Those who attend high-dollar fundraisers can seem uneasy in the new glare of the internet’s spotlight. Last month, Barack Obama urged Democrats to shun “purity tests,” which often ask candidates to rebuke wealthy donors. After Warren’s remark, California Governor Gavin Newsom rushed to defend wine caves, the underground cellars where vintners can age wine in cool, dry surroundings and host their fancy friends. Newsom happens to own a wine cave, and he noted that the one where the Buttigieg event was held is regularly used for Democratic Party fundraisers. Its owners, Craig and Kathryn Hall, are longtime party donors; Kathryn was an ambassador to Austria under President Bill Clinton. This battle might be about money in progressive politics, but it’s also part of a much larger war over American wealth, fought in part because of what the internet has illuminated about the nation’s inequality.
Read: How the “purity test” became political speak
Not so long ago, working- and middle-class people were mostly spared the details of wealth. Americans knew that rich people existed, but exactly what that meant in practical terms was mostly obfuscated. If you wanted to know how much a rich guy’s suits or his wife’s jewelry cost, you’d have to go to a high-end department store to find out. If you wanted to see inside their homes, you’d have to buy a copy of Vanity Fair or Architectural Digest. Shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ran for more than a decade as a titillating peek behind the veil, and also as a testament to how strong that veil was—Americans lacked enough information to imagine on their own every trapping that such wealth could provide, and seeing it mostly felt like a rare, fascinating sideshow.
But during the 2010s, as social media grew to dominate American culture and communication, one thing became clear: Plenty of rich people had simply been waiting for an opportunity to tell the world about their money, and they were prepared to do so in great detail. In 2012, a Tumblr called Rich Kids of Instagram went viral for aggregating posts by scions of wealth such as the Dell-computer heirs (photographed on a private plane) and the Morton siblings (tubing off a yacht), whose father founded Hard Rock Cafe. Millennials born into wealth lacked the discretion their parents might have preferred, and they wanted to flex for the still-novel ’gram.
Since then, being wealthy online has turned into a career path unto itself, as well as a persistent source of memes. In previous generations, rich young women interested in fashion might have simply taken plush gigs at magazines; now many of them become Instagram influencers, advertising the lifestyle they were born into to millions of followers. On TikTok, a new generation of rich kids has taken to showing off their parents’ homes, cars, and helicopters, under the banner of the “rich-boy check.”