- Interview by
- Shawn Gude
Billionaires are a politically active bunch.
In the 2012 elections, the Koch brothers shelled out about as much as the entire labor movement. Between 2001 and the end of 2012, 92 percent of the country’s hundred richest billionaires (combined wealth: $2.2 trillion) contributed to a political cause. “A remarkably high portion (36 percent),” political scientist Matthew Lacombe reports in his new coauthored book Billionaires and Stealth Politics, “bundled contributions from others and/or hosted political fund-raisers.”
Yet they’re also eerily quiet. Over the ten-year period that Lacombe and his coauthors (Benjamin Page and Jason Seawright) look at, 96 percent of Forbes’s one hundred richest Americans (as of 2013) said nothing in public about Social Security. That’s likely because most of them want to gut the popular program. As the trio of political scientists write, “many or most billionaires appear to favor, and quietly work for, policies that are opposed by large majorities of Americans” — cutting Social Security, reducing taxes on the rich, and freezing or even scrapping the minimum wage.
Jacobin editor Shawn Gude recently spoke with Lacombe about the challenges of studying the uber-rich (“they don’t just have gatekeepers, their gatekeepers have gatekeepers”), the various means billionaires use to assert their political influence (from employee training programs to local-level campaign contributions), and the effect that tight lips and deep pockets has on American democracy.
You and your coauthors note at the beginning of the book that the rich are notoriously hard to study. Why is that, and what has previous research found about their political views and behavior?
Typically we try to find people’s political views based on their responses to public opinion polls. However, those polls have a top high-income category of 200 or 250 thousand. That’s certainly a lot of money, but those folks aren’t the ones who are writing seven-figure campaign checks to politicians. So if you want to study the truly wealthy and suspect that really large donors’ preferences might be reflected in public policy, you can’t always do that using standard survey techniques.
Before I joined the project, my coauthors, Benjamin Page and Jay Seawright, co-conducted (along with Larry Bartels) a pilot study that consisted of interviews with around a hundred Chicago-area multi-millionaires. These were folks who were all in the top 1 or 2 percent. That survey produced some interesting results. It found, for example, that these Chicago-area multi-millionaires were both more economically conservative and politically active than average citizens, but when they attempted to expand that survey to the wealthy nationally they weren’t able to do so. The big problem is that getting in touch with billionaires is incredibly difficult — they don’t just have gatekeepers, their gatekeepers have gatekeepers.
Part of why we wanted to know the political preferences of the truly wealthy is that existing studies show that government policy responds disproportionately to what affluent Americans want. If we think that one reason why that’s the case is money in politics, then we need to know what the folks who have the real money want from government — which requires us to find a way to investigate that beyond standard survey research.
Right, so let’s talk about the basics of your book. How did you get around the empirical roadblock previous scholars have confronted, and what were your findings?
Instead of trying to survey billionaires, we decided to try and infer their policy preferences based on a systematic investigation of what they said about politics. The logic here is that we’re looking at the very wealthiest Americans, and these are all individuals with plenty of opportunities to speak in public about politics if they choose to do so. Virtually all of them could do TV interviews, write op-eds, and frankly, even if they were totally shut out by the media, all of them could purchase media outlets for minuscule proportions of their net worth.
So we developed an internet search procedure called web scraping designed to identify everything that the wealthiest 100 Americans have said in public about politics over about a ten-year period. We started by focusing on economic issues, and then we also looked at a number of social issues. We feel pretty confident we came up with a comprehensive collection of what these wealthiest 100 billionaires have said in public about politics.
The big finding is that lots of billionaires are silent about politics. They do interviews, they have public personas, but lots of them don’t say things about politics in public. They might say overly vague things — for example, that they find an issue important — but they don’t really offer specifics about what they want from politics. The second finding is that they are also highly politically active, and they tend to support conservative economic policies.
It’s worth pausing and underscoring just how exclusive the group you studied is. Donald Trump didn’t even make the cut. Who is included, and what are some of the attributes that stood out?
As of 2013, to make it into the wealthiest 100 you had to have a minimum of $4.6 billion, and that number has continued to go up the last few years. So this is a very exclusive list.
Some are household names like Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos. There are also some folks whose brands you might recognize, like the Walton family, and others who have stayed out of the limelight but whose companies you’ve heard of, including the Mars family of Mars candy company. Then there are some others who are relatively unknown, particularly those who are not very consumer-facing.
In general, the top 100 tend to be older (sixties, seventies, eighties), mostly male, and very much white and of Anglo-Saxon origin, more than the American population as a whole. In terms of the industries represented, the top one is finance, the second is technology, and then there’s also lots from retail.
Let’s get back to one of your main arguments in the book. Can you explain what you mean by “stealth politics”?
Stealth politics refers to the phenomenon where billionaires work hard to move public policy, especially on economic issues, in very conservative directions that clash with the policy preferences of average Americans. They do this by making financial contributions, hosting fundraisers, leading organizations, and so on. However, those very same billionaires are systematically less likely to talk in public about politics than billionaires with less conservative views. We call this “stealth politics,” because it’s the advancement of a policy agenda that is unpopular and not accompanied by public discussion or accountability.
We see this mostly on economic issues because billionaires tend to be a bit more liberal on social issues. One partial exception to that is immigration, which isn’t really just a social issue — it’s also, especially if you have lots of employees, an economic issue. In general, billionaires are very pro-immigration in their action, but if you dig a little deeper many of them tend to favor immigration just for high-skilled workers.
Other factors that predict whether you engage in stealth politics relates to the origin of your wealth. So we found some evidence that if you are in a consumer-facing industry, or if you inherited your money, you tend to be more likely to engage in stealth politics. We think that’s because folks in consumer-facing industries are worried about public scrutiny. And then regarding heirs, we think it’s related to many of them being genuinely private individuals.
One of the most striking points you make is that the picture we sometimes get of billionaires isn’t representative. There aren’t a handful of left-leaning billionaires, like Soros and Buffett, and a handful of right-wing billionaires, like the Mercers and the Kochs. The vast majority are extremely right-wing, particularly on economic issues. Can you talk about that? How does reality diverge from popular perception?
One reason we think stealth politics is an alarming phenomenon, from the perspective of upholding democracy, is that if a regular citizen were to try and determine what billionaires want from politics based on what they hear those billionaires say in public, they might not be so alarmed. Because publicly, billionaires align themselves more with policies most Americans want.
However, what we discovered is that that picture is not accurate. You have some very outspoken billionaires who tend to support popular economic policies, like Warren Buffet or George Soros, but they are not representative of the group as a whole, which tends to be rather fiscally conservative. We think that creates a misleading situation for voters.
You mentioned the Kochs. We do know about the Kochs — we know that the Koch brothers are very conservative and very active. But that’s a result of really difficult and excellent journalistic work done by folks like Jane Mayer and some academic researchers. Prior to that, they actually fit the model of politics we described. They tried to stay out of the limelight, and then when they were in the limelight they would say really vague things very few people would disagree with — for example, that they support economic freedom.
We suspect there are a lot of other billionaires whose actions, while not as prominent and dramatic as the Kochs, have done these sorts of things and escaped public scrutiny.
That’s a good transition to John Menard Jr, the founder of the Menards home improvement store chain and the subject of one of your case studies of individual billionaires. This one resonated with me partly because I grew up in Iowa, where Menards stores are everywhere, but also because John Menard seems quite representative of the average billionaire. What did you find about his political activity and beliefs?
John Menard, during our period of study, said nothing at all about politics in public. So we decided to look at him in part to try and see if some of the billionaires who don’t say anything about politics in public are just not politically active, because that’s a potential counterargument: maybe the billionaires that don’t talk about politics just aren’t interested in politics.
So we dug in deeper, and what we found was despite the fact that Menard didn’t talk about politics in public, he is nonetheless extremely conservative on economic issues and very politically active in ways that go beyond just the typical ways that wealthy people engage in public action. He does do the typical actions we think about regarding campaign contributions. We know based on a lawsuit that involved subpoenas that he made seven-figure contributions to the campaign of Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Even those are actions we wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for these court cases related to potential infractions by the Walker campaign.
But beyond making these big, dark-money contributions to economically conservative candidates, Menard also tried to influence the political preferences and behavior of his employees, of which there are thousands. His training courses don’t just provide information about how to be a better Menards employee but also talk about the dangers of socialism and why taxes are bad and why unions are bad. For a while, he had intensive programs that discouraged employees from unionizing in large part by cutting the pay of managers of stores where unionization activity occurred.
Yeah, that was really stunning to read — Menards would cut manager pay by 60 percent if their branch of the store ever unionized. It’s pretty amazing.
It is pretty amazing. Menard is this fascinating case in which we have someone who has no public political presence but who nonetheless makes very large campaign contributions and has the opportunity (and takes advantage of that opportunity) to influence the political behavior of his thousands of employees.
You write in one of your later chapters that the “billionaire-controlled [Americans for Prosperity] may be the most important organization in American politics outside of the Republican and Democratic parties.” Can you talk about how billionaires have reshaped politics at the state and local levels?
It’s important we look at the state and local level for three reasons. The first is that it generally costs less money to do politics at the state level, so big money can go even further. Second, in many states, there’s less gridlock. There are a decent number of states where the same party — and right now in a majority of states that’s the Republican Party — controls the state legislature and the governorship. Finally, there’s less media attention at the state and local level. That’s not a criticism of journalists, but we’re in a period where local journalism is declining and so it’s easier for billionaires and politicians to get away with things at lower levels of government.
So given all that, we dug into the state and local level. One of the things we found, first of all, is that billionaire-controlled groups such as Americans for Prosperity, which was created by the Koch brothers, have had a great deal of electoral success. We’re at a high-water mark in terms of Republican control of state-level government. Twenty-two states have unified Republican government.
That electoral success has translated itself into substantial policy shifts. Numerous states have been successful in reducing collective bargaining rights of public sector workers, reducing the pensions of public sector workers, rejecting Medicaid extension as part of Obamacare. It has also involved changing electoral rules themselves in ways that help lock in Republican influence, including through gerrymandering, through laws that reduce political participation, essentially engaging in voter suppression in ways that disproportionately affect demographic groups that tend to vote for Democrats.
Both these policy and institutional victories are self-reenforcing: when public-sector unions and unions in general are weaker, and when it’s harder for folks who might vote for Democrats to vote, it makes it harder in the future for there to be a political response.
One obvious problem with billionaires wielding enormous political power is that it undermines the democratic principle of one person, one vote. But as you’ve alluded to before, you and your co-authors also worry about the effect “stealth politics” has on political accountability. Can you explain that?
If we believe that billionaires are politically influential, then we might also think that they should be held to some minimum standard of public accountability. Stealth politics reduces accountability because it makes it difficult or impossible for average citizens to know what those with influence are doing.
And beyond just making it harder for them to know what influential folks are doing and what they want from government, if they try to find out they might get a misleading picture for the reasons we talked about earlier: the billionaires who talk about politics in public are not representative of billionaires as a whole. So we think that lack of transparency creates a problem in which average citizens can’t hold powerful political actors accountable for their actions because they don’t have a means of knowing what those actions are.