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 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT