Every day, the media runs articles about powerful lobby groups that influence politics or even dictate to governments which legislation they should pass. The battle between mavericks (the good guys), who uncover sinister conspiracies initiated by powerful corporations (the bad guys), who are frequently the capitalist puppet-masters of corrupt politicians, is a common Hollywood trope.

In American election campaigns it is widely accepted that if you want to become president, you will only succeed if you can raise billions of dollars in donations -– from Wall Street, from powerful pharmaceutical and defence companies, from the weapons lobby, from very large unions and other special interest groups.

And that is not all: Critics of social inequality claim that the problem is getting worse, that with rising inequality the influence exerted by the rich on politics is growing. Noam Chomsky writes that “the real concentration of power is in a fraction of one per cent” of the population: “They get exactly what they want, because they’re basically running the place.”

But if money alone bought political power, Donald Trump would never have become the Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2016. That honour would more likely have gone to Jeb Bush, who was able to raise far more in political donations. Even Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, political scientists and two of the most prominent proponents of the thesis that US politics is determined by the rich, concede that most of the big-money contributors – and most Republican think-tankers and officeholders – supported other candidates. And: “Trump’s positions went directly contrary to the views of wealthy donors and wealthy Americans generally.”

Furthermore, if money determined political outcomes, Trump would not have won the 2016 election. Clinton and her allies, including her joint committees with the Democratic Party and the super PACs that supported her, raised more than $1.2 billion for the full cycle, according to the Federal Election Commission. Trump and his allies collected about $600 million. Not one CEO in the Fortune 100 donated to Trump’s election campaign by September 2016.

If money alone could buy political power, then Joe Biden would also not have become president. Perhaps the White House would have gone to Michael Bloomberg, who at the time of his application for the Democratic candidacy was the eighth richest man in the world, worth $61.9 billion according to Forbes. In all likelihood, Bloomberg spent more of his own money (and spent it quicker) on his election campaign than any other candidate in history, namely $1 billion in just over three months. Bloomberg financed his campaign himself and did not accept any donations.

Bloomberg is by no means the only candidate whose wealth did not help him realise his political ambitions. In 2020, billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer put up $200 million of his own fortune and ended up without a single delegate. In the 2008 GOP primaries, Mitt Romney spent more than twice as much as John McCain – much of which was his own money – but he dropped out of the race in February and McCain went on to secure the Republican nomination.

The Koch brothers have always been portrayed by critics of capitalism as among the most dangerous pro-capitalists on the planet, but David Koch learned just how hard it is to turn money into political power back in 1980, when he was one of the main supporters of the Libertarian Party and threw his hat into the ring as a candidate for vice president: he earned just one per cent of the vote.

In his book Unequal Democracy, Larry M. Bartels criticises inequality and the influence of the wealthy in the United States. He examined the estimated effect of unequal campaign spending in 16 US presidential elections from 1952 to 2012, concluding that Republican candidates outspent their Democratic opponents in 13 of those elections. But in only two elections, namely that of Richard Nixon in 1968 and that of George W. Bush in 2000 does Bartels conclude that Republican candidates won close elections that they very likely would have lost had they been unable to outspend their Democratic opponents.

There has been a great deal of research into the relationship between the wealth of American congressmen and their voting behaviour. Martin Gilens, who generally criticises the influence of the rich on US politics, concedes on this issue that there is no evidence of a connection between their wealth and the political decisions made by members of Congress or the House of Representatives: “…the substantial existing differences in economic status among members of Congress are not related to broad patterns of voting on economic policy.”

Sociologist and historian Rainer Zitelmann is the author of In Defence of Capitalism: Debunking the myths which will be published on 7 March 2023.