Thirty-six years ago, a local gadfly's column in a free Vermont weekly argued passionately for "democratic control" of television, so as to rid the industry of corporate advertisers who believe that "people should be treated as morons and bombarded over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas."
Today, that gadfly, Bernie Sanders, is a U.S. senator, and he's gaining traction as a challenger to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination - by bombarding people over and over again with the same simple phrases and ideas.
For the Bern, no generalization is too sweeping: "The business model of Wall Street is fraud." "Make college tuition free and debt free." "Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege." Then there's "the billionaire class," as in, We need people "to stand up to the billionaire class."
Forbes magazine reports that there were 536 billionaires in the United States in 2015, but the notion that they constitute a "class," in the sense of an economically self-interested group that acts as a political unit, is a figment of Sanders's ideology, or demonology.
Obviously, Sanders is trying to conjure the evil specter of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who stand accused of using their combined net worth of $80 billion to impose a right-wing agenda through super PACs and other non-transparent instruments of political control.
But what are we to make of Warren Buffett (2015 net worth, per Forbes: $62 billion)? No doubt his endorsement of Clinton over Sanders for 2016 did not endear him to the latter. Still, Buffett was an early backer of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy, and he continues to commit class treason by advocating higher income taxes for top earners.
George Soros bankrolls left-wing organizations worldwide; the marijuana- legalization movement received huge amounts of his money, and that of the late Peter Lewis, another billionaire. Penny Pritzker, Obama's secretary of commerce, was last seen strolling the streets of Havana, promoting U.S. investment in communist Cuba.
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a big check to the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign on climate change, a cause Sanders favors - though Bloomberg is also spending a ton to promote gun control, so maybe Sanders holds that against him.
Reviewing this history, you could almost get the impression billionaires have done more to advance progressive causes than Bernie Sanders has.
One way to square these data with Sanders's rhetoric would be to say that supporting the left exonerates billionaires from membership in the billionaire class, as Sanders defines it. The hallmark of the class, Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine told me, "is the use of wealth and power to intervene in the political system for one's own economic self-interest."
Fair enough: Many, if not most, billionaires do, indeed, back conservative, pro-business candidates and causes. Wall Street titan Paul Singer is an example. Yet even Singer agrees with Sanders that same-sex marriage should be legal, and once set up a super PAC to support GOP candidates who were sympathetic to it as well.
It's complicated, this issue of economic "self-interest." Does Elon Musk favor tougher carbon regulations and generous electric-car subsidies because, like Sanders, he cares deeply about the planet, or because they help make his multibillion-dollar stake in Tesla more valuable?
Seattle's Nick Hanauer says that he's funding the higher-minimum-wage movement and other anti-inequality causes to "preempt the revolutionaries and crazies" who would otherwise lead an uprising by the have-nots; this, he says, will enable him and his fellow plutocrats to "escape with our lives" and "get even richer."
Or maybe the mundane reality is that what motivates a lot of billionaires are their own pet notions and personal causes - pot for Soros, Israel for Sheldon Adelson - not some monolithic class interest.
Plutocrats' spending on candidates and elections is huge and influential, but not nearly as decisive, or as unidirectional, as Sanders would have it. Sometimes, in fact, the results billionaires get confirm that old saw about a fool and his money.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Charles Koch bemoaned his inability to affect the current chaotic Republican presidential race. He distanced himself from positions taken by the top two contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Donald Trump, expressing particular dismay with the latter's call to temporarily ban Muslim foreigners from entering the United States. If any Republican epitomizes the Koch brothers' libertarianism, it's Sen. Rand Paul (Kentucky), but his presidential campaign has flopped.
Trump still leads the pack, unaided by money from any billionaire but himself. What propels him is ego, attitude and a relentless populist message - which, in its nuance-free bashing of Social Security "cuts," trade agreements and political money, often sounds copied from Sanders.
Charles Lane, Washington Post; www.washingtonpost.com.