Can the Accidental Rich Speak for the Unhappy Poor?

Bad news for Bernie: The New York Times just outed him as a closet millionaire. Will it kill his presidential hopes? Nope. If history is any guide, low-income Americans don’t really mind if rich people make their case for them. But Bernie shouldn’t celebrate too soon.

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Attack the rich? Why?

Here’s what we know: Back in the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan faced similar accusations. Though Bryan had leapt to political prominence as the voice of the people, in the early 1920s he made a huge pile in the Florida land boom.

His opponents didn’t let him forget it. They lambasted him as a hypocrite, the millionaire voice of the poor, back when being a millionaire meant something.

It didn’t do much to derail Bryan’s 1920s anti-evolution campaigns. Though Americans listened when Clarence Darrow accused Bryan of being an ignoramus, they didn’t really seem to care that Bryan was a rich ignoramus.

In short, Americans have never really seethed in anger against rich people. Especially not if the rich people can explain how they got rich.

Bernie gets it. As he likes to say,

I wrote a best-selling book. . . . If you write a best-selling book, you can be a millionaire, too.

He’s right, but Bernie should recognize that this same political logic spells his own long-term doom. Because, as John Steinbeck put it so well in 1960, America doesn’t really have a lot of self-admitted proletarians. Everyone [in 1930] was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.”

So why shouldn’t Bernie celebrate? For the same reason that Americans respect his riches, they won’t listen to his socialist pitch. Not enough of them, anyway. To most American voters, rich people aren’t robbers. They’re talented, lucky, or some combination thereof. And most American voters don’t want to tax away their millions, they just want those millions for themselves.