Opinion

What Hillary Clinton can learn from Teddy Roosevelt

Take plutocrats' money, then betray them

Every left-leaning candidate for political office faces the same conundrum: How can you actually fund a campaign that promises to take from the rich and give to the poor?

The basic goal of leftist politics is to provide full employment and universally-shared prosperity, but it's increasingly obvious the only way to do that is to alter the economic distribution away from 1 percenters, who currently vacuum up nearly all economic growth. But that might needle the (notoriously sensitive) egos of those same 1 percenters, who have the money needed to run a modern political campaign.

I've suggested before that Hillary could simply toss 30 years of Democratic politics over the side, and campaign like a New Deal-era populist on a platform of megadoses of egalitarianism. It's a bold but risky strategy, of course. When William Jennings Bryan faced down William McKinley on explicitly egalitarian grounds, capitalists moved heaven and earth to defeat him, spending nearly five times as much as any other presidential election. Bryan lost.

At any rate, Hillary is almost certainly too skittish to try something like that. So here's another suggestion: just lie.

Take money from the moneyed (they will be trying to bribe her anyway) and then shank them afterwards. It would restrict her freedom of action, since she would likely not have the necessary congressional majorities to pass new laws, but there are still important, long-dormant tools a president could use.

Such a move has a long history in American politics. (As Jesse Unruh once said, "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women, and then vote against them, you have no business being [in politics].")

In fact, betraying the donor class was a key development in the history of the American middle class.

President Theodore Roosevelt, ironically vaulted into office by the assassination of McKinley, was the first to use the Sherman Antitrust Act against actual monopoly trusts (it had previously been used mostly against labor unions). After his 1904 re-election, he plotted the downfall of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil trust as an illegal restraint on trade.

Big business, who had donated heavily to Roosevelt's campaign (and to his opponent, just like today), was furious. "We bought the son of a bitch, and then he didn't stay bought," fumed Henry Clay Frick, one of the U.S. Steel barons.

Though it was only the first step in a long process, the Supreme Court case which eventually smashed the Standard Oil empire was a key precedent for future trust-busters. Breaking the titanic economic power of the trusts was, in turn, a foundational step in the formation of the American middle class. More competition meant better prices for consumers and fewer plutocrats buying Congress.

But today, most of the Progressive Era reforms of business have been overthrown, and inequality is again at Gilded Age levels. If there was ever a time for another Square Deal, now is it. In fact, Hillary wouldn't even need to update Teddy's policies very much for the 21st century; she could just go about reinforcing the ones Republicans undermined in the 1980s.

Just take stock price manipulation. Thanks to a Securities and Exchange Commission rule put out by a Reagan appointee, illegal stock price manipulation was legalized in 1982. Predictably, executive compensation immediately exploded, and as Nick Hanauer notes, the financial sector generally has become a huge parasite ever since.

Such a development doesn't stay on Wall Street. Corporations that have been reconstituted into shareholder piggy banks don't put money towards investment or wages, worsening inequality. "Shareholders aren't providing capital to the corporate sector, they're extracting it," writes Hanauer.

Reagan also essentially stopped enforcing anti-trust law, and nobody ever got started again. As a result, mergers are again utterly endemic to American capitalism, and great monopolies are again common. Indeed, the old pieces of Rockefeller's Standard Oil have partially recombined: the two biggest were a New Jersey branch of the company, which would become Exxon, and a New York branch, which would become Mobil. They have since re-merged to become ExxonMobil, the largest private oil company in the world.

However, most of those original laws are still on the books. SEC rules can be changed. A bold attorney general could start bringing anti-trust suits on traditional grounds. That wouldn't recreate the Progressive Era by itself, but it would be an important step in stoking the mass politics necessary to win decisive majorities.

This raises the question of why Hillary should try this. Her husband's presidency, in particular, saw grotesque financial deregulation. Aside from it being a good idea for the non-rich, the major reason is political. Bill Clinton could get away with selling out to Wall Street in a context of red-hot growth, increasing wages, and 22 million new jobs. But for most people, the Obama recovery has been very weak, at best. If a center-left candidate can't deliver mass prosperity, then they will eventually lose to a competitor fully in capital's pocket.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misspelled Jesse Unruh's name. It has since been corrected. We regret the error. 

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