For many decades, any politician daring to fight for economic justice was liable to be denounced for engaging in "class warfare." It was always a grimly laughable accusation, coming from wealthy elites as well as their functionaries in corporate media and elective office. In the real world, class warfare -- or whatever you want to call it -- has always been an economic and political reality.
In recent decades, class war in the USA has become increasingly lopsided. The steady decline in union membership, the worsening of income inequality and the hollowing out of the public sector have been some results of ongoing assaults on social decency and countless human lives. Corporate power has run amuck.
Now, the billionaire class is worried. For the first time in memory, there's a real chance that the next president could threaten the very existence of billionaires -- or at least significantly reduce their unconscionable rate of wealth accumulation -- in a country and on a planet with so much human misery due to extreme economic disparities.
In early fall, when Bernie Sanders said "I don't think that billionaires should exist," many billionaires heard an existential threat. It was hardly a one-off comment; the Bernie 2020 campaign followed up with national distribution of a bumper sticker saying "Billionaires should not exist."
When Elizabeth Warren stands on a debate stage and argues for a targeted marginal tax on the astronomically rich, such advocacy is anathema to those who believe that the only legitimate class war is the kind waged from the top down. In early autumn, CNBC reported that "Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle -- or even back President Donald Trump -- if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party's nomination."
As for Bernie Sanders -- less than four years after he carried every county in West Virginia against Hillary Clinton in the presidential primary -- the state's Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin flatly declared last week that if Sanders wins the nomination, he would not vote for his party's nominee against Trump in November 2020.
Some billionaires support Trump and some don't. But few billionaires have a good word to say about Sanders or Warren. And the pattern of billionaires backing their Democratic rivals is illuminating.
"Dozens of American billionaires have pulled out their checkbooks to support candidates engaged in a wide-open battle for the Democratic presidential nomination," Forbes reported this summer. The dollar total of those donations given directly to a campaign (which federal law limits to $2,800 each) is less significant than the sentiment they reflect. And people with huge wealth are able to dump hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars at once into a Super PAC, which grassroots-parched AstroTurf candidate Joe Biden greenlighted last month.