Billionaires and ballots. We need to talk.

America minted its first billionaire 103 years ago when steel magnate John D. Rockefeller’s bank balance clicked over to ten digits. The country is now home to 607 billionaires. Three of them are running for president. 

Media tycoon and former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg ($53 billion) sent up a trial balloon this week, joining hedge fund manager Tom Steyer ($1.9 billion) and the incumbent horror Donald J. Trump (morally bankrupt) on the campaign trail. 

Never before has the country seen three billionaires vying openly for the most powerful office in the nation. The standard operating procedure for plutocrats has been to wield power from behind closed doors, and to do so quietly, lest they alert the teeming masses.

But this year the plutocracy is alarmed, if not yet in panic mode. Two of the top three Democratic candidates are running on a promise to tax their surfeit of fortune. And the candidate who hasn’t embraced a wealth tax is is losing traction and experiencing difficulties in raising money. Oh my, what to do, what to do?

Bloomberg is rather blatantly running precisely because of Biden’s ennui. And other notable billionaires are speaking publicly and bluntly against the wealth tax, like Bill Gates ($109 billion) and Jeff Bezos ($112 billion). 

On top of all this overt opposition, of course, you can still count on a lot of closed door string pulling activity to try and derail Sanders and Warren. Vox’s Recode reported today that Jeff Bezos phoned Bloomberg months ago to urge him to run, for example. 

My hope is that something positive will come out of all this prominent meddling on the part of the moguls. Perhaps the conspicuous presence of the plutocracy can lead to a real debate about inequality in this country, both economic and political inequality. Perhaps the volatile mix of serious wealth tax proposals with billionaire candidates can propel inequality as a major campaign issue, on a par with the health care debate.

We need that to happen.

We can start the conversation by noting a poll cited by The Hill, which found that a whopping 74% of registered voters favor a wealth tax and that the support is wide.

Strong majorities of both sexes said they favored the tax, as did a majority of Republicans. Sixty-five percent of GOP voters supported it while only 35 percent opposed it. Independents backed the tax 69 to 31 percent, as did 86 percent of Democratic voters.

There’s a reason why a wealth tax has such broad support: people know that something’s out of balance with our economy. They may not have their fingers on all the facts and figures, but they know all about inequality. And most people seem to have an innate sense that it just isn’t fair. And they want something done about it.

Sanders and Warren are onto something big here and it just might be that Bloomberg’s entry into the race gives them just the opportunity they need to drive their points home. It appears they’re anxious to test that theory. They each responded in remarkably similar ways. Sanders tweeted, “The billionaire class is scared and they should be scared.” Warren emailed her supporters, “The wealthy and well connected are scared.” She also tweeted directly at Bloomberg, sending him the link to her Calculator for the Billionaires.

Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, inequality managed to make its way onto the national political agenda. And then it was off again.  We need to push inequality back into the national conversation. One hundred years ago, the country had one billionaire. We now have 600 times that number. With three of them running for president, now is the time.

If it takes three billionaires campaigning in order to spark this debate, so be it. But if we fail to have this national conversation with three billionaires running, we’ll leave the door wide open for all the plutocrats.

Graphic: "Robber Barons" - Nashhinton CC BY-SA 4.0. Found at Wikimedia Commons.

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