It's a sad but true fact of life in North America that money influences politics far more than ideologies or even votes. Politicians will, it seems, support one stance against which they argued the month before if it will mean a huge payout for themselves or for their party. Recent studies have even suggested that the United States has, in fact, become an oligarchy rather than a democracy.
Politics these days isn't quite so far from an episode of House of Cards as we'd like; indeed, it's disheartening to see how easily deep-seated interests and beliefs can be swayed with the promise of continued support or money from wealthy lobbyists. It’s no wonder, then, that U.S. Congress is arguably the least cohesive and most problematic Congress in history. Democrats fight to remove money from politics, while many spend more than their Republican adversaries - all parties are guilty, and it doesn't seem like there’s any solution or end in sight.
Amidst the bleak outlook of the current political climate and the constant gridlock that America's legislative and executive branches are undergoing, the following are the 10 most politically powerful billionaires pulling the strings, according to political scientist Darrell West's 2014 study “Billionaires: Reflections of the Upper Crust”.
10 John Arnold - $2.8 billion
John Arnold is a former hedge fund manager who focused on natural gas and energy products. He began his career at Enron as an oil analyst, before becoming an assistant trader and then a trader of natural gas derivatives. After the Enron collapse, he started a hedge fund firm, Centaurus Advisors, LLC, before retiring at the age of 38.
John and his wife Laura are passionate about cutting pension benefits and moving costs to the public sector employees. He’s donated to both Republicans and Democrats, but the John and Laura Arnold Foundation has primarily sought to reform pension programs. He disagrees strongly with early-age retirement, believing that the taxpayers end up as the losers. John Arnold raised $115,000 for Obama’s 2008 election.
9 Tom Steyer - $1.4 billion
Although worth considerably less than many other billionaires on this list, it goes without saying that Tom Steyer has a huge impact on current politics. In fact, he was ranked the #3 most politically powerful billionaire in America on Darrel West’s recent list. He will spend about $100 million on environmental causes this season through his NextGen Climate PAC - an amount considerably more generous than other billionaires. Steyer’s money will go to seven different campaigns, and he also raised over $1 million as a bundler for Obama during the 2012 election.
Tom and his wife Kathryn have signed the Giving Pledge (along with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) to donate half of their wealth to charity. He also plans to get involved in California’s climate change policies by targeting three to four races in each house of the Legislature.
8 Penny Pritzker - $1.85 billion
While some billionaires control the political climate through outside lobbies and interests, others, such as Penny Pritzker, have a hold from the inside out. The heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune is currently the 38th US Secretary of Commerce under Barack Obama. Forbes has named her one of the 100 most powerful women in the world, and one of the most powerful Chicagoans.
After founding PSP Capital Partners and the Pritzker Realty Group, Pritzker became a member of the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, as well as serving on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. She was the national finance chair for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the co-chair of Obama for America 2012. Pritzker and her husband hosted a $28,500 per plate fundraiser for Obama’s campaign in 2008, and in 2013 she was nominated as the United States Secretary of Commerce by a full Senate vote of 97 to 1.
7 Bill Gates - $81.3 billion
The richest person in the world cracks number seven on our list. The Gateses have already donated $28 billion to their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation’s global development division raises services and resources to underdeveloped countries. Locally, the foundation has funded education initiatives and built libraries across the US, and has donated $71 million to Planned Parenthood.
Forbes named Bill Gates the fourth most powerful person in the world in 2012. While the Gateses aren’t huge political spenders, they donated $72,000 to Democrats and $5,000 to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, and also donated $600,000 in Washington State to support gay marriage.
6 George Soros - $26.5 billion
George Soros is known as “The Man Who Broke the Bank of England” after his short sale of $10 billion worth of pounds netted him a profit of $1 billion during the 1992 Black Wednesday UK currency crisis. He also said that removing President George W. Bush from office was the “central focus of my life,” and put his money where his mouth was, spending $25.5 million to defeat the former president.
The liberal magnate spent $1 million on Obama in 2012, pledged $35 million to assist low-income children in New York, $1 million to promote marijuana legalization in 2010, $3 million to the Center for American Progress, $2.5 million to MoveOn.org, and $20 million to America Coming Together. He is a co-chair of the Ready for Hillary super PAC. In 2009, Soros donated $100 million to Central and Eastern Europe to counter the economic crisis on the poor, and he also played a significant role in the peaceful transition from communism to capitalism in Hungary (1984-89).
5 Warren Buffett - $67 billion
Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest people, is one of Obama’s wealthiest supporters. He was instrumental in proposing the “Buffett Rule,” which would have implemented a minimum tax rate of 30% for all taxpayers making $1 million or more a year. Although defeated in Congress, it became one of the key talking points for politicians during the 2012 presidential elections. He has pledged to give away 99% of his money to charity through the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation.
Although a comparatively frugal political spender, he has been mentioned as a possible Secretary of the Treasury by John McCain and Barack Obama, or a political advisor, and he was California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finance advisor. His influence and political power are such that, in a recent interview, Buffett made the bold claim that 'Hillary is going to run in 2016, and [she] is going to win.’ This, mind you, before Mrs. Clinton has even officially said that she’s going to run.
4 Sheldon Adelson - $36.5 billion
The casino and hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson is a huge contributor (with huge influence) to the Republican Party. Adelson spent $100 million trying to put a Republican in the White House in 2012, first supporting Newt Gingrich, and then Mitt Romney. Although not successful there, his political power was shown in a recent statement where presidential-hopeful and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie completely shifted his foreign policy and recanted comments he’d made about Israel, at Adelson’s behest, for the hope of the billionaire’s continued support and money. Adelson plans on spending $100 million on this year’s senate race.
3 Michael Bloomberg - $34 billion
As a billionaire business magnate and New York’s 108th Mayor, Michael Bloomberg has been steeped in politics for a long time. He is the founder and 88% owner of Bloomberg LP, a global financial data and media company. Bloomberg spent $650 million of his own money in support of his own three terms as New York’s mayor (including helping to lobby against the term limit so that he could run for a third term).
He has spent $50 million on gun control through various campaigns, and funnels money into small-city sheriff’s races via his Independence USA PAC. He was a possible presidential candidate in 2008 and 2012, though declined to run. He is socially liberal, and a self-described fiscal conservative (after balancing New York’s city budget).
2 Rupert Murdoch - $13.4 billion
As founder, chairman, and CEO of the world’s second-largest media conglomerate, News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch is easily one of America’s most politically influential billionaires. He holds a monopoly on the information portrayed on Fox News, and owns companies such as 20th Century Fox, HarperCollins, The Wall Street Journal, and over 795 others. He is opposed to what he perceives to be a liberal bias in other public media, a fact which explains a lot about Fox News.
He handed over $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, and over $750,000 to fund federal candidates and political committees between 1990 and 2011. Still, Murdoch’s powerful political influence lies with his media empire.
1 Charles & David Koch - Collectively over $100 billion
The Koch Brothers, Charles and David Koch, are probably the most politically influential non-politicians in America. Koch Industries is one of the world’s largest trading, chemical, and energy firms, and the brothers consistently fund pro-business, conservative candidates and ventures. They are two of the biggest supporters of Big Oil, and they also support free market educational organizations, committing $246 million between 2004 and 2008 to libertarian causes.
The Koch brothers will spend a staggering $290 million on this year’s midterm elections. Even so, their real political power lies within a complicated network of nonprofits and LLCs who bundle and spread like-minded rich people’s money across the country. The brothers spent $407 million to defeat President Obama in 2012, just under what the Romney campaign was able to spend.