Margaret Cushing Whitman (Harsh) lost her bid for the Governorship of California last night, after spending more of her own money on her campaign than any previous self-funded candidate in history, with estimates varying between 140 and 190 millions of dollars. Considering that the size of her personal fortune is estimated in the tens of billions of dollars, this isn't nearly as "expensive" a little speculative investment as it might seem--really just a small fraction of her net worth.
Some have observed that had she been so inclined, the $190 million she spent on publicity and self-promotion, might have been better spent in charitable causes. She put only 9.4 million into her own charitable foundation, the Griffith R. Harsh IV and Margaret C Whitman Charitable Foundation. When asked in 2010 by Warren Buffett to join the Giving Pledge in which billionaires commit to donate half their money to charity, Whitman declined, saying she preferred to "work with her own" foundation. I guess if you're worth, say, 50 billion dollars, the idea of having to live for the rest of your life on 25 billion, is a scary thought.
American politics has been largely controlled by money since its earliest days. By the middle of the 19th Century, capital had become the most dominant force in our governance, and this continues today, at a rate that would astonish most of the voting public, if it knew or cared to discover how much money determines what we think and believe about issues and personalities in the public sphere. The history of rich individuals using their personal or family wealth to mount political campaigns for public office is also crowded. The Kennedy Family fortune, for instance, built the Democratic Party "Camelot" in Massachusetts.
Historically, the Republican Party has been the front for the interests of big business, the rich, the corporations, and high finance. "The business of America is business" as Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, at the height of the Twenties Stock Market Boom. The business of politics is the business of buying and selling influence, power, image and the interpretation of history. Running political campaigns is the business of persuading people to interpret events, and individuals, in a certain way. Historically, for Republicans, this has meant, in effect, hiding the nature of their agenda from the voting constituencies, since the interests of big capital are usually opposed to the legitimate interests of the great majority of the middle and lower classes.
Historically, it was frequently the case that an economic environment in which business and investment were thriving, had a favorable effect upon the prosperity of the whole of society, especially in America. But with the development of automation, the "globalization" of labor, the decline of unions, and the increasing sophistication of financial instruments around the world, this is no longer true. Today, it is perfectly possible to have a thriving business environment which benefits only the top 1.5% of the population. The disproportion between the very rich, and "everyone else" has been steadily growing over the last 50 years.
This has meant that the party of the rich, the Republicans, and the capital that drives them, has grown steadily in influence and power, whilst its public image, in the political realm, has become increasingly problematic. The Conservative strategy, cooked up in the early Sixties, and developed with growing success over the succeeding four decades, was designed to martial support amongst the least sophisticated segments of the voting public, to seduce them with fake issues and false claims and dichotomies, to demonize the real representatives of the interests of the people, in order to build support for the agendas of big business and the rich. In a nation in which "freedom" has traditionally been associated with laissez-faire economics, this continues to have broad appeal, 200 years after the notion was first dreamed up, despite the fact that the formula hasn't been true since the Colonial period (if it even was then). It's rather like thinking of a giant corporation as a rider on a horse heading out West to stake a claim on the open prairie. It's more absurd than the nuttiest cartoon, but its broad appeal--the narrative of American opportunity applied to mercenary bankers, international "entrepreneurs" and carpet-bagging exploiters--still stokes the fires of patriotic fervor.
Meg Whitman, of course, is the modern-day equivalent of the big venture capitalist of yesteryear. Though well-trained, ambitious, and probably skilled, it was luck that placed her in the position to benefit from the blossoming of the internet, its on-line retail exchange phenomenon. She was not a software person, not an inventor, but an executive trained to exploit opportunities created by others. Silicon Valley made hundreds of "instant" millionaires--few of whom, of course, "deserved" what they got. It was primarily a case of being in the right place, the right industry, at the right moment in history. Had Whitman not fallen into the CEO position at e.Bay, she would have remained a competent mid- or upper-level entertainment industry executive to the end of her days--rich, comfortable, basking in the "liberated" atmosphere of professional ("sexual") emancipation, beaming amidst the fragments of the shattered "glass ceiling."
But the money she pulled down from the e.Bay success put her into a totally different realm, one in which she could exert considerable influence through the power of her financial clout. Without that money, she would have had no substance either as a business-figure, or as a potential political candidate. It's true, as Whitman says, that she is not a "career" politician. It's also true that she has no political experience, no working knowledge of government at any level, and no demonstrated ability to succeed in the world of partisan political in-fighting. As Arnold Schwarzenegger discovered, money, good looks, common sense and a mild interest in the state of the world aren't enough to succeed in high office.
The only thing, really, that Whitman brought to the table, was her money. Could she have "bought" an election, by carefully constructing a fictional identity, a fictional narrative about her abilities and qualities "from the business world," and a fictional "platform" of false claims and fake promises? There is no doubt that she could have.
There are several reasons she lost. Her "handlers" (advisors) failed adequately to overcome the natural limits of her case--her unearned wealth, her lack of experience, her obvious political naivité and cocky, cliché-ridden patter. For Whitman, it seems, the governorship was simply another stepping-stone on the path to personal fulfillment. For my own part, I can't deny that she would probably have made a darn good head of the Walt Disney Company (where she was a VP for ten years). She was apparently responsible for bringing the UK Teletubbies to American Public Television. As her legacy, I can't think of a more appropriate connection. Meg was like a Teletubby herself, pointing to the screen on her tummy, saying "look, kids, see what fun you can have? Now, go take your nap and Mummy will wake you up in time for dinner."