Last week Forbes released an article on the wealth of the new United Kingdom Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, proclaiming his and his wife’s joint net worth to be “higher than the personal fortune of King Charles III”. An eyebrow raising tagline, evoking an idea that feels both essentially unshocking and immensely distasteful: positions of political power are being gatekept by the vastly wealthy.
Looking at politics of the last few decades, it’s not hard to find examples of this phenomenon. The last American president was a billionaire famed for his many quotes, including his notorious “small loan of a million dollars”. Celebrities occasionally occupy their retirement by dabbling as mayors or governors of New York or California, or even as the US president — Cynthia Nixon, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronald Regan all come to mind. If you made the millionaire club in the US into a political party, it would account for 3% of the US population. This percentage would have majority control in all three branches of the Federal Government, in the House of Representatives, in the Senate and in the Supreme Court.
Honestly, looking at the title prompting my input, I feel it needs to be edited. The rich aren’t getting the high-ranking government jobs — they’re maintaining a long-standing chokehold on them.
I’m not saying everyone in politics is one of the super-elite mega-wealthy. The new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was raised in the working-class district of Garbatella. The UK had predominantly working-class prime ministers from the mid-1960s up until the early 90s. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a borderline fairy-tale story of waitressing to the US House of Representatives — a modern day Cinderella. Still, there is a notable gulf between the economic majority of a nation, and the demographic majority of its’ representation in government.
No working-class individual has ever been appointed as a Governor, to the Supreme Court of Justice, or God forbid run for president of the US…
The fact that Ocasio-Cortez’ story is so rare that to liken it to a Grimms Brothers’ tale doesn’t seem too far off-base. If you took the total number of Congress members throughout history who worked in blue collar labour immediately prior to assuming their seat, you wouldn’t even have 2% of the seats. No working-class individual has ever been appointed as a Governor, to the Supreme Court of Justice, or God forbid run for president of the US, all despite working-class US citizens making up more than 50% of the population. Of the 57 individuals who have been prime minister of the UK, over half of them went predominantly to Eton. If not Eton, then Harrow or Westminster School, and only 11 did not attend a fee-paying public second level school. Interestingly, despite not all having exceptional grades, of the 33 prime ministers who attended these public schools, almost all managed to be accepted into either Oxford or Cambridge.
The message is clear: to campaign for a seat of political importance, you need money, and a lot of it…
When speaking about this article with a friend of mine, she instantly pointed to the supposedly obvious reason that only the disproportionately wealthy run for office: campaigning is expensive. Michael Bloomberg spent more than $900 million on his failed presidential bid, the 2020 presidential election in the US reportedly cost $14.4 billion in political spending. Boris Johnson’s victory in 2019 cost the Conservatives £16 million. Cinderella candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have run a grassroots campaign in order to secure her first seat, but this method did not pay off for the three women who were featured alongside her in the documentary on their campaigns, and less than two years later Ocasio-Cortez raised $30 million to campaign for her re-election. The message is clear: to campaign for a seat of political importance, you need money, and a lot of it, or at the very least the support of people with deep pockets. Money wins elections.
So, what’s the conclusion from all of this? What’s the take-away? The take-away is this: the belief that we in a democracy are being represented by representatives of the majority is inherently untrue. Governmental bodies do not look like a sample of the population they’re supposed to represent. They look like a sample of the minority demographic of the very wealthy. Governments reflect the beliefs, values, and intentions of the people they represent, the people they themselves are: the rich. So of course the rich are getting richer; it’s human nature. It’s the acting of members of government to protect the people in the communities to which they belong. It’s just a shame that those communities aren’t the people they’re supposed to represent.