Americans don’t hate wealth. They hate injustice. Those facts are worth remembering as we enter this election year and try to understand America’s schizoid attitude toward billionaires, three of whom are running for President. It’s an attitude worth understanding because billionaires are certain to symbolize crucial issues for the next President, whoever he or she may be.
It’s a bizarre political moment. Two of the top three Democratic candidates in national polling, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, routinely vilify billionaires as more or less the root of all evil. Sanders has said, “I don’t think that billionaires should exist.” The top-polling Democrat, Joe Biden, sends a more subtle message: “I don’t begrudge anybody making a million or hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said in February, leaving unspoken that 10 figures are just too much. Yet the Democratic field also includes two billionaires, Tom Steyer and recent entrant Michael Bloomberg, who in only a few weeks has used massive TV advertising to approach the top tier, a few points behind the No. 4 candidate, Pete Buttigieg.
As for the Republicans, they’re not entirely unconflicted on this subject, even though their candidate became the first billionaire President three years ago.
So do we love billionaires or disdain them? Simple partisanship is the easy part of the answer. Polling confirms what we already know: Republicans tend to be billionaire-friendly, and Democrats tend not to be. What complicates the picture is a large nonpartisan element. Oprah Winfrey, Steven Spielberg, Michael Jordan—they’re all billionaires, and America loves them. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett rank near the top in YouGov’s 2019 survey asking Americans whom they admire most, interspersed among movie stars, Pope Francis, and the Dalai Lama.
Sometimes we love billionaires. But as the success of Sanders and Warren shows, a sizable group of Americans resent them bitterly. At a deep level, our billionaire bifurcation reflects two starkly different views of the world—how it works, why some people get ahead and others don’t, whether the future is dark or bright. The divide separating those who hold these opposing views has deepened dramatically over the past few years.
Consider the fundamental question of whether the U.S. economic system “is generally fair to most Americans” or “unfairly favors powerful interests,” as the Pew Research Center has posed it for the past five years. Overall sentiment has barely budged: About 33% of U.S. adults say it’s fair, and 63% say it’s unfair. But in just the past three years, Republicans and Democrats have polarized on the issue, with Republicans now far more likely to say it’s fair, and Democrats far more likely to say it isn’t.
Little wonder that billionaires are under fire. It’s no longer just Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders who believe they’re profoundly bad for the nation; Cato polling finds that 54% of Democrats believe “billionaires are a threat to democracy” (while 79% of Republicans don’t agree).
Underlying this historic shift is the megatrend of increasing income disparity. The inescapable fact is that since 1967, inflation-adjusted income has increased 99% for the top quintile of households and only 31% for the bottom quintile. Republicans and Democrats frame their explanations of what happened in fundamentally different ways based on their rapidly diverging worldviews, leading to ever more sharply contrasting policy prescriptions.
Which brings us back to America’s love-hate relationship with billionaires. In our hyperpartisan environment, two extreme election outcomes are entirely plausible. The Democrats’ more progressive wing could sweep, promising an unprecedented anti-billionaire agenda of historic tax increases on the wealthy. Yet voters could also deliver a completely opposite and equally unprecedented outcome: Next January, for the second time in U.S. history, a billionaire—of either party—could be taking the oath of office.
A version of this article appears in the January 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Great Big Billionaire Backlash.”