How Bad Are Billionaire Politicians for Democracy?

He could buy and sell you. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Billionaires have become something of a punching bag in the Democratic race, scorned for their outsize influence on society. But what about their records as public servants? I spoke with national correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti and senior writer Eric Levitz on how much the boomlet of superrich people running for office matters.

Ben: Billionaire Michael Bloomberg is blanketing the national TV airwaves with ads for his new presidential campaign. Billionaire Tom Steyer has done the same thing on a smaller scale in swing states, managing to qualify for the next debate and outlast once-formidable candidates like Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, billionaire J.B. Pritzker became the governor of Illinois last year, high-net-worth individual Phil Murphy took office in New Jersey in 2017, and fellow very rich executive Kelly Loeffler is set to be Georgia’s newest senator, probably in part because she can fund her own campaign. Oh, and then there’s our current president.

Big money in politics has been seen as a scourge for a very long time. But I think it’s fair to say that there’s been a rise in very rich people actually seeking office, or in some cases, actually governing. How much of a threat does this pose to democracy? I know, it’s a small question.

Gabriel: Small question, indeed. First, I think it’s probably important to note that very rich people running for office is hardly new — it used to be the norm. One of the big differences here is that quite a few of them — though not all! — are funding their own campaigns. Bloomberg always used to make the case that that meant he wasn’t susceptible to pressure from donors. Trump, of course, said that, too, but we know (a) he didn’t actually self-fund, and (b) that was never true for him.

Eric: I think that it’s not ideal for democracy. But as far as ways that billionaires try to influence the American political system go, I’d say this is one of the more innocuous, precisely because it’s so conspicuous. No one is unaware that a billionaire is behind Michael Bloomberg’s campaign. The plutocratic roots of ostensible grassroots issue-advocacy organizations, or state legislative lobbying efforts, by contrast, are a bit better disguised

Gabriel: In fact, he’s running with a billionaire status as a selling point. So did Trump. But Murphy, for example, certainly never talked up how rich he is/was when running. (And he’s not a billionaire.) Pritzker didn’t, either. (He is.)

Eric: Yeah. Though I really doubt Illinois voters were unaware of Pritzker’s wealth. Or at least, that the median voter was.

Gabriel: Oh, definitely, and I don’t mean to suggest he was hiding it, simply that he wasn’t running as the prototypical independent-minded tycoon candidate, but rather as a businessman liberal.

Eric: Right, right.

Ben: The people we’ve listed so far are a mixture of Democrats and Republicans, and though Trump has made a point of helping out his plutocratic friends and their businesses, Pritzker and Murphy are much more liberal-minded. Is there much evidence you see that people with a lot of money who get elected to office are any more likely to further the rich-get-richer trend in America than your average politician?

Eric: I think partisanship is a better predictor of enthusiasm for abetting upward redistribution than personal net worth. The latter isn’t irrelevant. The fact that — despite significant gains in other dimensions of representative diversity — Congress is still an institution populated almost exclusively by people in the top 10 percent of the wealth and income distribution likely influences the nature of its consensus views on economic policy. But I think the problem is more about the dearth of working-class representation than about the rise of politicians who are multibillionaires instead of humble, salt-of-the-earth multimillionaires.

Gabriel: Agree on all counts, and we’d have to control for a whole lot to make direct comparisons between a lot of the individual situations we’re talking about here. Clearly that was the case in Trump’s America and in at least parts of Bloomberg’s New York. But the concern I’ve been hearing a lot more about in the last day isn’t about the individual actions of wealthy elected officials, but more about deficiencies in the political system that get us to this point in the first place, where so many people like this are able to rise in these races.

Eric: I guess. I do think the fact that Bloomberg could buy himself Kamala Harris’s poll position with one week of television ads — that made no meaningful dent in his network — is a little unnerving.

Gabriel: According to Forbes, his net worth has grown by about $2 billion since he floated his entry to the campaign about a month ago. And he’s spent something like $50 million on ads …

Ben: Right. It’s not ideal that I’m now seeing three Mike Bloomberg ads during every episode of Jeopardy. I want to go back to the adult-diaper commercials.

What would solve this? A public campaign-finance system that’s unlikely to ever happen?

Eric: The guillotine?

Ben: Haha.

Gabriel: Well, meaningful campaign-finance reform would obviously be a step in the right direction for a lot of problems plaguing today’s politics. (Breaking!) But I actually don’t think there’s necessarily broad agreement on what, exactly, the problem is, other than “rich candidates can currently pay their way into relevance.” That, for me, is almost on the parties. For obvious reasons, neither the DNC nor RNC have much incentive to touch their rules on this topic, but that would be the most obvious first line of change.

Eric: F’real though, I think a combination of income + wealth redistribution, and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy with proportional representation that allowed for open competition between a variety of mass-membership parties each of which could pick their own leaders through internal procedures that can’t be easily manipulated by mass media/paid advertising.

Gabriel: Should be ready by 2024.

Eric: If Bernie’s the nominee, 2021.

Ben: The rich are not exactly popular in today’s Democratic Party. It’s true that the party includes some wealthy governors, but Steyer and Bloomberg have so far not been able to buy their way into the top tier. Is extreme net worth more of a disadvantage than an advantage on the national stage? And does that fact balance out any of the inherent problems with plutocrats getting this far in the first place?

Eric: I think it’s clearly an advantage. It’s like Steyer and Bloomberg are oozing charisma and raw political talent, but have been bafflingly unable to break 5 percent due to anti-billionaire prejudice

Gabriel: I mean, we can’t reasonably say extreme wealth is a disadvantage in politics. Obviously there are massive political problems that come from it, but Bloomberg has reached 5 percent in polls almost immediately. Important to note also that neither of these guys are blank slates who are appearing solely as giant floating checkbooks. Voters know them and their records, and are learning more.

Eric: If Cory Booker were worth $50 billion, I think he’d be well on his way to the nomination.

Gabriel: Again, Trump is president. He may not have as much money as he pretends to have, but he’s still a billionaire. How’s that for a hot take?

Ben: I’m melting.

Is Trump really responsible for this current wave of plutocratic politicians, like he is so many evils? Did they see him win and think, “Hey, I could do that?” It’s not like the rich are known for recognizing their limits, anyway.

Gabriel: Michael Bloomberg has been thinking about running for president for over a decade. Steve Forbes ran in 2000. We had a vice-president who was a Rockefeller!

Ben: Dammit, hate when I’m ahistorical.

Eric: I don’t think he bears primary responsibility. But I feel like a few billionaires have said explicitly that they took inspiration from Trump’s example. Though feel like those guys have yet to actually run for anything (I’m thinking mostly of Mark Cuban).

Gabriel: There’s obviously a moment happening. Trump has clearly empowered a new group of people to consider running. But I think that’s more pronounced among long-shot pols who think, “Well, if THAT guy can do it…” than among the tycoon class.

And yes, Cuban. There was a time when Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey looked at running. Howard Schultz nearly did. If we’re going to end this chat here, let me just point out that John Delaney is a multimillionaire funding his own campaign. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Ben: Oh yeah, I forgot about him. I guess that’s your point.

How Bad Are Billionaire Politicians for Democracy?