2020 democratic primaries

Tom Steyer Bought Himself a ‘Grassroots Campaign’ for $10 Million

The following populist message is brought to you by concentrated wealth. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tom Steyer decided to run for president last month because, in his view, none of the Democratic Party’s 20-plus presidential candidates had demonstrated a serious commitment to solving “the overriding issue” besetting our republic — the corrosive influence of concentrated capital on our politics.

“I was watching how this campaign was going, and in my opinion, the overriding issue today is that the politics of our country, the government, has been taken over by corporate dollars,” Steyer explained to The Atlantic. “We have a broken government as a result of corruption from corporations. The solution to that, the only solution to that, is retaking the democracy and returning the power to the people.”

But before the superrich hedge-fund manager could get corporate money out of politics, he needed to get more billionaire cash into it: To qualify for September’s Democratic primary debates, Steyer would have to assemble 130,000 small-dollar donors — and four polls showing him boasting at least 2 percent support — a tall task for a man with little name recognition, in a race already glutted with vanity campaigns. Or, more precisely, a tall task for a man who didn’t have $1.6 billion at his disposal.

In his first month as a presidential candidate, Steyer spent $7 million on television commercials, and $2.6 million on digital ads — more than any other candidate has spent this year.

On Thursday, Steyer announced that these investments had paid off; the billionaire was now the proud owner of a small-dollar-funded “grassroots” campaign:

The distinction that Steyer implicitly draws between the political spending of plutocrats like himself and that of corporations isn’t entirely baseless. Businesses exist to generate profits. And minimizing taxation, the bargaining power of workers, and firms’ obligations 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. Thus, corporate political investments almost invariably pull economic policy rightward. The individual winners of late capitalism’s lottery, however, can be more idiosyncratic. While most billionaire donors are reactionaries, some are genuine liberals who are less interested in marginally increasing their gargantuan net worths than they are in advancing their ideological goals (or enjoying the status that comes with conspicuous displays of social conscience, or preventing more pathologically avaricious plutocrats from kicking out the foundations of the social order they all sit so comfortably atop).

At this sorry juncture in our polity’s history, the left needs its bleeding-heart billionaires. It would just be nice if the few we’ve got didn’t have a thing for lighting their money on fire. Steyer has invested in many worthwhile causes. But with the $10 million that he has already spent on his presidential campaign, the man could have fully bankrolled roughly 66 Democratic state legislative campaigns. Add in the $50 million Steyer shelled out on his pointless Need to Impeach ad campaign — and the $90 million more he plans to spend on his 2020 bid — and he could buy his party 1,000 well-funded state legislative candidates. Or, if he’s tired of supporting actually viable political causes, he could use those funds to spare roughly 40,000 people from dying of malaria.

But hey, why flip statehouses or save lives when you can launch a quixotic bid for the Democratic nomination? After all, who could possibly be a more credible messenger on the “overriding issue” of money in politics, or Donald Trump’s unfitness for office, than a billionaire whose only qualification for the presidency is his immense personal wealth?

Tom Steyer Bought a ‘Grassroots Campaign’ for $10 Million