Political Power in America: Forget About the Billionaires

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, is publishing a new book on the political power of billionaires called Billionaires: Reflections of the Upper Crust. Along with his new book, West has released a list of U.S. billionaires ranked based on their political influence.


1. Charles & David Koch 2. Michael Bloomberg 3. Tom Steyer 4. Sheldon Adelson 5. George Soros 6. Rupert Murdoch 7. Bill and Melinda Gates 8. John and Laura Arnold 9. Penny Pritzker 10. Warren Buffett 11. Peter Thiel 12. Mark Zuckerberg 13. Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos 14. Pierre and Pamela Omidyar 15. Paul Singer 16. Peter G. Peterson 17. Marc Andreessen 18. Donald Trump 19. Alice Walton

Like most bodies of information published today, the list deserves both respect and ridicule. It deserves respect for the political reality it illustrates when it comes to money; whether we like it or not, wealth often does lead to influence, and the top members of West’s list are names we can easily tie to partisanship and power.

The Koch brothers, oil billionaires, are perhaps two of the most well-known supporters of the GOP and right wing policy. In particular, both have poured a great deal of money into the Senate midterm elections this year. Michael Bloomberg gained national attention most recently for his gun control financing, funding both ads and the formation of a new anti-gun group he says he hopes will rival the NRA. Others on his list certainly have their own money-made hands reaching toward Congress and Washington D.C., and it’s fair to say that the West’s list reiterates and more clearly categorizes the problem many Americans are recognizing: big money dominates politics.

On the other hand, there’s a great deal of criticism his list deserves as well — and one The Washington Post does an excellent job fleshing out. Donald Trump’s influence rating beating out Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Carl Icahn, Harry Hamm, Paul Allen, Ron Perelman, Elon Musk, and others is a particularly fair point to raise doubtful eyebrows at. “We could start with ‘what constitutes ‘political power’ in modern American politics?,’ but as this is not PoliSci 102, we will not,” writes Philip Bump.

Luckily for us all, this isn’t PoliSci 102 either, so rather than defining political power, I’m simply going to demonstrate that political influence need not be tied to net worth — while completely conceding that it often is.

1. Protestors

You don’t need money to organize a protest or to carry a bullhorn — in fact, an enormous number of protests are put together by those without money because of their living conditions. Billionaires can buy up airtime, but not attention. Protestors who find a cause that attracts large enough numbers can make noise enough to compete with and overwhelm the airtime billionaires buy up for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They also have the advantage of appealing at both a local and national level, and no one checks your pay stub before they let you join the crowd.

Rosa Parks may have had training in non-violent protests — something many don’t realize — but she certainly wasn’t wealthy. Susan B. Anthony, Alice Blackwell, and other leaders of the women’s suffrage movement were motivated and capable, but not rich. The Ferguson protests have probably seen more airtime than the Koch brothers could afford, and a great many in the crowd of sign-holders are well below the poverty line.

2. Political Cartoonists

If ever a profession had the reputation of being poverty stricken, it’s the starving artist — but political cartoonists say in a single picture what is on the minds of Americans, or point out what Americans have forgotten. In fact, it’s said that Napoleon claimed James Gillray, a British cartoonist with a cripplingly strong hand, “did more than all the armies of Europe to bring me down.”

Some cartoonists manage to make ends meet by supplementing work they do for newspapers and publications with other artwork. Dr. Seuss springs to mind as a notable individual in that category. Many know him for his children’s books, but Theodor Seuss Geisel was also a cartoonist during World War II, and even his children’s books often carried a political or social message. What better way to influence the future voters, politicians, and billionaires of America than through picture books?

3. Comedians

Before you start arguing that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are both worth many millions, keep in mind that most comedians don’t make all their own jokes. In reality, most of them have large writing teams that help produce a great deal of the content you hear on late night talk shows — and many of those writers struggle for years before finding steady work, assuming they ever do.

When asked what changed most in his time writing for The Daily Show, former writer J.R. Havlan told The Hollywood Reporter that, “The set and my salary. Both in shiny, exciting ways.” Nobody starts off making money in the writing industry, and many struggle through their whole career — sometimes as a result of their content, not just in spite of it. Look at Lenny Bruce, who died dead broke in 1966 following a series of legal battles against obscenity charges. Bruce fought for both the First Amendment right and for racial equality.

Yet political comedy writers — and the men and women who put a face to their work — wield an incredible power. They can topple the reputation of politicians. Tina Fey played an enormous role in making Sarah Palin seem ridiculous in 2008, and earlier this week, Lindsey Graham became quite the joke on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

4. Journalists

Last but certainly not least comes the role of the media in politics — and make no mistake, news and analysis has a big part to play whether you trust mass media or not (Gallup tells us only 40 percent do). Yet as important as the news is to check against government and politicians, many of the journalists doing legwork and digging around are not making bank and don’t have faces on the big screen.

The journalism field is a suffering one — hardly what it was fifty years ago. That isn’t to say there aren’t still fantastic journalists out there doing fantastic things, but the way that the industry has begun to move online more and more has led to struggling reporters and freelancers working to make ends meet.

In particular, conflict reporters — often freelancers — find themselves in some of the most dangerous positions for very little pay and with very little support; yet these are the individuals bringing news to people at home. Photojournalists who brought Americans into Iraq when Bush was in office had major impact on the hearts and minds of Americans, but none of them had the yearly salary of Michael Bloomberg.

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