Tom Perkins Has a Fascinating, Radical, Un-American Voting Plan

The venture capitalist—who compared progressivism to Kristallnacht—wants to disenfranchise non-taxpayers and give wealthier voters more votes.
Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins is on his own personal version of the Rolling Stones' Bigger Bang tour: an aging star getting his kicks one last time with a barnstorming tour across the states. First he said that discussing income inequality is just like Kristallnacht. Then he sorta-kinda-not-really apologized.

And now for his latest trick

"The Tom Perkins system is: You don't get to vote unless you pay a dollar of taxes. But what I really think is, it should be like a corporation. You pay a million dollars in taxes, you get a million votes. How's that?"

This anecdote is being reported fairly uncritically, but it's clear that Perkins seems to have been, at least partly, joking. After leaving the stage at the San Francisco event where he put forth the plan, he told a reporter, "I intended to be outrageous, and it was."

So let's not pretend that Perkins really sees this plan going anywhere. But given his recent comments, it's probably fair to assume that Perkins really does believe that the wealthier ought to have more political power, and probably on some sort of graduated scale.

It's important to realize just how radical that is. It's not often that anyone willingly comes out as an honest-to-God plutocrat. Restricting the vote on a de facto class basis has a rich history in democracies, at least as far back as Athens. And as everyone who went through middle-school and high-school history classes will tell you, American suffrage was once extended almost exclusively to white, property-owning males. Re-limiting the vote only to property owners is an idea that's enjoyed a recent resurgence among certain elements of the fringe right.

But having actual graduated voting based on income? 

The more you think about it, the more interesting and radical it is.* Often, political power is allocated based on class, but class is an idea that doesn't correlate directly with money—as any refined and genteel impoverished aristocrat will tell you. Perkins offers us a crasser and more egalitarian form of class: It's just about the number you report on your W-2.

It's a peculiarly American form of classism—one that (in theory, at least) rejects Old World concepts of class based on gentility, inheritance, or race in favor of an American Dream-fueled vision where with a little hard work you can become a literal oligarch. Under Perkins's pipe-dream system someone could, theoretically, turn 18 without a vote and die at 88 as the most powerful elector in America. A voter's political power could vary widely from cycle to cycle, depending on how her investments did in the intervening years. 

Of course, that's the limit of the egalitarianism. It's often said that less fortunate Americans oppose taxing the rich because we all imagine that someday we will join them. Even so, it's hard to imagine most Americans consenting to a system that would be so wildly unfair—there's no plainer way to put it—to most voters. Perhaps such a system could garner more support in a world where Americans were extremely socially mobile—but of course American mobility has stagnated for the last 50 years and trails many other industrialized countries.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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