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Get a Horse

A proposal to distract the rich from politics.

It is not good for representative government to have any one class, however distinguished, overrepresented in government. The rich are overrepresented now, and unless something is done the imbalance favoring the rich in Congress and in high government positions will increase. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1974, as amended after the Supreme Court found it defective on at least two major constitutional points, was more than just an insurance policy for the incumbent parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. It also was a rich man's license to hunt in the fields of politics. Congress is not likely to do anything to redress the current imbalance. On the contrary, it seems intent on making things worse: in recently passed ethics legislation, it has put limitations on its own members' outside earned income, while allowing unearned income to grow without limit. Clearly a less direct and more subtle remedy to the problem of the rich in politics must be sought.

As a result of these recent "reforms" it is easier for the rich to run for office, and easier for them to stay there once elected. But moneyed types hardly were discouraged from entering politics, even under previous arrangements. As long ago as 1960, six out of the first seven Democratic members of the Senate Finance Committee were millionaires. (Paul Douglas was the one nonmillionaire.) Most of the Democrats represented new wealth—oil and insurance. The rich Republicans on the Committee generally held wealth of more depth and seasoning—from mining, manufacturing, land, milling and salt. The reality is that state legislatures, governors' offices, the Congress of the United States and many high appointive offices are filling up with the rich, the sons of the rich, and an occasional wife, daughter or widow.

A DuPont is now governor of Delaware. A Rockefeller is governor of West Virginia. Both Arkansas and New York have had Rockefellers as governors in recent times. The Congress has had within recent years, or still does have, a Heinz of the 57 varieties; a Danforth of Purina and the Danforth Foundation; a Seiberling of tires; two Mortons, one of flour and one of salt; a Stuckey and a Brock of candy; an Ottinger of plywood; a Reid of real-estate and publishing.

For some of the new rich, politics is a normal manifestation of upward mobility. For others and for the established rich, the movement into politics requires a more subtle explanation. The reasons are to be found in deeper cultural and psychological considerations. The rich today do not have security of place and of distinctive function in the social order. More particularly, they do not have such security in the world of sports and in the military.

Basketball, football, and hockey are clearly of and for and by the masses. Baseball, while somewhat exclusive, rests its exclusiveness on talent rather than on wealth or nobility of birth. Tennis, which once bore the mark of social superiority, has been popularized and vulgarized. Grass courts are all but gone. Tennis white has been sacrificed to common taste and mixed colors. Tradition, which formerly controlled, is no longer sufficient. The rule of law is taking over. Whenever that happens, the role of the nobility is threatened.

The big change took place in civilian society with the decline of polo.

In a comparable way, the democratization of the military contributed to the social and psychological instability of the aristocrats. Traditionally, even into the 20th century, wartime brought a direct transition from civil status to military status. The nobility, the well-born, the gentry became officers. The peasants, farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, became soldiers and seamen of the lower order. Once the wars were over, the survivors returned to their previous positions and status in civilian society, which the overtly hierarchical military experience had reaffirmed. Mass armies, modern weapons and, especially, mechanization which displaced the cavalry, changed all that.

The cavalry cannot be brought back, but polo could be brought back and reserved as the exclusive game of the rich and of the well-born. Late summer and fall has become a time of restlessness and discontent for the young rich. "How do you kill October?" one rich young man recently was heard to ask, sadly, of another. With nothing challenging to do in the fall, and with politics the only thing going, the young rich have, in greater and greater numbers, been running for public office or seeking appointments. Even the old rich, beyond their polo playing days—men like Averell Harriman—have dismounted and run for office. The restoration of polo as the exclusive game of the rich would take care of their general restlessness and need for action in the fall, and it would keep many of them out of politics.

Eugene McCarthy is a former United States Senator from Minnesota.

This article originally ran in the July 9, 1977, issue of the magazine