During primary season, we hear a lot about the candidates’ humble backgrounds. Some on the Left hate that kind of personal talk, but it’s not complete bullshit. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, having grown up in struggling families, have a better visceral understanding of the struggles of working-class people than someone like Beto O’Rourke, who was reared in upper middle class privilege and eventually became quite wealthy. Our society will be better when many more of our leaders come from the working class. But it’s even more important to ask what a candidate’s class affinities are today.
A candidate’s class location matters because class shapes our social world, and we are continually reshaped by the people around us. While actual conflicts of interests are important — see: every minute of the Trump administration — the media’s fixation on grifters and parasites tends to miss the way close relationships influence a person’s ideas. So it’s worth asking, who does the candidate associate with? Whose conversation is informing their view of the world?
Elizabeth Warren’s daughter, Amelia Tyagi, with whom she has coauthored two best-selling books, has come a long way from her mom’s humble Oklahoma origins. Tyagi is now a founder and CEO of a consultancy called the Business Talent Group. Like Mayor Pete (BOOTEdgeEdge), she’s also worked as a consultant for McKinsey, a secretive consulting firm that has been rightly blamed for some of the worst miseries of working life at many major corporations. Journalist Duff McDonald, who wrote a book about the company, said McKinsey might be “the single greatest legitimizer of mass layoffs.” While the capitalist class already approved of layoffs in tough economic times, McDonald told Time magazine in a 2013 interview, McKinsey helped get them comfortable with the idea of layoffs in prosperous times “simply to juice profits.” Even the respectable Time interviewer couldn’t help observing that this sounded “evil.”
Tyagi also cofounded HealthAllies, a venture capital–backed health benefits firm which was eventually acquired by United Health Group. It makes you wonder: how likely is Warren to go all in for Medicare for All, a reform deeply opposed by most of the health insurance industry, when someone so close to her, an intellectual partner and colleague as well as a daughter, has been a heath care profiteer and still works as a management consultant to corporate America?
Kamala Harris, for her part, is married to a corporate lawyer. I don’t doubt that Douglas Emhoff, widely referred to in cutesy fashion as “Mr. Kamala Harris” (which is low-key gross but not the couple’s fault), is the sensitive, supportive spouse the candidate makes him out to be. He does seem to be man enough to serve as First Husband. But he spends his days and makes his money helping corporations defend their interests against consumers, workers, and other injured parties. He once represented more than fifty entertainment companies in a wage and hour class action lawsuit. No wonder Harris has “not been comfortable with Bernie’s plan” for single-payer health care. No wonder she has been able to credibly assure wealthy donors: “I believe in capitalism.” That system has treated her family well (though she acknowledges not everyone has been so lucky). Not only are her household’s interests inextricably intertwined with those of the capitalist class, she keeps company with someone who is paid amply to defend that class against everyone else.
As for Joe Biden, with so many tragic deaths in his family, it is tempting just to be happy for him that he has any kids left alive and leave it at that (I’m serious!). But Hunter Biden is probably a blatant grifter, involved in shady business in Ukraine and China during the Obama administration, most likely profiting immensely from his father’s position (as the Trump family has been doing).
We can’t expect everyone affiliated with a presidential candidate to make a virtuous living. We live, after all, in a rapacious, dirty system. (Though it’s worth noting Bernie Sanders’s children include an advocate for the disabled, a progressive politician, and a yoga studio owner, while his wife is a former college president who currently runs a left-wing think tank with the help of another of their sons.) And needless to say, any of these candidates, however unsavory their associations, would be better than the current occupant of the White House. Trump seems to have almost no genuine human affinities or ties, which is arguably worse than having shady ones.
But in the Democratic primary, in which candidates typically claim to support ordinary, hardworking Americans, it’s fair to assume their closest associates will ultimately shape their thinking, especially on the most material issues. And that’s a legitimate issue when we think about whom to support for 2020.