Listening to a newly populist President Obama or to Mitt Romney, who touts his CEO past at every turn, it is tempting to imagine a 2012 election that unfolds as textbooks imagine, with Republicans speaking for business and Democrats standing up for the little guy. Don’t be fooled. A more accurate reading of the contest features two elite candidates who represent different wings of the 1 Percent – a group increasingly divided over economics and the role of government.
Look closely at Obama’s rhetoric and you see that he’s not channeling Occupy Wall Street as much as a pragmatic tax-and-invest liberalism. Obama speaks for highly educated, affluent Americans who want government to do more, not less, on a number of fronts – like education, infrastructure, scientific research and clean energy. These folks don’t envy Europe; they envy China, which is deploying a muscular statism to compete economically and dominate the future.
Yes, Obama has made some strong statements lately about inequality and raising taxes on rich people. But most of this goes over just fine in Malibu or Manhattan. Many of the rich are ready to pay higher taxes – with polls showing, for instance, that a majority of millionaires support the Buffett Tax. And many agree that inequality has gone too far, seeing the growing wealth divide as a threat to America’s economic dynamism and social cohesion. The things that liberal rich people don’t like – unions, protectionism, and regulation, etc. – Obama doesn’t like much either.
Romney, meanwhile, speaks for a more familiar kind of 1 Percenter who thinks that business has all the answers and government should claim as little private wealth as possible. These elites embrace what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat last week called the “competitiveness revolution” – a drive for greater efficiencies and higher profits in which private equity firms like Bain Capital are heroes, not villains. Most of these people aren’t concerned about inequality, believing that all boats will rise faster in a laissez-faire economy and the fantastic heights of the yachts will only serve to inspire people. The best thing government can do for the little guy, the logic here goes, is get out of the way of private enterprise.
This clash of elites is hardly new. It has been taking shape for years now as the economy has diversified, with vast new wealth created by highly educated knowledge workers who live and work in blue states and, by and large, believe in government and elite experts. Barack Obama, so obviously smart and logical, with two Ivy League degrees, is a near-perfect fit for this crowd.