains and inheritances; and shrink entitlement programs.

The characteristics of this group of donors are skewed a bit by the vast Republican presidential field and by the fact that one of the two major Democratic candidates isn’t interested in their money. But make no mistake, they are making a major bid for exceptional power this year.

I write a lot about 2016 being an unusually high-stakes presidential election. One of the reasons for that is the test it represents for a new super power elite that’s trying to use its financial superpowers to create a federal government according to its own tastes and self-interests.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.