In the world’s most expensive city, 50 properties find the same buyer overnight. He pays in cash. He hires contractors to construct underground bunkers, believing walls and fences alone won’t protect him. He hides the rest of his assets in Romania.
This man is not, despite appearances, an especially paranoid member of the modern super-rich. In fact, he is neither modern nor a man, but a monster who, more than a century ago, embodied the economic horrors of his age: Dracula.
When Bram Stoker published his novel in 1897, at the height of the Gilded Age, vampires were more political cartoon than folktale. Near contemporary Karl Marx memorably described capital, in his work of the same name, as “dead labor” that “vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Monstrous metaphors weren’t only for radicals: mainstream journalist Edmund Dixon noted how the Bank of England, probably the first to be too big to fail, “assimilate[d] into its own substance two-thirds of the blood which flow[ed] no longer in the veins of departed banks.”
Nor was it only English reformers who demonized the exploitative and powerful business interests that dominated the economy and corroded democracy. Across the Atlantic, American progressives of both parties denounced wealthy interests in terms so gothic they would shock even today’s most ardent liberals.
In his famous speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, Teddy Roosevelt proposed a tax on “swollen fortunes,” echoing less famous progressives who’d decried the “swollen profits” of “vampire” enterprises. Later in the speech, Roosevelt explained why democracy needed to tax the “mighty commercial forces” it had “called into being” by referring to another monster, famous for overpowering his creator. “Property shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it,” Roosevelt declared, likening American democracy to Victor Frankenstein, big business to his Creature.
Teddy Roosevelt at Osawatomie, 31 August 1910.
Monsters weren’t peculiar to the rhetoric of the rough-riding Republican but were also used by the progressives who would realize his economic vision. Democrat Woodrow Wilson warned in a 1912 speech of shadowy interests that had “set up above the forms of democracy an invisible empire” — an empire Wilson began to dismantle as president. The next progressive to occupy the White House, Franklin Roosevelt, described wealthy interests as “pests who swarm through the lobbies of the Congress.” And his great success curtailing these interests — through wealth taxes, antitrust laws, higher top tax rates — depended in part on his frighteningly honest rhetoric.
Today, Democrats who proudly claim the mantle of these progressives have largely forgotten how to speak like them. When President Obama visited Osawatomie, a century after Teddy, monsters and malign forces had given way to tired and timid metaphors. After the 2008 financial crash, “hardworking Americans” were “left holding the bag” — not driven from their homes by predatory lenders. Middle-class Americans had the “deck stacked against them” — not legions of lobbyists, think tanks, and media groups paid for by dark money. “Special interests” were “sitting shotgun” — not hijacking our democracy and driving us off the climate cliff. Needless to say, when President Obama made obligatory reference to Teddy, he didn’t use his Frankenstein line.
Instead, Democrats suffered that scientist’s fate in 2016, when rhetoric they had created helped a billionaire seem populist enough to defeat them. If “drain the swamp,” Donald Trump’s mantra in the weeks before the election, sounds frightening and monstrous, that’s because it’s a progressive line. In 1912, the Michigan socialist Victor Berger observed that Americans who wanted to “get rid of mosquito” speculators, had “to drain the swamp, change the capitalist system” — a metaphor FDR borrowed when he referred to lobbyist “pests.” So, though Hillary Clinton launched her campaign on Roosevelt Island, and ran on a progressive platform, it was Donald Trump who sounded more like a Roosevelt.
To retake the progressive mantle and deliver us from Trump, then, Democrats must return to the visceral imagery that once showed Americans why it was so urgent we rein in wealthy interests. And while many have instead returned to the same clichés, some progressive leaders seem to be finally exhuming the movement’s monsters.
Before running for president, Bernie Sanders noted that “For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.” Elizabeth Warren has compared credit card companies to “snakes,” observed that ordinary Americans without “a seat at the table” are “probably on the menu,” and denounced Republicans leaders for “hostage tactics.”
And with the wealthiest behaving more monstrously every day — destroying our ecosystems, hiking up the prices of life-saving drugs, spraying pesticides that harm children’s brains — it is not as if Democrats will run out of material. Indeed, the plutocrats who have bought up city blocks, built palatial apocalypse bunkers, and researched whether young blood will make them immortal, prove Dracula really is — for progressives at least — undead.🔷