“We have democracy?” Elon Musk interjected, with an impish smile. He’d just been asked how worried he was about the state of the American system of government. “We have a sort of democracy, I guess,” Musk went on, balancing his toddler son on his knee at a party marking his selection as TIME’s Person of the Year last December. “We have a two-party system, which generally means that issues get assigned in a semi-random manner into one bucket or the other, and then you’re forced to pick one bucket. Or like there’s two punchbowls, and they both have turds in it, and which one has the least amount of turds? So I don’t agree with, necessarily, what either party does.”
It was both interesting for Musk’s answer as well as the questions he chose to avoid. His interviewer, TIME editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal, had hoped to engage him on the concern, widely shared among political experts, that our democracy is in danger—that the rule of law and free, fair elections are under threat from creeping authoritarianism, disinformation and institutional deterioration. Musk appeared to see American democracy as just one of the many flawed, temporary arrangements made in our ongoing struggle for human advancement.
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Musk said that he would change the way things were structured if he was starting from scratch. “People have asked me, say, a Mars society, what are my recommendations for that,” he mused. He stated that he favors direct democracy, where people vote on the issues and have short laws to stop corruption. Pressed again on the problems facing the current system, such as citizens’ ability to access good information and express their preferences at the ballot box, he again redirected, suggesting such concerns are the gripes of congenital pessimists. “It’s easy to complain, but the fact of the matter is, this is the most prosperous time in human history,” he said. “Is there really some point in history where you’d rather be? Have you ever actually read any history? Because it wasn’t great.”
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This posture—the head-in-the-clouds futurist who is too fixated on his cosmic ambitions to engage with the grimy minutiae of governance—is a common affectation for Musk. His astonishing move to purchase Twitter and make it private is a cause for concern. The world’s richest man stands soon to control the world’s most influential media platform, a venture he claims to have undertaken not for profit but for the good of society. It is clear that his political views are difficult to understand and that his goals have been misunderstood. This also helps to explain why he bought Twitter.
A lot of people hate this.Musk is a public figure of rude and outlandishness. Musk, who has over 80 million Twitter followers, alternates between in-joke jokes about science-fi and computer chips with provocative utterances. It’s almost as though he is a random shitposter. His friend Bill Lee, who claims to have convinced Musk to join Twitter in the first place, told me that Musk became “probably the most viral social influencer ever” by accident, not design, and that he viewed it as a way to let off steam and connect with people directly.
Musk has often used his platform in toxic fashion: sliming a heroic cave diver as a “pedo guy,” grossly mocking a Senator’s Twitter photo. Musk’s tweets got him into trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission. They sued him in 2018 for misleading investors. But Musk generally does not concern himself much with other people’s feelings, as his own brother, Kimbal, told me: “He is a savant when it comes to business, but his gift is not empathy with people.”
Yet what matters isn’t whether Musk is a nice person so much as what he wants with his $44 billion platform. Both left and right are proving to be wrong when they try to understand Musk’s motivations.
Many liberals consider Musk a greedy, self-serving profiteer. His dealings with the government aim to maximise his income and avoid any responsibility. But Musk’s billions are mostly on paper, not hoarded offshore, a reflection of the value investors have assigned to Tesla. If he has sometimes paid little or no federal tax, that’s mostly because our system taxes income, not wealth. People who believe Musk should pay more tax should not blame him but the tax code. This is what liberal senators trying to reform the system admit. “The scam is what’s legal here,” Senator Ron Wyden told me of the proposal he backs to tax billionaires’ wealth.
Musk doesn’t seem to be interested in becoming rich, unless it is for the fulfillment of his human ambitions. In 2008, Musk put his money up to pay Tesla payroll. He’s been close to bankruptcy several times. He sees himself as an engineer and bristles at being described as an “investor.” Prior to his Twitter bid, Tesla was said to be the only publicly traded stock he owned.
Musk’s companies are also accused of bilking government. Tesla was granted a federal loan of $465 million in 2010, but this came years after Musk spent millions to get the company started. Tax credits for electric vehicles also contributed to Tesla’s bottom line for many years. But even if it were true that Tesla couldn’t have made it without government help, it’s odd to hear liberals criticize the deployment of public funds to encourage environmental innovation. Such spending is a signature of Obama Administration policy. Back in 2012, Republicans painted Tesla as an Solyndra-like boondoggle. SpaceX has also received billions of government funding in the form of NASA contracts, though the company similarly first had to get off the ground (so to speak) on the strength of Musk’s will and wallet. And Musk’s innovations in rocket design have arguably saved taxpayers billions, enabling, for example, astronauts to be ferried to the international space station for a fraction of the exorbitant price the U.S. previously paid Russia to do it.
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Liberals also take issue with Musk’s corporate leadership, and critics who assail his reckless disregard for public health and safety have a point. Musk defied local health authorities in 2020 to allow his factories to remain open while the pandemic was raging, placing workers at great risk. Musk’s companies have faced lawsuits over working conditions, including allegations of sexual harassment and racial abuse. In February, California’s Agency for Fair Employment Claims alleged that Tesla tolerated “rampant racism” for years, allowing pervasive discrimination, which Tesla denies. Musk isn’t personally accused of harassing workers, but he can certainly be blamed for the workplace climate at his companies.
Elon Musk addresses the Tesla Giga Texas Manufacturing “Cyber Rodeo” Grand Opening Party in Austin on April 7, 2022.
Suzanne Cordeiro—AFP/Getty Images
Tesla has resisted union organizing, which appears to be the reason the Biden Administration has lavished praise on the belated foray into electric vehicles of companies like General Motors while ignoring Musk’s contributions. Musk finds such slights offensive, and for good reason. A US company has been the leader in an important industry crucial to climate change, but the President is too attached to his political allies not to recognize its achievements, or even celebrate it.
Musk does not like regulation from the government. He views it as bureaucratic squelching innovation. He has also signaled opposition to the censorious “woke” culture that has come to dominate liberal discourse. His explanations for the Twitter purchase have centered on concern for free speech, which resonates with conservatives who believe they’ve been censored by the platform—none more so than Trump. This has led to many right-leaning people siding with Musk. Before the deal closed, a group of Republican members of Congress sent a letter to the company’s board, seeming to threaten a congressional investigation should it reject Musk’s bid.
However, conservatives are not happyHis Twitter acquisition is being celebrated by many who mistakenly see him as an ally. Musk was such a strong supporter of Obama that he once stood in line for six hours to shake the former President’s hand. After Trump was elected, Musk agreed to serve on two presidential advisory councils—the Strategic and Policy Forum and the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative—but he lasted less than six months, resigning from both in June 2017 in protest of the Administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. (In this, he showed less patience for Trump’s antics than other CEOs: the councils were disbanded a few months later, after Charlottesville.) Musk’s careful neutrality on everything from Chinese human-rights abuses to Texas abortion law is an outrage to those who believe he’s morally obligated to take a stand, but his orientation on many key public-policy issues appears broadly progressive.
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Musk believes he can transcend the divide between left and right political parties, as reflected in his response to the democracy question. It’s a view that has fueled his career: a rejection of assumptions and stale binaries and an ability to think through problems in new ways. The thing about Musk that critics miss is that he’s not another businessman moving money across ledgers. Musk was able to bring to life a brand new kind of battery and have the nerve to invest in it when others doubted. SpaceX was founded by Musk, who had almost abandoned America’s space race. He learned rocketry from his father and created a new spacecraft.
While conservatives and liberals might not be able to agree on everything, almost everyone recognizes that the digital public square has serious problems. It’s not clear what ideas Musk will bring to the challenge—in a statement announcing the purchase, he proposed “enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.” If fixing social media were easy, someone would have done it already.
But the lesson of Musk’s career is to take his ambitions seriously. He’s rich not because he gamed the system but because he’s a genius who uses the incredible force of his will to mobilize resources to pursue his ideas. He’s devoted himself to tackling what he views as humanity’s biggest problems, and he has decided, as he put it recently, that “having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization.” Elon Musk has picked the next hard problem he wants to solve. Democracy It could all depend on his success.
—With reporting by Mariah Espada
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