Tom Perkins incensed the Internet (again), when he suggested Thursday that only taxpayers should get the right to vote and that the wealthiest Americans who pay the most in taxes should get more votes. Yep, you read that right.
The sentiment is especially offensive when you consider the demographics associated with the statement (read: white and male), but it isn't the most absurd thing he's said. That would be a letter Perkins wrote to The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 24, in which he compared "the progressive war on the American 1 percent, namely the 'rich' " to the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, particularly that the 1 percent face a "rising tide of hatred" akin to Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated attacks against Jews in 1938.
The strangest thing about the letter isn't that he thought that or even admitted it in a paper of record. What boggles the mind is the outpouring of support he received from like-minded ultrarich Americans and conservatives.
Billionaire investor Sam Zell, appearing on Bloomberg TV recently, denounced what he termed "the politics of envy," arguing the 1 percent have earned their position in society. "I guess my feeling is that [Perkins] is right: The 1 percent are being pummeled because it's politically convenient to do so," he said in an exchange with anchor Betty Liu. "The problem is that the world and this country should not talk about envy of the 1 percent. It should talk about emulating the 1 percent. The 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society."
And The Wall Street Journal, a publication most beloved by the rich, similarly came to his defense. Anyone wondering whether the paper's editors had printed Perkins's letter to embarrass or expose him had their answer: They published it because they were sympathetic to the argument. Under the curious headline "Perkinsnacht," the editorial board published an indictment of "liberals in power," waxing dramatic about how "liberal vituperation makes our letter writer's point." The editors concluded: "The liberals aren't encouraging violence, but they are promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents."
Support for Perkins's argument was so widespread that The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson wrote a piece questioning what exactly was making "some conservatives take a leave of their senses" in coming to Perkins's defense. The best response to that question came (as usual) from New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait. "Perkins's letter provided a peek into the fantasy world of the right-wing one percent, in which fantasies of an incipient Hitler-esque terror are just slightly beyond the norm."
It wasn't just the wealthy who came to Perkins's side. One of the most cogent conservative arguments I read came from Michelle Malkin, who argued that it's dangerous to marginalize a group, any group, even millionaires and billionaires. It was a good point, but it was something else in her piece that caught my attention. She called Perkins a "truth-teller" whose "message in defense of our nation's achievers will transcend, inspire, embolden and prevail." No matter, she lamented, "the mob is shooting the messenger anyway."
That's just it: Perkins isn't an aberration, and his message is offensive precisely because it speaks to something a lot of rich people and conservatives actually believe. Perkins hadn't gaffed. He hadn't misspoken. Although he would later qualify his remarks, he was making a point that many of the uber-rich believe instinctively. They're just too prudent to say so.
Perkins's most recent statement—that people who pay more in taxes should get more votes—hasn't had time to attract the kind of support his first one garnered, but it has parallels in Erick Erickson's 53 percent movement. The RedState.org founder's counterpunch to Occupy Wall Street's "We are the 99 percent" slogan was meant to represent the 53 percent of Americans who pay federal income taxes. The assumption is that Occupy protesters are among the now famous (thanks, Mitt Romney!) 47 percent of the country who don't.
The sentiment would resurface again on the presidential campaign trail when Romney said the thing that doomed his candicacy. A refresher: "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to take care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it."
Another thing Romney left off but might as well have said? Those who believe they are entitled to vote. Romney and Perkins have good reason to want to keep the 47 percent from voting. Namely, the 47 percent won't make it a priority to protect the interests of the long-suffering 1 percent. They have more pressing concerns, like, say, groceries.
And that gets to another of Perkins's fears: that the 1 percent is somehow endangered and at risk of "economic extinction." To wit: "The fear is wealth tax, higher taxes, higher death taxes—just more taxes until there is no more 1 percent. And that will creep down to the 5 percent and then the 10 percent," he said. It's the irrationality of this fear that has garnered the bulk of media attention. But it's also worth reflecting for a moment on just how poor Perkins's conception of percentages is. (Pauses for dramatic effect. Moves on.)
There are a few other statistics Romney didn't mention, such as that two-thirds of households that don't pay federal income tax do pay payroll taxes. Or that 18 percent of all tax filers paid neither payroll nor income taxes. Of those who paid neither, nearly all of them were elderly or had incomes under $20,000.
Romney thought he was speaking in confidence, but Perkins isn't worried about that. Perkins, as Malkin so deftly observed, is a truth-teller. He's saying what the right-wing 1 percent truly believe but are too scared to admit publicly.