There is a political universe somewhere, perhaps, where Tom Steyer -- the billionaire who has decided to offer the environmental movement his credit card for the 2014 election cycle -- is more powerful than News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch. In this universe, wherever it might be, politicians cower before the mighty power of pro-green candidates. Voters walk into voting booths and think about the long-term ramifications of their votes on sea levels and polar bears and so on. After voting, they walk back down Big Rock Candy Mountain.
That is not this universe. And not to be ungracious to Darrell West, whose new book "Billionaires: Reflections of the Upper Crust", ranks America's most powerful billionaires, but it is hard to dispute that his suggestion that Steyer is more powerful than Murdoch -- here, in this universe, in this country, right now -- is, well, wrong.
Here's West's top 20 most powerful billionaires in the U.S. politics:
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There is an enormous amount of quibbling that can be done within these boundaries. (It's why the Internet loves lists so much!) We could start with "what constitutes 'political power' in modern American politics?," but as this is not Poli Sci 102, we will not. We will point out that slotting Donald Trump -- who is maybe not an actual billionaire at all -- above anyone in a power competition is almost certainly a personal slight to that person. Of all of the titles one can hold, "laughingstock" is perhaps the least politically powerful. And what's more, West is saying that Trump is more powerful than Larry Ellison, Larry Page, Carl Icahn, Harry Hamm, Paul Allen, Ron Perelman, Elon Musk, and many more. Maybe he is! Probably he isn't.
But, we digress. Let's go back to the top six.
The Kochs are fairly indisputably the most powerful billionaires in the country. Their money has powered 10 percent of the season's political ads so far. Their main campaign arm, Americans For Prosperity, is a rival to the national Republican party in influence -- a distant rival, but a rival nonetheless.
West puts Mike Bloomberg next. So, yes, Bloomberg has put a lot of money into a few causes, including gun control and reducing carbon emissions. On the latter, he's been pretty successful, working with the Sierra Club to shutter old coal plants. On the former, he's lost badly and repeatedly. Last April, the Senate couldn't muster enough votes to beat back a filibuster on a very moderate amendment to a bill that would have expanded gun background checks. Bloomberg's intervention in Colorado recall campaigns targeting state legislators who'd backed gun control didn't work. At a state level, the results have been mixed, but at a national level, the result is unequivocal.
Rupert Murdoch, who ranks sixth, owns Fox News, which is not only the loudest voice in conservative media, but is the most-watched cable news channel by a wide margin. In primetime on Thursday, more than five times as many people watched Fox News as watched CNN. A 2010 Pew study found that 40 percent of Republicans watch Fox News regularly. Fox News is a juggernaut, and, if he wanted to, Murdoch could pull the plug on it tomorrow. Rupert Murdoch is more powerful than Michael Bloomberg.
In third and fourth place are Tom Steyer and Las Vegas' own Sheldon Adelson, respectively. Look, not to be rude, but Adelson is more powerful than Steyer, too. Yes, Steyer is giving heavily to the League of Conservation Voters and is backing NextGen Climate Action, which is involved in a number of races (that Democrats are likely to win). Sheldon Adelson backed Newt Gingrich for president in 2012, and then Mitt Romney. Not huge successes.
But earlier this year, Adelson also got Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) to walk back comments he'd made about Israel. It's as though he'd gotten a possible presidentt -- however slightly -- shift his stance on foreign policy. All by dangling the possibility of writing checks for the next 24 months.
It's very safe to assume that West's arguments are robust and backed by evidence we haven't seen. (The book comes out on Sept. 18, so we haven't read it.) But the thing about political power is that it is highly contextualized in time and place. At this moment, Tom Steyer is not the third-most powerful billionaire in American politics. If NextGen climate action sweeps its races and the League of Conservation Voters elects a pro-environment House this fall -- maybe. But that hasn't happened yet. So far, Steyer's just written checks.
Maybe he should buy a cable news station.