Elon Musk has announced he will be voting Republican for the first time in his life. Good. One of the main internal problems with the Democratic Party is that there are too many extremely rich people in it, and the party therefore cannot take any actions that threaten the power of the ruling class. This contributes to making the party ineffectual, and means Democrats have to mouth platitudes about working people and inequality without actually giving said working people anything or reducing inequality. One cannot have billionaires and workers in the same party. It will stand for nothing.
Let us recall some ancient history. The fact that Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign, despite Romney’s private equity background, was a sign that Obama had screwed up the recovery from the financial crisis. Bankers were thrilled that he had “foamed the runway” for them and declined to prosecute anyone for the catastrophic act of fraud and theft that destroyed the economy. Meanwhile, Obama’s approach infuriated a giant swath of young people, many of whom had supported him in 2008. They were so enraged with the unfairness they saw, with bankers pocketing giant bonuses while ordinary people lost their homes, and Obama doing nothing to punish the wrongdoers, that they literally camped out in tents on Wall Street and around the country.
As Thomas Frank has documented, the Democratic Party over the last several decades has abandoned New Deal politics and catered far too much to rich elites, who understand that the party will not take any of the actions they oppose, such as mandating a living wage, passing the PRO Act, launching a Green New Deal, expanding overtime pay, introducing Medicare For All, and so on. During the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden received support from 60 billionaires or their spouses, while Pete Buttigieg had 56 billionaire backers. In 2016, Warren Buffett and Mark Cuban were enthusiastic supporters of Hillary Clinton. Even Michael Bloomberg, a crass sexist former Republican best known for supporting racist policing policies, felt comfortable enough with the Democratic Party to run in its presidential primary. (Fortunately, he got creamed.)
The super-rich who support Democrats present themselves as Good Billionaires who are about inequality and climate change and such. An examination of their records reveals that they have usually built their wealth on exploitative practices and have zero serious commitment to social democratic policies. But since Donald Trump made the Republican Party look a little too overtly committed to greed and the denial of climate change, the Democratic Party became a more palatable alternative that does not in any way threaten the power and prestige of the super-wealthy.
Having the super-wealthy in the Democratic Party is a disaster, though. It means that the party will not meaningfully deliver for its base, and that its promises of change will turn out to be fraudulent (as indeed they have). If the Democrats are to survive, they need a politics that drives billionaires scurrying back to the Republican Party. An important measure of whether the Democratic Party is doing anything right is whether billionaires hate it. If they don’t hate the party, Democrats are doing politics wrong.
It is encouraging news, then, that Elon Musk now feels more at home with the GOP. He has explained his decision by saying that Joe Biden “is simply too much captured by the unions, which was not the case with Obama.” Indeed, Barack Obama welched on his vow to support the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have been a big boost to U.S. unions. Obama also supported the anti-union charter school movement. Joe Biden, on the other hand, is openly publicly supportive of unions and has sided with Amazon workers in their battle against Jeff Bezos. Of course, the staunchly anti-union Musk doesn’t actually have to worry that much about Joe Biden, since Biden’s pro-union stance is mostly a matter of rhetoric. But even rhetoric means something coming from the president of the United States, and having the president openly encourage workers to form unions is indeed a boost to the labor movement.
Musk, in explaining his turn away from voting Democratic, said that Democrats used to be the “kindness party” but are now a party of “division and hate.” He cited not just unions, but also “trial lawyers” as dominating the party. As More Perfect Union pointed out, the target makes sense, because “Musk is a notorious union-buster [and] was hit with a class-action lawsuit from [4,000] Black workers who alleged rampant racism at Tesla.” The allegations against Tesla by Black workers are disturbing:
[Plaintiffs] describe a workplace where racist slurs in English and Spanish were often aimed at Black employees by co-workers and supervisors, as alleged in the lawsuit. They say Tesla segregated Black workers into separate areas, gave them the hardest tasks and routinely denied them promotions. And they allege that when they informed the company about racist treatment, their complaints went ignored or they were fired. … African American workers were routinely assigned the hardest tasks, [plaintiff and former Tesla worker Monica] Chatman said, “the work nobody wanted to do—that was more wear and tear on the body.” Tesla is “modern-day slavery,” she said.
Is it any wonder that Elon Musk hates trial lawyers? Current Affairs has documented Musk’s many deceptions and exploitative practices before, from workplace safety violations to making dangerous false promises about Tesla cars’ self-driving capabilities. He is an employer so comically evil as to resemble Mr. Burns, much as he wants to present himself as Marvel’s Tony Stark. (“Phony Stark,” as computer scientist Nicholas Weaver calls him.) Musk’s sole redeeming virtue was that his company makes electric cars, which have a role to play in mitigating climate change, but as Weaver points out, Musk’s embrace of the environmental calamity that is cryptocurrency shows that his interest in stopping climate change is less than sincere.
If the Democratic Party is to have a future as a party for working people, billionaires like Elon Musk must be driven from it. Bernie Sanders did not even accept billionaire support (the spouse of one billionaire did send him a check, and he returned it). Billionaires should not exist in a just society, and even the Wall Street Journal has shown that it would be a good idea to seize their wealth and redistribute it.
The good news is that there may be a shift away from pro-billionaire neoliberalism among people who vote in Democratic primaries. In several recent primary elections, candidates backed by wealthy centrists were defeated by more populist insurgents. Around the country, Democratic Socialists of America members are getting elected to office and changing public policy. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns did not ultimately succeed, but it did show that there is a tremendous appetite among Democratic voters for an explicitly anti-billionaire politics. The more this politics succeeds, the more the Republican party will be the natural home for Big Business. Let us hope that we can sufficiently alarm the rest of Musk’s fellow billionaires, and finally force the Democratic Party to take on the 1%. As Musk decamps for the American fascist party, Democratic leaders should make no attempt to win him back, and the unified message to him should be: don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
My book Why You Should Be a Socialist is a comprehensive primer on the kind of politics we need. Consider buying it—or checking it out from your local socialized book depository, a.k.a. the public library.