We live under oligarchy. Yes, we have elections, but the interests of a tiny opulent minority are far better represented in our government than the concerns of the vast majority of Americans. That conclusion was the central takeaway of a Benjamin Page and Martin Giles study published a few years ago that grimly observed, “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”
Now Page is back with two new academic partners, Jason Seawright and Matthew J Lacombe, and a new study that further unmasks the role of billionaires’ stealth role in driving American politics. Buried during the stretch run of the midterm elections, the Guardian published an article by the aforementioned trio outlining the thesis of their forthcoming book Billionaires and Stealth Politics that shows us how it is not the rich and famous we need to worry about but the very rich and unassuming donors to the coffers of the Kochs’ political causes.
As the authors acknowledge, a superficial assessment of the political influence of plutocrats might lead one to think that their ideological influence was varied with the Koch brothers on the conservative side of the spectrum and folks like Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, and Bill Gates on the liberal to moderate end of the political landscape. Unfortunately, however, Page, Seawright, and Lacombe’s systematic study shows us otherwise:
Most of the wealthiest US billionaires – who are much less visible and less reported on – more closely resemble Charles Koch. They are extremely conservative on economic issues. Obsessed with cutting taxes, especially estate taxes – which apply only to the wealthiest Americans. Opposed to government regulation of the environment or big banks. Unenthusiastic about government programs to help with jobs, incomes, healthcare, or retirement pensions – programs supported by large majorities of Americans. Tempted to cut deficits and shrink government by cutting or privatizing guaranteed social security benefits.
The authors came to this conclusion after an exhaustive study of the 100 richest Americans who, unlike the handful of high-profile billionaires mentioned above, consciously chose to stay below the radar because they know their political aims are deeply unpopular with the public at large:
[B]illionaires who favor unpopular, ultraconservative economic policies, and work actively to advance them (that is, most politically active billionaires) stay almost entirely silent about those issues in public. This is a deliberate choice. Billionaires have plenty of media access, but most of them choose not to say anything at all about the policy issues of the day. They deliberately pursue a strategy of what we call “stealth politics.”
Page, Seawright, and Lacombe argue that it is precisely this stealth that has allowed the Koch brothers’ network to become a “political juggernaut” promoting undemocratic policies that increase economic inequality and do great damage to the interests of ordinary Americans who might favor things like protecting Social Security and/or regulating corporate excesses. In doing their business under the radar, the authors assert, the billionaires have won the class war and damaged our democracy without many of us noticing it, “They have avoided political accountability. We believe that this sort of stealth politics is harmful to democracy.”
This new research is crucial to more precisely understanding the root cause of our current crisis of democracy and our subsequent failure to address catastrophic climate change. Political scientist Kevin MacKay’s recent analysis, “The Ecological Crisis is a Political Crisis,” adds to the revelations brought to us by Page, Seawright, and Lacombe as well as historian Nancy MacLean in Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by outlining how “in states worldwide, political decision-making is controlled by a numerically small, wealthy elite. This form of government serves to lock in patterns of conflict, oppression, and ecological destruction.”
The Guardian’s George Monbiot outlines precisely how this process is playing out here in the United States:
The oligarchic control of wealth, politics, media and public discourse explains the comprehensive institutional failure now pushing us towards disaster. Think of Donald Trump and his cabinet of multi-millionaires; the influence of the Koch brothers in funding rightwing organisations; the Murdoch empire and its massive contribution to climate science denial; or the oil and motor companies whose lobbying prevents a faster shift to new technologies.
So, as we stare down the double-barreled shotgun of increasingly dangerous economic inequality and ecological collapse, it’s important to stay focused on the real root of the problem. We won’t be saved by billionaire philanthrocapitalists or neoliberal Democrats who are afraid to name the system for what it is: oligarchy pure and simple.