We often hear about the political muscle of the ultrarich. Billionaires like the libertarians Charles and David Koch and Tom Steyer, the California environmentalist who’s been waging a one-man jihad against the Keystone XL pipeline, have become bogeymen for the left and right respectively. The influence of these machers is considerable, no doubt. Yet the upper middle class collectively wields far more influence. These are households with enough money to make modest political contributions, enough time to email their elected officials and to sign petitions, and enough influence to sway their neighbors. Upper-middle-class Americans vote at substantially higher rates than those less well-off, and though their turnout levels aren’t quite as high as those even richer than they are, there are far more upper-middle-class people than there are rich people. One can easily turn the Kochs or the Steyers of the world into a big fat political target. It’s harder to do the same to the lawyers, doctors, and management consultants who populate the tonier precincts of our cities and suburbs.
Another thing that separates the upper middle class from the truly wealthy is that even though they’re comfortable, they’re less able to take the threat of tax increases or benefit cuts in stride. Take away the mortgage interest deduction from a Koch brother and he’ll barely notice. Take it away from a two-earner couple living in an expensive suburb and you’ll have a fight on your hands. So the upper middle class often uses its political muscle to foil the fondest wishes of egalitarian liberals. This week offered a particularly vivid reminder of how that works. In the windup to his State of the Union address, Barack Obama released a proposal to curb the tax benefits associated with 529 college savings plans, which primarily benefit upper-middle-class families, to help finance the expansion of a separate tax credit that would primarily benefit lower-middle- and middle-middle-class families. Only 3 percent of households actually make use of these accounts, and 70 percent of the tax benefits go to households earning more than $200,000, so you can see why Obama might have thought no one would get too worked up about the proposal. If anything, he might have thought, and hoped, that his critics would get more exercised about his call for big capital gains tax increases, which would have allowed him to play the part of Robin Hood—a role Obama loves to play.
Once you have impoverished the 90% you are left with impoverishing the 9%. Maybe even the .9%; they have lots of money. The Koch-Americans will take the newly poor and middle class's alarm over their economic condition and aim it at the upper-middle class, who shared in a relatively small part of the crash's bounty. The people with nearly all the money and power will thereby escape anything nasty such as taxation or (eventually) mob violence.
This tactic worked like a charm in the past and will almost certainly work again. Conservatives and Democrats are accustomed to a two-party race guided by the backers of those parties. The Koches are not trying to work within the party to achieve the party's political goals. They are buying elections to achieve their own goals and will be buying authority along with power. Income inequality leaves the desperate open to strongmen and we could easily find ourselves with Scott Walker in the White House, making any previous imaginary Republican dire consequence seem like heaven in comparison.