In an election year when reality seems as remote as a Pluto flyby; a year already marked by bombastic promises of walls, jobs, “a future to believe in” and free stuff for everybody, maybe we should take a quick break from the narcoleptic snooze imposed on us by the mass media. And maybe we should use the salvaged time to check the estimated wealth of the persons who are vying to be our president. Candidates seeking to serve the American people should (presumably) have some sense of the struggles of ordinary Americans.
Based on 2011 Census Bureau data, U.S. households in the 50th percentile of wealth, and in the 55-64 age cohort, have an average net worth of about $144,000. Keep that figure in mind. Why? Because last fall Forbes magazine analyzed each major presidential candidate for his or her net worth. The comparisons, while imperfect, are interesting.
Per the Forbes research, Donald Trump could buy his own political party. Or his own country. His wealth dwarfs all other candidates at $4.5 billion—slightly less than the gross domestic product of the six poorest African nations combined. Hillary Clinton, half of the Clinton Power Couple, rings in at a modest $45 million. Ben Carson comes in at $26 million; John Kasich at $10 million; Ted Cruz at $3.5 million. Bernie Sanders, man of the millennials, is worth an austere $700,000—but, awkwardly for a socialist, he’s rich compared to the voice of the “Republican establishment,” Marco Rubio. Poor Senator Rubio is worth barely $100,000. Only former Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley was worth less—at zero.
Wealth of course is not a sin. Honest people who work hard and have creative, successful ideas deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labor. They also have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate. But their duty to others, as serious as it is, in no way precludes their right to take pride and pleasure in what they achieve.
The point here is that most of these candidates from both parties, who claim to champion “ordinary” people, moved away from the ordinary experience of American life a long time ago. They can afford to be insulated from the results of their own bad ideas. Most of the rest of the country can’t. If we want to “make America great again” (Trump), or have a “a future to believe in” (Sanders), or really have leaders “fighting for us” (Clinton), it will take a lot more than simple-minded clichés. Greatness comes from moral character. It’s earned in small steps over time. In a democracy, it demands an engaged, intelligent, prudent electorate comprised of mature citizens, not a mob of entitled adolescents in adult pants.
Threatening immigrants, making outlandish promises, outbursts of vulgar incivility and bullying China and Mexico on the right; pandering to race and class resentment, unsustainable programs, confused sexuality and support for a morally corrupt Planned Parenthood, on the left—these are the choices the bankruptcy of our political imagination has produced in 2016.
If voters are feeling angry in this election cycle, good for them. They should be angry, because their convictions are less and less decisive in shaping the actual course of the country. Real power in the United States now resides at least as much in the (unelected) mass media, corporations, activist courts, lobbyists and special political action interests as it does in any community of ordinary citizens.
That doesn’t absolve Catholics of our duty to actively witness our faith in the public square; or to work for the candidates and issues we believe in; or to build up our common public life however we can, including in the voting booth. Quite the contrary—faithful Christian action in the political arena is more important than ever. But as Augustine would warn us, our expectations should be low. The lesson taught to us by a dissembling, partisan and exquisitely obstinate Obama White House over the past eight years is simple: Skepticism is warranted, and whatever we want, we’ll need to get the hard way—by fighting for it.
There’s a book by historian Tom Holland that’s worth reading in these opening months of another, but uniquely circus-like, election year. It’s called Rubicon. It doesn’t need an explanation. The subtitle tells you everything you need to know: The Last Years of the Roman Republic.
Francis X. Maier is senior adviser and special assistant to the Archbishop of Philadelphia. The views expressed here are his own.