“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.”
The exchange was a revealing one, both for the answer Musk provided and the question he avoided. 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. But Musk seemed to regard American democracy as merely one of many temporary, inevitably flawed political arrangements undertaken in the course of our ongoing struggle for human progress.
Read more: ‘My Career is Mars and Cars.’ TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year Elon Musk in Conversation With Editor-in-Chief Edward Felsenthal
If he were starting over, Musk volunteered, he might structure things quite differently. “People have asked me, say, a Mars society, what are my recommendations for that,” he mused. He said he would favor a direct democracy where the people voted on issues, with short, simple laws to prevent 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? And by the way, have you actually read history? Because it wasn’t great.”
Read more: Elon Musk—Person of the Year 2021
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. But his stunning move to buy Twitter and take it private has made his views on politics, society and human discourse a matter of urgent 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. His non-answer to the question about the state of American democracy shows why his politics are so hard to pin down and his goals so widely misunderstood. It also helps explain why he wanted to buy Twitter.
Many people loathe Musk, who has cultivated a public persona of roguish obnoxiousness. On Twitter, where he has more than 80 million followers, he alternates in-joke memes about sci-fi or computer chips with silly or provocative utterances, as if he were 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. His tweets have gotten him in trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sued him for misleading investors in 2018. 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. And it is in trying to read his motivations that both left and right seem to be getting Musk wrong.
Many liberals see Musk as a rapacious profiteer whose dealings with government are aimed at maximizing his income and evading 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. Those who think Musk ought to be paying more taxes should blame the tax code, not him, as the liberal senators who are trying to change the system acknowledge. “The scam is what’s legal here,” Senator Ron Wyden told me of the proposal he backs to tax billionaires’ wealth.
Musk seems somewhat uninterested in being rich except as a means to realizing his ambitions for humanity. He has repeatedly driven himself to near-bankruptcy, as when in 2008 he put up his own money to help Tesla make payroll through a tough stretch. 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.
Another misconception about Musk is that his companies are bilking the government. In 2010, Tesla received a $465 million federal loan, but that was years after Musk had poured millions into getting the company launched. 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 was a hallmark of Obama Administration policy; back in 2012, it was Republicans who painted Tesla as a 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.
Read more: ‘The Idea Exposes His Naiveté.’ Twitter Employees On Why Elon Musk Is Wrong About Free Speech
Liberals also take issue with Musk’s corporate leadership, and critics who assail his reckless disregard for public health and safety have a point. In 2020, Musk defied local public-health authorities to keep his factories open as the pandemic raged, putting workers at 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 speaks at 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. Such slights rankle Musk, for good reason: an American company has become the world leader in an industry vital to the future of the climate, yet the President appears too beholden to his political allies to even acknowledge, much less celebrate, its success.
Musk is not a fan of government regulation, seeing it as bureaucratic squelching of innovation, and has said he believes budget deficits are out of control and worrisome. 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. All this has led many on the right to side 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.
But the conservatives now celebrating his Twitter acquisition are likely mistaken to 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.
Read more: What Elon Musk’s Purchase of Twitter Could Mean for Donald Trump’s Account
As his answer to the democracy question showed, Musk sees himself transcending the left-right political divide. 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. When he took over Tesla, engineers and investors had been trying for decades to make electric cars viable; Musk had the vision to champion a new type of battery design and the guts to go all-in when many doubted it could work. When he started SpaceX, America had virtually abandoned the space race it once dominated; Musk taught himself rocketry and invented a spacecraft from scratch.
Liberals and conservatives may not agree on much, but virtually everyone sees the digital public square is badly broken. 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 could depend on whether he succeeds.
—With reporting by Mariah Espada
More Must-Read Stories From TIME