Skip to main content

Are politicians too rich to understand us?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Tue June 12, 2012
Tycoon Donald Trump endorses Mitt Romney in Las Vegas in February. The candidate's wife, Ann Romney, is also on hand.
Tycoon Donald Trump endorses Mitt Romney in Las Vegas in February. The candidate's wife, Ann Romney, is also on hand.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: The $30.5 million Scott Walker spent to keep his Wisconsin seat was staggering
  • Stanley says the amount of money thrown around in politics makes politicians seem detached
  • He says average member of Congress is worth millions; presidential candidates are, too
  • Washington's power elite has little in common with average citizens, he says

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- In this age of austerity, America is run by men with wealth that could have leapt from the pages of "The Great Gatsby." The president's worth is estimated at $8.3 million, while Mitt Romney's is placed at a staggering $255 million.

Both have tried to make a character issue out of each other's lifestyle -- conservatives complain that President Barack Obama takes too many vacations and White House aides say that Romney is living on "another planet." Given his wealth, Romney could probably afford to buy one. He has filed an application to bulldoze his $12 million house in La Jolla, California, and build an even bigger one on top of it. How can either of these men empathize with the financial plight of America's middle class?

American democracy is saturated with cash. Last week in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker spent $30.5 million to beat Tom Barrett, who personally raised just $3.9 million. Adding super PAC spending, the race generated about $63.5 million.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

Tea party members will say that Democrats have little right to complain about the amount of money spent on a recall election that they triggered. But there's no denying that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for corporate campaign contributions, helped Walker keep his governorship. Forbes estimates that 14 billionaires gave to the Republican incumbent; only one of them lives in Wisconsin.

Discussion about the role of money in politics invariably centers on campaign donations. But with such gigantic sums flying around, there has to be a cultural impact, too. Politics has become so saturated with cash that its protagonists have started to feel surreally detached from everyday life. On the Democratic side, there was Anna Wintour's bizarre ad celebrating her wonderful life and inviting Obama supporters to have dinner with her and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Is Romney's 'private sector' ad fair?
Public spat over public spending

For the Republicans, you may remember Romney's attempt to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry. But the best has to be Rick Santorum's moving claim that he, too, had suffered in the credit crunch because his house fell 25% in value. Before you well up, that's a fall from $2 million to $1.6 million.

Everybody suspects that politicians are rolling in money, but a review of the figures might surprise even the most cynical. The average citizens' annual income is $49,445. In 2010, the average net worth of a U.S. senator was $13.2 million, and the average worth of a House member was $5.9 million. The wealth is spread across both parties: In fact, seven out of 10 of the richest senators are Democrats.

Romney, Obama: Why they have trouble connecting

One side effect is that Washington has gained impressive financial and cultural clout. In 2011, Washington became the richest city in the United States. Its average income of $84,000 is 60% higher than the national median.

There are several reasons for this. Washington is surrounded by rich suburbs; the government actually grew during the recession, and federal employee compensation averages out at $126,000. Most importantly, the city is a magnet for lobbyists. Lobbying and campaign work have become big businesses that offer huge dollar rewards to rival the returns of 1980s junk bonds. Betting on candidates or special interests has become a form of speculation: Land a big client and a lobbyist could cream off a sizable percentage.

Then there's the Wall Street money. Since 1998, the financial sector has outspent any other sector in lobbying, to the tune of $4.6 billion. In 2011, it employed more than 1,000 lobbyists and spent more than $82 million.

Of course, most members of Congress earned their money the good old-fashioned way (including marrying and inheriting it), and the voter shouldn't necessarily hold their success against them. One politician who stands out for having a comparatively unsettled financial situation is Obama. Yes, his $8.3 million is a lot of money, but he comes from an unusually impoverished background, including a period lived on food stamps. His contemporary wealth is built on a mix of his salary and royalties from his popular books.

Still the days of the citizen legislator are long gone.

The intensity of luxury and wealth has to affect the ability of lawmakers to empathize with voters on very low salaries or none at all. It's easy to imagine that the debate over health care reform or the Bush tax cuts is affected by the fact that, for many people on the Hill, the former is an academic question and the latter is personally advantageous. This isn't a partisan liberal statement. The median identity of a congressman is a rich, white, middle-aged, male lawyer. There is a deficit of experience of running a business or trying to survive on welfare payments.

There is a good case for another round of campaign finance reform, although Citizens United will make any such effort hard to accomplish. But even if individual or corporate contributions were limited, this wouldn't affect a bigger cultural problem in contemporary Washington. Government is increasingly run by people who, financially, have little in common with their constituents.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT