Another Rich Guy Says Populists Are Like Nazis

by Jonathan Cohn | March 18, 2014

Remember the story about the rich guy comparing left-wing populism to Nazism? It’s happening again, only this time it’s a different rich guy.

It’s Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and financier of the Republican Party. Politico’s Ben White and Maggie Haberman caught up with him, while reporting an article about how the very wealthy see the political landscape—and whether they are worried, as they were before, that liberal arguments about inequality and redistribution were resonating with the public.

“I hope it’s not working,” Ken Langone, the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot and major GOP donor, said of populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Langone’s comments — sure to draw ire from those who find such comparisons to Nazi Germany insensitive — echo previous remarks from venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who likened the actions of some in the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Kristallnacht attacks on Jews in 1938. Perkins gave several interviews after the ensuing uproar, but he never really backed away from the comparison. And Langone showed no hesitancy in invoking the Nazis when describing current populist rhetoric.

An easy and perfectly appropriate response would be to focus on the absurdity of these Nazi comparisons—starting with the fact that, you know, raising taxes on the wealthy isn’t exactly like genocide. But there’s a more serious argument here, one widely held even by the vast majority of conservatives who, I would very much like to believe, find such analogies as absurd as I do. It’s the idea that left-wing populism is primarily about envy and jealousy.

You hear that a lot, not just from wealthy Republican donors but also from the candidates and officials they back. Paul Ryan gave a whole speech about it in 2011. Mitt Romney invoked the same theme in his presidential campaign. Implicit in that argument is the idea that economic mobility in the U.S. is relatively high, that people can get ahead if only they work hard enough. But there’s quite a lot of evidence about this very question and it suggests the conservative assumption is quite wrong. The most recent data comes from studies by the Equality of Opportunity Project, led by researchers at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley. As John Cassidy of the New Yorker explained, in a summary of their latest paper,

Relative to many other advanced countries, the United States remains a highly stratified society, and most poor kids still have few prospects of making big strides. … the odds of a child moving from the bottom fifth of the income distribution to the top fifth are less than one in ten, and have been that way for decades. For children who are born in the second fifth of the income distribution, those who might be categorized as working class or lower-middle class, the probability of moving up to the top quintile has fallen significantly. For someone born in 1971, it was 17.7 per cent; for someone born in 1986, it was 13.8 per cent.

It has been known for some time that social mobility in the United States is lower than in most European countries, and that it trails some of them, such as the Scandinavian nations, by a great deal.

On a more human level, I wonder sometimes if the likes of Perkins, Langone, Romney, and Ryan have even the slightest clue about how hard some low-income people work. Just to take one example, because it's always stuck in my head, a long time ago I did some reporting in Chicago about people without health insurance and their difficulty paying off medical debt. While getting the background on their personal lives, I’d ask them to describe their typical days. For many of them it began at 4 or 5 a.m., for jobs that began hours later. Why so early? Because they took the buses to work, sometimes requiring transfers, and the buses weren’t always on time. They couldn’t risk being late, so they had to allow for extra time—even though, during the winter, that frequently meant standing outside in the cold. They'd spend three to four hours of commuting each day—they had to get back home, after all—and that was all so they could earn what was barely (or not even) a living wage cleaning hotel rooms, changing hospital linens, or filing papers in an office. It's pretty typical of the routine, mundane, and very real challenges that the working poor face—and that journalists like Katherine BooDavid Shipler, and (more recently) Monica Potts have chronicled for a long time.

As hardships go, there are plenty worse. And, of course, I have met plenty of poor people who don’t work so hard—who are lazy or self-destructive and get by based on assistance from the government. But I've met plenty of rich people like that, too, (though they get proportionately more money from their parents than they do from the government). And that’s not to mention the (very important) fact that most successful people have benefitted in one way or another from the public investments of past generations, like infrastructure or public schools, and that asking them to pay higher taxes is simply asking them to give back some of what they got.

So maybe progressives and their supporters who want things like a higher minimum wage, well-funded public transportation, and universal health care—paid for with higher taxes on the rich—aren't out to punish anybody. Maybe they just want to make sure all Americans get a fair shot.

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