Billionaires, Not Voters, Are Deciding Elections
The recent midterm elections offered an opportunity for America’s moneyed elites to spend their ridiculous wealth on a catalog of their favorite causes and candidates. We are locked in a vicious cycle, where billionaires continue to amass wealth due to policies their influence has bought, which in turn enrich them with even more resources with which to shift the American polity in their favor.
Part of the problem is that billionaires’ control over our democracy is largely invisible. As a recent study by The Guardian showed, high-profile wealthy elites like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates are anomalies. To that point, “[M]ost of the wealthiest US billionaires have made substantial financial contributions—amounting to hundreds of thousands of reported dollars annually, in addition to any undisclosed ‘dark money’ contributions—to conservative Republican candidates and officials who favor the very unpopular step of cutting rather than expanding social security benefits,” write the report’s authors. “Yet, over the 10-year period we have studied, 97% of the wealthiest billionaires have said nothing at all about social security policy.”
The midterm races in California saw several examples of the insidious ways in which the billionaire class made its mark on democracy, most notably in the defeat of Proposition 10, the state ordinance that would have expanded local governments’ jurisdiction over rent control. Several years ago, Wall Street hedge fund managers began scooping up rental properties and foreclosed homes in Los Angeles. According to journalist David Dayen, “Hedge funds, private equity firms and the biggest banks have raised massive amounts of capital to buy distressed or foreclosed single-family homes, often in bulk, at bargain prices.” He added, “It’s the next Wall Street gold rush, with all the warning signs of a renewed speculative bubble.”
So it should have come as no surprise that those same firms spent millions to protect their investments from returning lower profits in their fight against Prop 10. Sadly, Californians bought the corporate propaganda hook, line and sinker, and voted it down by a whopping 61.7 percent, saying “no” to rent control. (Incidentally, the opposition to rent control was also bizarrely funded in part by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association.)
Also in California, billionaires bankrolled the campaign of Marshall Tuck, a corporate candidate for school superintendent who strongly supports the privatization of schools. The race between Tuck and his union-backed rival, Tony Thurmond, broke records for the millions of dollars that the candidates raised and the tens of millions that flowed in from outside groups—a shocking trend considering the down-ballot status of the race in a critical midterm election year. Among the deep-pocketed individuals who backed Tuck were members of the Walton family, the CEO of Netflix and Eli Broad, a wealthy philanthropist known for his pro-charter school agenda.
If voters knew that billionaires were spending ridiculous amounts of money to elect a pro-privatization candidate, surely teachers and the parents of public school students might be inclined to view them with distrust?
In San Francisco, voters cast ballots for a tax initiative called Proposition C, a progressive tax on large corporations aimed at funding initiatives for the homeless. But Proposition C passed, likely because there were billionaires spending big on both sides of the campaign. The city has Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff to thank for deigning to do the right thing and pushing for the initiative in opposition to the likes of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and others.
Countless examples abound around this nation, where billionaires have gotten what they wanted simply because they had limitless wealth to throw at their favorite causes. As voters, we need to become literate in the ways of the moneyed class when it comes to elections. It’s very simple: Figure out who has poured millions into an issue or candidate and ask whether that person’s agenda might be less than noble. It may be that once in a while, the values of ordinary Americans align with those of billionaires. But that is the exception rather than the rule.
Wealthy people are swimming in riches because the rest of us are not. Their wealth is relative—they are the haves, we are the have-nots. And they clearly like having a lot more than us—and are willing to spend some of their mountains of cash to ensure they remain ensconced in power.
Throwing enormous amounts of money at a race doesn’t always bear fruit. For example, the politically active billionaire Sheldon Adelson failed in his recent bid to stop a renewable energy initiative in Nevada. But these (mostly) male magnates are so wealthy that the calculus of their political influence is on a completely different scale than ours. They literally have money to burn. They could lose $100 million in a political fight and walk away still brazenly wealthier and more privileged than most of us could imagine being.
Billionaires are not all Republicans. Were it so clear-cut, ordinary Americans could unite under the wing of the Democratic Party to beat back the GOP’s billionaire agenda. But corporate greed is a bipartisan project. For example, J.B. Pritzker waltzed into the position of Illinois governor after running as a Democrat. He had so much money that he didn’t need to raise funds for his candidacy—he simply used his own, an unimaginable amount of $171.5 million. Had he lost, he probably would have had plenty left over to spend on a future second, third or fourth try until he won. His opponent, Republican incumbent Bruce Rauner, is also fantastically rich; between the two candidates, Illinois voters were bombarded with a whopping $230 million worth of campaign spending. Imagine the badly needed projects that such money could have funded.
Wealthy Americans are already benefiting hand-over-fist from the tax giveaway that their Republican proxies in Congress passed last year. According to The New York Times, the law didn’t necessarily help the “merely rich” but was a windfall for the “ultra rich,” because, as author Andrew Ross Sorkin noted, “If you’re a billionaire with your own company and are happy to use your private jet so you can ‘commute’ from a low-tax state, the plan is a godsend. You can make an assortment of end-runs around the highest tax rates.” The so-called “pass-through” tax deductions were written in expressly for the obscenely wealthy.
It appears that for the greedy few, no amount of wealth hoarding is enough. Alongside election literacy, we voters need to develop a healthy sense of disdain, disgust and revulsion toward the billionaire class. In matters of politics, they are literally the “enemies of the people,” to borrow a phrase from President Trump.