• Fri. Dec 1st, 2023

What Americans really think about billionaires during the pandemic


Mar 30, 2021
Photos of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
Here’s how Americans feel about Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. | Maja Hitij / Mike Cohen / Saul Loeb / Aurelien Meunier / Getty Images

A new poll from Vox and Data for Progress pulls back the curtain.

The debate over the power of billionaires in America is driven by critics who see them as rapacious tax-cheats and by defenders who see them as embodiments of the American Dream.

But what do regular people think?

A new, exclusive poll from Vox and Data for Progress pulls back the curtain on how Americans feel about the exploding net worth of billionaires during the pandemic; their record-setting philanthropy as a way to address inequality; and whether they have too much political power in American elections. The poll was fielded In February and surveyed likely voters.

The data suggest that gone are the days when the ultra-wealthy could count on widespread admiration as job-creators, titans of industry, and “thought leaders.” They now confront a skeptical public, shaped in part by a year of the coronavirus pandemic that has entrenched their power.

At the same time, Americans reject many of the furthest-left critiques of billionaires and their influence in American life. You can read the full results here, and here are some of the highlights.

How Americans feel about billionaires during the pandemic

The pandemic has exacerbated wealth inequality, and many Americans are resentful of the fact that while they struggled, the wealthy made significant gains.

Ethan Winter, Data for Progress

By a wide gap — 72 percent to 19 percent — voters polled say it was unfair that billionaires got wealthier during the pandemic. That conclusion is shared across all racial, partisan, socioeconomic, and other demographic groups.

This unease is reflected in questions that speak to Americans’ more generalized opinions about the one-percent, which were generally shared across the political spectrum. Only 23 percent of those polled said they consider billionaires to be good role models for the country, and 65 percent said they don’t.

Similarly, only 36 percent said they had, in general, positive feelings about billionaires, as opposed to 49 percent who said they did not. Black Americans said they had much more positive feelings about billionaires than did members of other racial subgroups: 45 percent said they felt positively, with only 39 percent saying they felt negatively. Democrats were also more likely to be anti-billionaire than were Republicans.

Ethan Winter, Data for Progress

And yet Americans are broadly dismissive of some progressive rhetoric about something being fundamentally wrong with a society that features billionaires. Some 82 percent they agree with the statement that people should be allowed to become billionaires — and similarly, 68 percent say they disagree that it’s immoral for a society to allow people to become billionaires.

How Americans feel about billionaire philanthropy

Voters give billionaires positive marks when it comes to their philanthropy. Asked whether billionaires do a good job at giving away their money through philanthropy. 47 percent say they agree. Only 33 percent say they don’t.

Ethan Winter, Data for Progress

And yet, they do not think philanthropy is a sufficient solution to solving Americans’ inequality problems. When asked about which is a better solution to solve the country’s problems during the pandemic — to raise taxes or to seek more charity from the wealthy —52 percent choose the former and 38 percent say the latter.

How Americans feel about Bill Gatses, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg

Four tech billionaires have become some of the world’s most influential people during the pandemic, at center stage in America like never before. Vox asked voters how they felt about these increasingly unavoidable figures.

Ethan Winter, Data for Progress

Elon Musk is the most popular of the tech billionaires polled, with 50 percent saying they had a favorable opinion of the Tesla founder and currently the world’s second richest person. Musk is a bipartisan figure: 52 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion (versus 22 percent unfavorable) and 48 percent of Republicans (versus 25 percent unfavorable.) Musk is especially popular with men: A staggering 66 percent of men view him favorably (versus 21 percent unfavorably).

Bill Gates, who has played a quasi-governmental role during the pandemic from his perch and his eponymous foundation, also is viewed very favorably in the throes of the crisis with 55 percent of respondents saying they felt that way, versus 35 percent who felt differently. Gates is especially popular with Democrats, who are fans of his by a 55-percentage point margin.

Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg, who are both lightning rods in their own ways, are less popular figures. Just about as many people view Bezos unfavorably as view him favorably. And Zuckerberg himself is under water by a significant margin; 54 percent say they have an unfavorable opinion, including 64 percent of Republicans.

How Americans feel about billionaires’ political power

What unites Americans is a belief that billionaires have too much influence in the political system. Of those polled, 61 percent say they feel that these ultra-wealthy people had too much influence in the 2020 election (62 percent of Republicans agreed with this statement, as did 55 percent of Democrats).

Whether Joe Biden himself was too close to this billionaire class, predictably, depends on your partisanship. Only 20 percent of Democats say that’s the case. But 72 percent of Republicans say so.

Nevertheless, despite being concerned about these billionaires’ power, American voters do not think they pose any sort of existential risk. Asked if billionaires are a threat to democracy, only 28 percent said they agreed, while 54 percent said they disagreed.

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