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The Perils of Plutocratic Pettiness

The sultans of Silicon Valley are in a political snit, with some billionaires suddenly turning against Democrats. It’s not just Elon Musk. Other prominent players, including Jeff Bezos, have lashed out at the Biden administration, and we now know that Oracle’s Larry Ellison participated in a call with Sean Hannity and Lindsey Graham about overturning the 2020 election.

The timing of this hard right turn by some tech aristocrats is remarkable given what’s happening in U.S. politics. It’s hard, for example, to imagine what kind of bubble Musk lives in that he could declare Democrats “the party of division and hate” at a time when Tucker Carlson, not a politician but still one of the most influential figures in the modern G.O.P., is devoting show after show to “replacement theory,” the claim that liberal elites are deliberately bringing immigrants to America to displace white voters. (Polls show that nearly half of Republicans agree with this theory.)

The plutocrats railing against Democrats are also remarkably petty; nothing says “visionary titan of industry” like sending poop emojis. But the pettiness may actually be central to the political story. What’s going on here, I’d argue, isn’t mainly about greed (although that, too). It is, instead, largely about fragile egos.

Elon MuskCredit…Mike Blake/Reuters
Larry EllisonCredit…David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

It’s true that some real economic interests are at stake. Democrats have proposed new taxes on the wealthy, while President Biden has appointed officials known for advocating much stronger antitrust policy. It’s also true that tech stocks have fallen substantially over the past few months, reducing the paper wealth of moguls like Musk and Bezos.

But at this point these look like policies at the edges. Even if Democrats defy the odds and retain control of Congress this November, there is no realistic prospect of a New Deal-type campaign against extreme inequality. Furthermore, any conceivable redistributive policy would still leave billionaires incredibly wealthy, able to buy anything they want (except, possibly, Twitter).

What wealth can’t always buy, however, is admiration. And that’s an area in which the tech titans have suffered major losses.

Let me get nerdy for a minute. At least since the work of Max Weber a century ago, social scientists have realized that social inequality has multiple dimensions. At minimum we need to distinguish between the hierarchy of money, in which some people have a disproportionate share of society’s wealth, and the hierarchy of prestige, in which some people are specially respected and looked up to.

People may occupy very different positions in these hierarchies. Sports legends, pop stars, social media “influencers” and, yes, Nobel laureates generally do fine financially, but their wealth is surely mere pocket change compared with today’s great fortunes. Billionaires, by contrast, command deference, even servility, from those who depend on their largess, but few of them are widely known public figures and even fewer have dedicated fan bases.

The tech elite, however, had it all. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg was, for a while, a feminist icon. Musk has millions of Twitter followers, many of them actual human beings rather than bots, and these followers have often been ardent Tesla defenders.

Now the glitter is gone. Social media, once hailed as a force for freedom, are now denounced as vectors of misinformation. Tesla boosterism has been dented by tales of spontaneous combustion and autopilot accidents. Technology moguls still possess vast wealth, but the public — and the administration — isn’t offering the old level of adulation.

And it’s driving them crazy.

We’ve seen this movie before. Back in 2010 much of the Wall Street elite, rather than feeling grateful for having been bailed out, was consumed with “Obama rage.” Financial wheeler-dealers were furious at not, in their view, receiving the respect they deserved after, um, crashing the world economy.

Unfortunately, plutocratic pettiness matters. Money can’t buy admiration, but it can buy political power; it’s disheartening that some of this power will be deployed on behalf of a Republican Party that is descending ever deeper into authoritarianism.

Did I mention that the most recent meeting of the right-wing gathering CPAC, which included a video address from Donald Trump, was held in Hungary under the auspices of Viktor Orban, who has effectively killed his nation’s democracy?

The right turn by some technology billionaires is also, may I say, very stupid.

It’s true that oligarchs can get very rich under autocrats like Orban or Vladimir Putin, whom much of the U.S. right deeply admired until he began losing his war in Ukraine.

But these days Russia’s oligarchs are, by many accounts, terrified. For even vast wealth offers little security against the erratic behavior and vindictiveness of leaders unconstrained by the rule of law.

Not that I expect the likes of Musk or Ellison to learn anything from this experience. The rich are different from you and me: They are usually surrounded by people who tell them what they want to hear.

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