Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross doesn't know why people who aren't getting paid have to visit a food pantry. And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin doesn't know how cartoonishly plutocratic he looks when his wife, Louise Linton, holds up a sheet of money while wearing elbow-length leather gloves on a taxpayer-funded junket.
You could fill a $238 million Central Park condo with what these plutocrats and other don't know. And increasingly, they are the ones running our government. The Trump cabinet clocks in at a hefty $4.3 billion in net worth, the wealthiest cabinet in American history. Now, call me a class warrior, but maybe the people who are shuttling their own kids off to private school aren't the right fit to fix our public schools. Maybe the folks making casual use of private jets aren't the ones to fix our roads and bridges.
And don't get me started on one of the scions of the military industrial complex running the Pentagon. When detailing what he wanted in his cabinet, Trump explained: “I want people that made a fortune!” He got what he wanted, and the rest of us are footing the bill.
I don’t mean to pick on the Trump administration alone, although they are the worst offenders. Over Democratic and Republican administrations, cabinet net worth has climbed up and up and up. In total, the personal net worth of presidential cabinets has increased by more than 10,000 percent since the Reagan era. As inequality has widened with more and more gains to the very top, our presidents increasingly have bought into the flawed notion that personal wealth is a substitute for having the skills, experience and empathy to make big decisions for the broad American public.
The result has been a dramatic gulf between the lived reality of those charged with looking out for the public and the public itself. It’s yet another reason why Americans feel disconnected from their government. They feel that the U.S. government doesn’t represent them for a simple reason: because it doesn’t.
Just consider this one statistic: the last four Department of Education secretaries combined had a grand total of one year of public-school teaching experience. One year! A cabinet secretary is more likely to be a billionaire than a union member; more often a big donor than a schoolteacher; and more familiar with travel on private jets than public transportation. This is the point where someone will bring up children of privilege, such as Robert F. Kennedy, who somehow managed to empathize with working-class Americans.
It is true that, at times throughout history, you will find extraordinarily wealthy, privileged Americans who nonetheless truly advance the cause of the average American. But that is like pointing out that Muggsy Bogues, at 5’3,” was able to have a successful NBA career. Sure, Muggsy was a marvel, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to find pro teams packing the bench with 5-foot wonders.
Democrats have done a serviceable job of embracing racial, gender and religious diversity. We understand that diversity of experience leads to better decision-making. But we have only begun to embrace the importance of socioeconomic diversity. Take the lesson of Ross’ “Let them eat cake” moment, when he showed that he really didn’t understand why furloughed government workers were forced to visit food pantries. Or, perhaps, of the cluelessness with which former Starbucks CEO, billionaire Howard Schultz, a potential presidential candidate, has asserted a groundswell of grassroots support for status-quo health care and cuts to Social Security. Or, just take one look at Linton, Mnuchin’s wife, holding that sheet of money.
Plutocrats are the problem. Here’s a suggestion to the entire 2020 Democratic field: If you want to solve the problems facing working-class Americans, how about having working-class Americans in your cabinet? Not only would we have fewer $30,000 tables purchased by taxpayers and “Let them eat cake” moments, but we also would end up with policies that actually make sense for the working-class people Democrats aim to represent.
Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.