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The Hidden Billionaires

Media-friendly, politically moderate billionaires like Bill Gates get a lot of airtime. But the vast majority are nothing like him. Most are highly secretive — and extremely right-wing.

David H. Koch applauds for Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during the Defending the American Dream Summit at the Washington Convention Center November 4, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Do you have a hundred thousand dollars? Even if you don’t, let’s pretend you do. The least wealthy member of the top 1 percent is one hundred times wealthier than you.

Let’s call that least wealthy member of the 1 percent Bob. Bob has ten million dollars. Bob is very different from you, but he’s also very different from a billionaire. The least wealthy billionaire is one hundred times wealthier than Bob.

Let’s call this least wealthy billionaire Bill. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, is over one hundred times richer than Bill, who is one hundred times richer than Bob, who is one hundred times richer than you — in this fictional scenario where you, unlike roughly half of Americans, have a hundred thousand dollars.

Billionaires are not just slightly richer millionaires, just as millionaires are not just slightly richer average people. Billionaires are aliens, financially speaking. They may breathe the same air as us, they may be mortal (though they’re working on that), but they have different faculties and powers than we do. Their money gives them access to dimensions that are not accessible or even perceptible to mere humans.

With some notable exceptions, including the current president of the United States and a few outspoken types like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, billionaires are very secretive. It has therefore been difficult for researchers to figure out exactly what they’re up to politically, and what that means for democracy.

A new book called Billionaires and Stealth Politics by Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe attempts to decode the political secrets of American billionaires. The researchers make “systematic use of web-scraping techniques to identify virtually all publicly available words and actions — concerning certain specific issues of public policy — by the one hundred wealthiest billionaires, over a ten-year period.”

They conclude that billionaires are extremely active in shaping political outcomes, but in a very particular way:

They try hard to influence public policy. They make large financial contributions to political parties, candidates, and policy-focused causes. They hold political fundraisers and bundle others’ contributions. They establish, join, or lead policy-advocacy organizations. But despite these billionaires’ prominence and their easy access to the media — which provides abundant opportunities to say just about anything they want to large audiences — they rarely talk openly about public policy.

The researchers call this approach to influencing politics — heavy on behind-the-scenes activity and light on public statements — “stealth politics.” Its implications for democracy are grim. Billionaires are some of the most important political figures in the country, but they are unelected, which means the public has no direct way of holding them accountable. Furthermore, their activities are often clandestine and difficult to trace, which means that even if we could easily take them to task, we wouldn’t always know what for.

Their silence, write Page, Seawright, and Lacombe, “is often designed to conceal billionaires’ advocacy of policies that most Americans oppose.” They can command a media audience quite easily. Their furtiveness is a deliberate political strategy.

Not all billionaires keep mum, but the researchers point out that the ones we’re most likely to hear from are the ones whose views are closer to those held by most Americans. For example, in surveying the public statements of one hundred billionaires over ten years, the researchers found that only three had ever made public comments about Social Security policy, an issue that billionaires are heavily invested in (most of them want to cut it). The three who spoke out were Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, and George Soros — whose views on Social Security just happen to more closely resemble those of most Americans (who do not want to cut it).

Many of the country’s other richest billionaires, like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, spend lavishly on campaigns to privatize and slash Social Security, but say nothing about it at all. The researchers note that “the intense, decades-long campaign to cut or privatize Social Security that was led by billionaire Pete Peterson and his wealthy allies appears to have played a part in thwarting any possibility of expanding Social Security benefits.” But we almost never hear billionaires come out and say that this is what they’re doing, much less present an argument for Americans to consider and debate, to accept or reject.

Some billionaires live their lives in the public eye, but are still very selective about what political issues they publicly champion. In some cases they appear to prefer social issues — terrain on which they can appear liberal and forward-thinking — to economic ones. For example, Jeff Bezos contributed $2.5 million in support of a same-sex marriage referendum in Washington State. Since then he has received glowing coverage for his tolerant stance in the Washington Post (which he owns), and was even awarded the Human Rights Campaign’s National Equality Award.

According to the data compiled by the researchers, Bezos has never said anything publicly about tax policy. Amazon is set to pay zero dollars in federal taxes for 2018.

The country’s richest individuals devote massive amounts of money to the cause of privatizing and cutting government programs and slashing taxes on corporations and the rich, against the wishes of the majority of Americans. But only a handful of highly atypical billionaires say anything about politics publicly, and they almost always say things that Americans broadly agree with or that will improve their image. From media exposure alone, an average person might miss the selection bias and reach the conclusion that billionaires, like Americans as a whole, are an ideologically heterogeneous bunch.

This perception helps billionaires as a group, because one of their primary defenses against public outrage is the prevailing impression that many of them are good-hearted, charitable, and have the interests of the general public in mind. Indeed, this pattern of outspokenness on the part of billionaires only when their views line up with the majority’s promotes a right-wing worldview in which billionaires are seen as society’s paternalistic benefactors.

That couldn’t be further from the truth: billionaires are self-interested, and they go to great lengths to promote their own well-being over the well-being of everyone else. The purpose of their political activity is usually either to directly push a privatization and austerity agenda, or to buy political influence so they can indirectly push that agenda.

For these reasons, billionaires support Republicans more than Democrats, but they support Democrats too. The researchers call this “strategic contributing,” in that its primary purpose is to command an audience with and compel allegiance from politicians, rather than to express approval or trust. Billionaires engage in strategic contributing with Republicans, too: they are often less socially conservative than Republican politicians, but “many libertarian billionaires contribute money to Republican candidates with whom they disagree markedly on social issues” in order to advance the economic agenda they desire.

In short, billionaires are heavyweight political players, and as a group they are primarily committed to moving the country in a libertarian, free-market, pro-capitalist, pro-billionaire direction.

Some billionaires, like the Koch brothers, also “fund politically oriented foundations and think tanks, provide infrastructure and logistical support for social movements, build coalitions from the ground up, and indeed rival the power of major political parties.” And then there’s dark money, the untraceable backchannel financial contributions that are usually only uncovered by journalists who dedicate years of their lives to following the trail, and are otherwise elusive even to researchers like Page, Seawright, and Lacombe.

The researchers note that phenomena like these — complex political structures that transcend mere donations, and dark money that usually avoids detection altogether — mean that campaign finance reform, while sorely needed, will not eradicate the threat that billionaires pose to our democracy. The real problem is that people are allowed to amass such enormous fortunes to begin with. As long as individuals are allowed to be this rich, they will use that money to buy political influence, one way or another.

Ultimately, to have democracy, we need to do away with billionaires.