Image Credits: Yuri Gripas/Reuters.

On Easter, I wrote a piece that did not appear at Political Animal called “The Billionaires are Only Half Awake.” It was in response an article Greg Jaffe did for the Washington Post that detailed the emerging concern among many Silicon Valley billionaires that “the tech economy has somehow broken capitalism.” One thing I found frustrating about their perspective is that they saw Elizabeth Warren as a much bigger threat to their interests than Bernie Sanders, largely because they felt she actually understood their world.  They sensed that Big Tech was swallowing up everything and distorting capitalism, and she was the one who had most thoroughly diagnosed the problem. Yet, they did not value that at all. Their response was fear.

On Monday, New York magazine published an east coast version of this story. Gabriel Debenedetti’s article focuses on Wall Street Democrats and the anxieties they are feeling about the direction of the party. They tend to lump Sanders and Warren together, and when they strategize the financiers’ primary goal is to find a champion who can simultaneously deny them the nomination while still being well-positioned to beat Donald Trump. Debenedetti uses a recent gathering to demonstrate his point.

One night in early April, roughly 20 of the Democratic Party’s highest-profile donors from the financial industry sat down over dinner to discuss how exactly they were feeling about the 2020 presidential race. For the most part, it wasn’t great.

Convened by two veterans of liberal fund-raising — investors Steven Rattner and Blair Effron — the group had no hard-and-fast agenda except to share notes on the overflowing field of candidates. The crowd of Democratic heavyweights, including Clinton-administration Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs and Citi alum Robert Rubin, former ambassador to France Jane Hartley, and venture capitalist Deven Parekh, knew most of the contenders well. But coming to some kind of consensus, picking a plausible candidate they felt they could all live with and throw their considerable money behind — that was a far-fetched proposition.

Like their Silicon Valley counterparts, they are suffering from a palpable sense of dread. They also see Sanders and Warren as a dual-threat, with Warren being the more menacing of the two.

Nearly everyone else in the field, the financiers felt, was being pulled leftward by Bernie Sanders (the preposterously well-funded contender they considered too crazy to even imagine in the White House) and Elizabeth Warren (less crazy, Democrats on Wall Street think, and way more competent). “She would torture them,” one banker told me. “Warren strikes fear in their hearts,” explained a New York executive close to banking leaders from both parties — so much fear that such investors often speak of the U.S. senator from Massachusetts, a former law professor and consumer advocate, as a co-front-runner with Sanders. “How do we come up with an alternative?” asked one person at the dinner.

The article focuses on a subset of liberal-minded Wall Streeters, but any concerns that apply to them obviously apply with much more force to the larger contingent of conservatives in Big Finance. If the Democrats lose what little support they have in this world, they’ll feel the full undiluted weight of their power and wrath. How this turns out could have big implications for the country, not just in the upcoming elections but going forward.

There was no agreement. By evening’s end, multiple donors walked away planning to write checks to three or four or five candidates — hoping they stay relatively moderate — rather than going all in on any one. Among the committed Democrats on Wall Street, this wait-and-see, as-long-as-it’s-not-Bernie-or-Elizabeth posture has become the norm. “This is like venture investing. You really don’t know who’s going to break out, but your hope is you have a good portfolio and that one of these investments breaks out,” Bruce Heyman, a former Goldman managing director and ambassador to Canada, told me.

Of course, these longtime donors are more committed to the Democrats than the average guy on Wall Street. Two years ago, Trump seemed noxious enough that Democrats (reasonably) hoped to continue growing their considerable advantage over Republicans in the New York finance set. But one GOP-driven tax cut and one leftward shift in the Democratic Party later, a worried handful of bankers is considering turning that story on its head. “They’re too far left! They’re too far left!” said Alex Sanchez, CEO of the Florida Bankers Association. “I mean, honestly, if it’s Bernie versus Trump, I have no fucking idea what I’m going to do,” one Democratic hedge funder told me. “Maybe I won’t vote.”

I welcome the Democrats’ shift away from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, although I think the movement has been greatly exaggerated. In some ways, the angst this is causing is a sign of the party’s health. Yet, as I explained in my April 10 piece “The Left Wants to Pick a Fight It Cannot Lose,” there is a significant risk involved here. In that piece, I explored the economics of fascism and the commonalities I see between the 1920’s and 1930’s and the politics of the present. In particular, I focused on how Europe’s fascist parties enlisted the support of Big Business by promising to protect their interests and status.

Fascist regimes generally came into existence in times of crisis, when economic elites, landowners and business owners feared that a revolution or uprising was imminent. Fascists allied themselves with the economic elites, promising to protect their social status and to suppress any potential working class revolution. In exchange, the elites were asked to subordinate their interests to a broader nationalist project, thus fascist economic policies generally protect inequality and privilege while also featuring an important role for state intervention in the economy.

There are two sections of Debenedetti’s piece that have an ominous resonance. The first touches on social status:

Democratic donors aren’t especially worried about policy; few have sussed out where candidates stand on Dodd-Frank or the carried-interest tax loophole, and few believe that, aside from Sanders or Warren, any contenders are likely to make an aggressive new push for regulation as president. What agitates them instead is — in a replay of the alienation they felt during the Obama presidency thanks to a few stray “fat cats” comments — how Democratic rhetoric threatens their sense of status.

The second deals with financial interests:

Over coffee recently in midtown, an investment pro with a long history in Democratic politics described the struggle to resist the unexpected pull of Trump. “What matters more?” he asked, looking up at me. “My social values or my paycheck?”

While considering the threat this poses to our civil rights and representative form of government, I wrote:

I’d like to think that our business elite is different from the folks in Italy and Germany during the rise of fascism. I hope that they have enough patriotism and respect for our Constitution to see that it would be a mistake to align with Trump. But this isn’t something I have a lot of confidence in, and that’s what is keeping me up at night.

I guess this is less of a prescription than a warning. If the left in this country wants to run on an economically populist platform that scares the bejesus out of our big business community, they cannot afford to lose.

The big business community has a lot of big but fragile egos, as President Obama discovered when he experienced an outsized backlash against some mild criticism he sent their way.  They’re unduly susceptible to challenges to their status which makes this otherwise savvy group surprisingly irrational when assessing risk.  In the 1920’s and 1930’s, this helped moved them into the fascist camp.

What’s frustrating is that they sense something is desperately wrong with the the president, the country, and the economy, and they know that they bear some responsibility for that. They say that the only policies that really concern them are coming from Bernie Sanders and (especially) Elizabeth Warren, but as I noted in my billionaires piece, Warren is the one who has her finger on the pulse of what is ailing us. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly,  we have feature articles by Eric Cortellessa, my brother Phil and Grace Gedye that look at the problem of under-regulating Big Tech. Warren’s call to use antitrust enforcement to break up the power of these monopolies is exactly what these companies need whether they want to accept it or not.

Yet, instead of welcoming someone who understands their business and how to prevent them from “breaking capitalism,” they’re getting ready to move into Trump’s xenophobic, white nationalist camp in an effort to protect their status and their paycheck.

If they make that move en masse, it will have consequences. The Big Business/Big Finance/Big Tech communities often overestimate their ability to dictate political outcomes, but they have much more power that ordinary citizen groups.  We rely on them to aggressively protect the freedom of the press and not to “subordinate their interest” in protecting the American system “to a broader nationalist project.”

The Democratic primary voter doesn’t have much control over how this will shake out.  They can’t be expected to vote out of fear that they might offend the tender sensibilities of venture capitalists and Wall Street bankers. The responsibility for navigating through this minefield is going to fall on the candidates themselves, and in particular on whoever becomes the nominee.  The ideal candidate will be able to communicate effectively with the business world and convince them that some changes are necessary and for their own good.  They’ll also have to convince them that Trumpism represents a much bigger threat to their country, and ultimately their finances and status, than a return to the kind of regulated capitalism and antitrust enforcement that worked so well in the mid-20th Century.

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