Billionaires and Stealth Politics, Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright and Matthew J. Lacombe

Reviewed by David Szakonyi


As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, the issue of billionaires ascendant within American politics will once again take center stage. The country could see another billionaire candidate challenge the incumbent billionaire president, whose many informal advisers and cabinet members run in similar circles. Several ultrarich elites will inevitably break new records with their individual campaign contributions. A voter could be forgiven for thinking that billionaires have publicly co-opted the political system.

In a much-needed new book Billionaires and Stealth Politics, Benjamin I. Page, Jason Seawright, and Matthew J. Lacombe argue that these public actions are just the tip of the iceberg. For all the money billionaires invest in campaigns, parties, and issues, only rarely do they say anything in public to explain their preferences or reasons for pursuing specific aims. Billionaires engage in what the authors term stealth politics: they are extremely active in politics but remain intentionally quiet about the extent of their activities and influence. That silence is even more deafening with regard to issues where billionaires diverge from their less affluent fellow citizens, such as tax rates and redistributive policies.

Investigating the political attitudes of the ultrarich is a daunting task. What busy, privacy-concerned billionaire would find the time to speak with a survey enumerator? To collect evidence and test their stealth politics theory, the au- thors present an innovative workaround. First, they use keyword searches to systematically comb Google and LexisNexis for any public comments the 100 wealthiest Americans have made on five issues: taxes, Social Security, immigration, abortion, and gay marriage. Next, the authors match how often these billionaires spoke in public (and what they said) with their political activities, including PAC contributions and efforts to bundle donations. This methodo- logical contribution will be of particular use to other scholars trying to study the political preferences held by public but hard to reach subjects.

Overall, the authors’ quantitative analysis persuasively demonstrates the significant transparency gap between billionaires’ words and actions. This disconnect is particularly problematic at the lower levels of government, and even within the companies these elites manage. Billionaires are often able to invisibly reshape state and local politics by advocating a smaller federal footprint while stealthily pressing for special favors from these governments. Moreover, the book really hits home when it digs qualitatively into politics within the workplace. Billionaires such as John Menard Jr. often condition employment in their vast companies on workers undergoing politically charged training exercises and forgoing their right to unionize. The fight to protect and expand billionaires’ wealth unfolds on multiple fronts.

Future research could pick up exactly on this point. Although this book starts to peel back the curtain on the extent of billionaires’ activism, we still know relatively little about the full menu of strategies and the payoffs available to them and other well-resourced actors. To what degree are billionaires able to actually achieve their political aims, whether that means increasing the fortunes of themselves and their firms or pushing for broader laws that transform society according to their own ideological views? How much are billionaires willing to sacrifice to get what they want? The authors show that many billionaires continue to financially back politicians with whom they have substantial disagreements over abortion and same-sex marriage. We need to know more about the conditions under which certain billionaires might deprioritize their pocketbook and offer public (and financial) support for other issues.

In all, this book raises the alarm about the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding billionaires’ substantial presence within U.S. politics, and it sheds important light on the root causes of growing political and economic inequality in this country.

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