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Those Guys? Never Seen ’Em Before.

As Republicans have ramped up on their attack on Barack Obama as a wannabe socialist who doesn’t believe that successful businessmen are responsible for their own fortunes, I’ve been struck by an odd and little-noticed countervailing push: the desire by some conservative writers to disassociate their side from triumphant capitalists.

I spotted it a few weeks ago in Nick Lemann’s New Yorker review of several books on inequality, including my colleague Tim Noah’s The Great Divergence and Spoiled Rotten: How the Politics of Patronage Corrupted the Once Noble Democratic Party and Now Threatens the American Republic, by Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard. Lemann writes that Cost is “upset about inequality, and comes close to predicting that the Republicans will be the party that takes it on, because the Democrats have become the party of Wall Street.”*

Huh, you say? Well, Cost isn’t the only one. Charles Murray published a lengthy essay in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about the existential threats he sees confronting American capitalism. The first threat he identifies is that most successful capitalists today are of the political left:

[L]arge numbers of today’s successful capitalists are people of the political left who may think their own work is legitimate but feel no allegiance to capitalism as a system or kinship with capitalists on the other side of the political fence. Furthermore, these capitalists of the left are concentrated where it counts most. The most visible entrepreneurs of the high-tech industry are predominantly liberal. So are most of the people who run the entertainment and news industries. Even leaders of the financial industry increasingly share the politics of George Soros. Whether measured by fundraising data or by the members of Congress elected from the ZIP Codes where they live, the elite centers with the most clout in the culture are filled with people who are embarrassed to identify themselves as capitalists, and it shows in the cultural effect of their work.

Well. There is no question that many of the country’s most successful capitalists reside in culturally liberal, solidly blue territory such as New York, Beltway Washington or Chicago. But does that mean they leaning left? Not exactly. Heck, even the Koch brothers keep a foot in New York. No, the best way to judge what the big capitalists are thinking politically is to tally their checks, and here, it’s not even close. From a recent Journal article:

Companies are taking a clear stand ahead of the November ballot. So far, Republicans have received 56% of the donations made by company PACs and employees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. It is a turnaround from the 2008 election, when corporate PACs and employees gave 55% of their donations to Democratic candidates. That’s when President Barack Obama was elected and Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. In between, during the 2010 midterms, companies split their donations more or less evenly.
The shift implies a financial swing to the GOP of as much as $300 million, and suggests that corporations are betting Republicans will win seats in the Senate and hold on to the House—although employers might not tell their employees outright where to donate.
“Candidly, regardless of how the administration thinks it's doing, the business community doesn't feel very well treated by the Obama administration, and Republicans in Congress are their best defense against what they view as a hostile regulatory environment,” said P.C. Koch, a Washington consultant for a variety of industries who isn't tied to any political party.

And the shift is of course even starker when one considers the financial sector. Democrats the “party of Wall Street”? They wish:

Between 2008 and 2012, campaign contributions by Wall Street has shifted dramatically from Democrats to Republicans. As congressional Republicans have spent the last two years trying to block or water down Dodd-Frank, their share of Wall Street money has gone from 48 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in 2010 up to 64 percent in 2012—almost a 2-1 edge over Democrats. The finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector is the biggest giving so far this cycle.

And that’s just Congress. The shift has been even starker at the presidential campaign level, as I documented at length for the magazine a few months ago. So what’s going on here? I suspect it traces back to the American right’s age-old yearning to be seen as the party of the little guy, the Jeffersionian small farmer or shopkeeper going up against the overweening, big-government and big-business Hamiltonians. There was certainly a moment not too long ago when conservatives such as Cost seeking to decry crony capitalism could find plenty of fat targets within the Democratic umbrella, between the wildly overpaid Democratic poo-bahs intalled at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Democratic-inclined Rubinites littering the upper ranks of Wall Street. But times have changed—a lot. When your party becomes as favored by high finance and big business as the Republican Party is today, you get to enjoy a major campaign spending advantage and you get to bash the other guy as a socialist who is out to undermine American capitalism. What you don’t get to do is disavow the guys who are writing you the big checks.

*Addendum, Monday night: Jay Cost got in touch with me to say that, while he found Lemann's review generally fair, he objected to this particular line, suggesting that he, Cost, thought that Republicans would have to tackle income inequality because Democrats have become too entwined with Wall Street. Cost tells me: "I explicitly say GOP can't fill role of pushing social equality. I also talk a lot about how businesses play both sides."

** Addendum, Tuesday: a sharp-eyed reader passes along another, even more apropos data point, from NBC's First Read: "The presumptive Republican nominee’s presidential campaign has received almost $322,000 in direct donations from the CEOs of the companies listed on the annual 'Fortune 500' list of the biggest U.S. companies. By comparison, the Obama campaign has raked in $75,500 in contributions this election cycle from CEOs of the companies included on the list, according to records through the second quarter of 2012 on file with the Federal Election Commission."

follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis