The fact that individual billionaires can translate their personal fortunes into outsize political power is a stain on our republic. But it wouldn’t be that big of a bane for the left if liberal billionaires weren’t quite so bad at buying influence.
Corporate political spending almost invariably pulls economic policy rightward. This is because corporations exist primarily to generate profits, and minimizing taxation, the bargaining power of workers, and firms’ responsibilities to compensate the public for the external costs of production (such as the adverse health outcomes produced by pollution) are all excellent ways of maximizing profitability.
But the individual winners of late capitalism’s lottery can be idiosyncratic in their politics. The cohort may skew heavily right, and those on its “left” may retain their class’s characteristic aversion to, say, collective control of the means of production. But liberal billionaires exist. There are plenty of superrich Americans who understand that they could live in a kinder, gentler, more social democratic country without suffering any significant loss to their standards of living (you could pass Bernie Sanders’s entire platform, and Tom Steyer’s kids would still inherit more money than they could spend without difficulty). If such obscenely wealthy progressives were ready and able to maximize the return on their political investments, they could create real problems for the conservative movement and its corporate benefactors.
But they aren’t. As this report from The Atlantic makes clear:
The presidential-campaign announcements may not be over yet — with the latest potentially coming from a person who ruled out a run just a few months ago.
The billionaire investor Tom Steyer, who in the past decade has been both the top Democratic donor in the country and the prime engine for pushing for the impeachment of President Donald Trump, appears ready to become Democratic candidate No. 26. Last week in San Francisco, Steyer told staffers at two progressive organizations he funds, Need to Impeach and NextGen America, that he is launching a 2020 campaign, and that he plans to make the formal announcement this Tuesday.
To Steyer’s credit, he did plow more than $100 million into the 2018 midterms, and that cash likely helped Democrats to secure their House majority. But the billionaire has also spent about $50 million on his “Need to Impeach” campaign, which has consisted largely of nationally televised advertisements featuring an older white man almost no Americans can recognize (Tom Steyer) sitting in his very nice living room, and explaining why Donald Trump is a terrible president.
Given Republican control of the Senate, this campaign never had any hope of securing Trump’s removal from office. And it hasn’t even managed to secure Nancy Pelosi’s support for an impeachment inquiry.
It costs roughly $150,000 to bankroll a competitive state legislative campaign. Which is to say: With the money Steyer spent on mounting a doomed bid to remove Trump from office, he could have fully funded 333 progressive state legislative candidates.
Instead, he is reportedly planning to shift his focus to one of the few political causes even more hopeless than impeachment. According to The Atlantic, Steyer believes that there is “an opening” in the Democratic primary for a candidate who can “challenge Trump on the economy.” Steyer suspended an earlier exploration into a 2020 run, after telling staffers that he was satisfied with both Elizabeth Warren’s economic message, and Washington governor Jay Inslee’s climate agenda. Since then, the hedge-fund billionaire has reportedly been disappointed by Inslee’s weak start, and has ostensibly concluded that Warren’s populist message would be more broadly appealing, if only it came from “a successful businessman who’s an actual self-made man and who believes in progressive economics.”
The idea that the Democratic primary electorate is eager to nominate a billionaire with no political experience is about as credible as the notion that the party’s 2020 field is sorely lacking in mild-mannered, middle-aged men who boast little-to-no national name recognition.
Given the political realities of our neo–Gilded Age, bleeding-heart billionaires like Steyer have a vital role to play in beating back the forces of reaction. The left needs class traitors. But no one needs another vanity presidential campaign. Steyer should apply the expertise he presumably accrued during his career as an obscenely well-compensated financier and direct his political capital toward higher yield investments.