Before he died in a recent car accident, I'd never heard of Charles Wyly.
He was killed near Aspen, Colo., when his Porsche was struck by a sports utility vehicle. Wyly, 77, and his younger brother became billionaires by building and trading companies from their base in Dallas.
The brothers reportedly gave $10 million to Republican candidates over the years, including $30,000 to the Swift Boat campaign that smeared the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004. Wyly's obituary in the New York Times said he later regretted not studying the ads more closely.
Last year, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed suit against the brothers for allegedly using offshore havens to hide more than $500 million in profits from insider stock trading, but that's beside the point.
No, my point is that Wyly's activism exemplifies how some of the wealthiest among us are obsessed with buying influence to further shake off tax and regulatory constraints and to expand the already yawning gap between themselves and everyone else.
In Wisconsin and elsewhere, it's working for them. The top 1 percent of U.S. earners receives nearly a quarter of the nation's income, which is more than double their share of the income pie from only 25 years ago.
I recently wrote about how wealthy, masterful Republican strategists are using our formerly progressive state as a proving ground for how to use limitless spending to purchase extreme outcomes. At the same time, they have worked feverishly to slant future elections by destroying unions, distorting political boundaries and suppressing voter turnouts.
The question I keep asking myself, probably naively, is why?
They already have the best houses, the best schools, the best cars and the best medical care. They have the best overall lifestyles and do not need government help. They have already achieved the greatest wealth gap in U.S. history and it is growing. Their tax burden is historically low.
What more, exactly, do they want?
Talk all you want about Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans "leading" in this radical direction. But Walker and more moderate GOP legislators are themselves being led. They are career politicians who keep sashaying to the right for political self-preservation via campaign dollars.
Even ex-Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state's most successful Republican politician of his generation, is dutifully retreating from his laudable record of centrism and even-handedness in submissive pursuit of the big-money crowd to get the 2012 Republican nod for the U.S. Senate. So now he proclaims, he was never for health-care reform or high-speed rail. Yeah, right.
No, the politicians are pawns.
"The brakes are off and that's our system of government now," observes Andrew Kersten, a University of Wisconsin-Green Bay labor historian. Kersten's new book is titled, "The Battle for Wisconsin: Scott Walker and the Attack on the Progressive Tradition." Kersten has been asking why wealthy donors in and out of Wisconsin seem so relentless. "Why are they even doing this? I kept thinking that the people who have the money wouldn't go for everything because they need a middle class to sell to," he says in an interview.
But with global markets, maybe that is wrong, he says. "I don't think they even want the American consumer anymore," Kersten says. "How much money do they want? The answer is they want it all. You almost have to question their patriotism at some point."
A recent in-depth article in Vanity Fair magazine was headlined, "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%." That top 1 percent controls 40 percent of the nation's wealth and their share is growing rapidly. Their income has increased 18 percent over the past decade while the middle class has seen income fall.
If these are "job creators," the euphemism used by Walker and others to describe the wealthy, where is the evidence? It is pretty clear job creation has much to do with education, infrastructure and technology, headings under which government plays a role. The unabated wealth gap and historically low taxes on the rich do not seem to be working to create jobs for many of us.
The New York Times reported last week that 63 percent of respondents in a Times/CBS News Poll support higher taxes on households earning more than $250,000 a year to help reduce the federal deficit.
But the wealthy, with a stranglehold on the GOP, rejected a deficit deal by President Obama that had spending cuts far greater than tax increases aimed at the wealthy. The resulting turmoil has contributed to the financial market havoc affecting ordinary families who are trying to build wealth to send their children to college or to retire.
In Wisconsin as in Washington, the media have consistently gotten it wrong by suggesting the two parties are equally at fault and need to meet in the middle, says Professor Erik Wright, a UW-Madison sociologist and an expert in the relationship of politics and social class. The political center is where Obama and state Democrats already reside, he says. "The Republican Party has been captured by extreme right-wing ideologues."
In recent days, the post-recall Walker strategy is as transparent as it is ludicrous, but some editorial writers still buy it. Walker is calling for the two parties to work together. Honest to God, he is. This from the guy who only months ago told a congressional committee that bipartisanship is a bad thing. One reason is obvious. Those pulling the GOP strings have forced through all they wanted, so now can afford to pretend they care about the views of roughly half of Wisconsin citizens.
But back to motivations.
In a recent article, a noted psychologist says studies show that rich people really are different. Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told an MSNBC interviewer that multiple studies produced a consistent outcome. "Lower class people just show more empathy, more prosocial behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it," he says.
Beyond that, rich people "think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic," says Keltner.
"Because the rich gloss over the ways family connections, money and education helped," interviewer Brian Alexander writes, paraphrasing Keltner, "they come to denigrate the role of government and vigorously oppose taxes to fund it." (I keep thinking of the words "born on third base but think they hit a triple" and the image of George W. Bush comes to mind.)
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a Juneau Republican, proclaimed of the two Republican senators who lost recall elections: "They took a bullet for the taxpayers."
They took a bullet, all right, but it wasn't for taxpayers. It was for the millionaires and billionaires whose water they carried.