Billionaires and Stealth Politics

Benjamin I. Page

Book cover

I’ve been interested in Page’s work since reading his articles “Testing Theories of American Politics” (with Martin Gilens) and “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” (with Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright, the latter also a co-author on this book). The first paper uses empirical data on legislation and preferences of interest groups as well as different strata of people by income to show that policy is not at all responsive to the preferences of average citizens, except to the extent it coincides with those of wealthy citizens or business interest groups. The second reports descriptive statistics from a pilot survey of people with at least $40 million in net worth, finding that their policy preferences on a range of economic issues are far to the right of most Americans. (These findings may fall into the “no-duh” category, but I think it’s very valuable to see them empirically documented.)

This book also has a promising premise: an empirical study of the political activity of the 100 richest billionaires in the United States, combining publicly disclosed information on political contributions with web-scraped information on publicly available statements. The work I mentioned above was limited to assessing the influence of the preferences of a much broader slice of “wealthy” Americans (top 10 or 20 percent); but from Piketty’s work we know that the real economic stratification occurs much higher in the income/wealth distribution–and, perhaps this is reason to suspect that the same can be said of the stratification of political influence.

The authors make a valiant attempt to explore this possibility, or at least aspects of it. They don’t attempt to measure political influence, but rather, focus on correlates of whether billionaires make public statements about policy issues or not. Broadly speaking, they find that billionaires are more likely to speak publicly about a policy issue when their preferences (as measured by their reportable political contributions) align with broadly popular positions, but to remain silent when they do not. Furthermore, their preferences on economic issues, consistent with the earlier paper on less-wealthy 1-percenters, are far to the right of most Americans (although preferences on social issues are more mixed). One key result is that most people’s perception of billionaires is distorted in a way that makes them seem less extreme than they are, because those in the public eye (Buffett, Soros) are likely to be those with less extreme preferences. The authors dub intentional silence on non-mainstream preferences “stealth politics.”

I think the authors really squeeze all they can out of a very limited amount of data, but at the end of the day the limitations are major. As the authors recognize, “dark money” non-reportable contributions are totally uncaptured in this analysis, and likely constitute a large majority of the actual political activity of billionaires. In addition, the numbers they are working with are typically quite small. From the sample of 100 billionaires, generally at most 10 or so of them have made public statements on any given policy issue. This seems to be enough for the authors to find statistically significant results, but I feel uncertain about the robustness of the outcomes–especially given that some of the effects they identify are subtle or complex. It seems probable to me that at least some of the findings, although probably not the highest level observations, are artifacts of the data that would not hold up for replication. I wish the authors had talked a bit more about this type of issue.

The authors talk a bit at the end about policy ideas, but ultimately they are generally quite moderate. One aspect of the work that I think deserves further discussion is what it says about the link between monetary contributions and speech. Recent American jurisprudence has treated monetary contributions as equivalent to speech for first-amendment purposes. The findings in this book indicate that billionaires sometimes treat the two as complements (when their preferences are popular) and sometimes as substitutes (when they are not). This suggests that political spending cannot be accurately characterized as simply a tool enabling political speech–otherwise the relationship between the two would be more consistent. Indeed, the findings here suggest that, when their preferences are unpopular, billionaires see political spending as a more effective way of achieving their political goals than speech–the latter of which has undesirable features, such as prompting an expectation that you should be willing to defend your position against those who disagree with you.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars