Populist ideas from business leaders like Warren Buffett and Nick Hanauer mark a shift in the national conversation.
June 30, 2014

Warren Buffett giving his biggest ever contribution in a political race is more important news than you might think - especially given the recent spate of populist economic commentary by other business leaders like Seattle's Nick Hanauer. This particular contribution just well could be symbolic of an emerging alliance between progressive populists and some segments of the business community. For those who (for some strange reason) don't follow Nebraska politics as avidly as I do, last week Warren Buffett gave $100,000 to Chuck Hassebrook, the Democratic candidate for governor there.

For a man of his means, Buffett surprisingly has donated relatively little to political races over the years--he has never been one of the political mega-donor set who writes 6 and 7 figure checks to political causes and candidates he supports. David Koch he is not. The fact that Buffett would give a check that size to an underdog Democrat running in deep red Nebraska is a major surprise and a big deal all by itself. And it's not like he and Chuck (who, full disclosure, is a long time personal friend of mine) are close personal friends or business associates - Chuck has spent the last 30 years running a non-profit organization in northeast Nebraska that works on rural policy issues, an organization to which Buffett has had no close ties.

What is far more significant than Buffett's unusually large check to an underdog Democrat he doesn't know all that well is the kind of candidate Chuck Hassebrook is. He is what we call in the Midwest a prairie populist. He supports progressive taxation; a higher minimum wage; Medicaid expansion; and investing in public education, roads, bridges, rural economic development, renewables, and energy conservation. Chuck is against letting big business control the economy and get out of paying taxes; he opposes crony capitalism. Of course, Warren Buffett has never been one of those ridiculous billionaires who compares people in favor of progressive taxation to Hitler; he's no out-of-touch type folks like me like to make fun of in videos like this. For example, he famously supported increasing tax rates on wealthy investors like himself, so that they would be paying a higher rate than their secretaries, a concept that came to be known as the Buffett Rule.

Even so, the idea that Warren Buffett would give his highest political donation ever to an underdog, prairie populist he barely knows is a sign not only of the quality of Chuck Hassebrook as a candidate, but of something bigger going on: there are some serious elements of the business community that are beginning to align themselves with progressive populists. The Buffett/Hassebrook hook-up is a high profile example, but hardly the only one. On the ticket in Neb. with Hassebrook is Senate candidate Dave Domina, who made a career as an attorney helping small businesses, family farmers, and ranchers sue large, monopolistic businesses - Big Ag and Big Oil. Another friend of mine (and Senate candidate for whom I consult) is Rick Weiland, a small business-restaurant owner from South Dakota, and someone who before that worked with builders and architects to make building codes around the nation more energy efficient. He is running a populist campaign fighting against big-money, special interests. Populist Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley in Iowa has been able to enlist a lot of small business support while his opponent Joni Ernst has been sucking up to the Koch brothers. Leading progressive Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Jeff Merkley, and Al Franken have all been doing an outstanding job reaching out to small and medium sized businesses in their home states and nationally.

This kind of messaging has not just been happening among politicians. Important business leaders have been sounding pretty populist themselves lately, leaders like Bob Burnett, one of the founding executives at Cisco, and Leo Hindery, a CEO of several major media companies (full disclosure, both are friends), who regularly write progressive populist articles for the Huffington Post. More and more small businesses find themselves banding together to fight battles against monopolistic businesses that are working to squeeze them out of existence. Billionaire investor Nick Hanauer penned an important new article for Politico Magazine, "The Pitchforks Are Coming...For us Plutocrats," wherein he makes the case that it is time for wealthy investors to make some changes in their attitudes:

At the same time that people like you and me are thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history, the rest of the country--the 99.99 percent--is lagging far behind. The divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percentshared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.

But the problem isn't that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.
And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won't last.

If we don't do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn't eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It's not if, it's when.

Smart capitalists -- those who support policies to rebuild a prosperous and growing middle class that can afford to buy their products -- are natural allies with progressive populists against the big, monopolistic, crony capitalists and their right-wing ideologue friends. Warren Buffett's contribution to prairie populist Chuck Hassebrook and Nick Hanauer's brilliant new Politico article are the latest dramatic examples of what I believe will be a rising trend in American politics.

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