Tom Steyer has the résumé of a hedge-fund manager and the charisma of an accountant. His public speaking skills are minimal, political experience, negligible, and taste in ties, unforgivable. His natural constituency is ostensibly that subset of progressive Democrats who want their party’s nominee to be both a populist outsider and early investor in private prisons.
And a new poll puts him in second place in the South Carolina primary.
Michael Bloomberg was, until a couple of weeks ago, a fervent proponent of racially discriminatory policing, financial deregulation, and Social Security cuts. He endorsed George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention. The 77-year-old billionaire has an undisputed history of making sexist remarks to female subordinates and three active sexual harassment lawsuits pending against his company. He has not appeared in a single Democratic presidential debate, and is not on the ballot in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, or South Carolina.
And he is polling in fifth place nationally, with more than twice as much voter support as Minnesota senator (and media darling) Amy Klobuchar.
There are a lot of reasons why Steyer and Bloomberg are outpolling many Democratic politicians with significant legislative accomplishments and strong intraparty support – 260 million reasons, to be precise. That is the number of dollars that Steyer and Bloomberg have together spent on television advertisements. The entire rest of the Democratic field has collectively spent $222 million.
There’s nothing new about billionaires exercising outsize influence over American politics. But the scale of Steyer’s initial ad buys dwarfed that of any previous self-funding candidate. Now Bloomberg’s ad-spending has dwarfed Steyer’s. And yet, as a percentage of personal wealth, both men’s expenditures are negligible. This is especially true of Bloomberg who, according to Forbes’s estimates, has increased his net worth by $36 billion over the the past decade, making his record-setting $200 million ad-spend equivalent to roughly 5 percent of his projected increase in wealth this year.
When Bloomberg first launched his campaign, he was met with widespread incredulity. Given that the ballot deadline for Iowa had already past, that a centrist candidate was leading the field, and that the idea of Democratic primary voters rallying behind a Wall Street billionaire with a penchant for racial profiling and workplace sexism was patently absurd, why would Bloomberg run?
But this question is easily answered by another one: why not? If you’re a 77-year-old man with a taste for power and $54 billion to your name, why not buy a $200 million lottery ticket? There’s always a chance. And even if you don’t hit the jackpot, you’ll probably walk away with more political influence and almost certainly – considering the rates at which your assets appreciate and companies generate profits – more wealth than you possessed when your campaign started.
What makes Steyer and Bloomberg’s vanity campaigns concerning (rather than merely irritating or amusing) is their rationality. For men of their means (or at least, of Bloomberg’s), mounting a historically well-funded presidential campaign is a minor indulgence, akin to an upper middle-class family spending a weekend at a ski resort. Given the costs, the fact that two billionaires are spending record-setting amounts in pursuit of political power seems less remarkable than the fact that more members of their class aren’t. Even if neither candidate wins a single delegate, their campaigns will have demonstrated the ease with which any individual billionaire can affect meaningful changes in public opinion through paid messaging alone. The real hazard is that less vain tycoons may learn from their example.
Neither Steyer nor Bloomberg is going to win the Democratic nomination. In the ultra-high visibility context of a presidential campaign – in which all major contenders have abundant access to earned media – money is no trump card (as Trump demonstrated in 2016). But what impact could a Bloomberg-level investment have on tipping the balance of a high-stakes federal election – or a relatively low-salience legislative fight? Put differently: If Tom Steyer can buy 15 percent support in South Carolina for a few million dollars, what policy outcomes couldn’t Jeff Bezos buy if sufficiently motivated?
Of course, George Soros, Sheldon Adeleson, Charles Koch, the Mercer family, and other politically-engaged plutocrats have already doled out eye-popping sums to political causes, and secured major returns on those investments. Meanwhile, the one percent as a whole has quite clearly made its money talk on Capitol Hill: In 2017, as Americans faced (among other things) a drug overdose epidemic, skyrocketing health-care costs, decaying infrastructure, and a climate crisis, the U.S. Congress decided that the best thing it could possibly do with $1.5 trillion of borrowed money was give large tax breaks to rich people.
But for each of the big-spending billionaires named above, there are scores of others who’ve yet to meaningfully enter the political fray. And even the Soroses and Koches of the world are shelling out only a small fraction of the amount they could afford to. As Jonathan Chait recently noted, total spending by both sides in the 2016 election barely exceeded $1 billion. That is less than 1 percent of Bezos’s net worth.
The contradictions between democracy and economic inequality have weighed on our republic since its founding. And concerns about the influence of money in politics loomed especially large in the wake of the financial crisis and Citizens United decision. The problem I’m describing here isn’t new. And it may even seem a tad antiquated; given the burgeoning potency of small-dollar fundraising in recent years, the spectre of billionaires’ political spending may seem less menacing today than it did in the past. But what is both new and menacing is the sheer scale of the super-rich’s economic power after a decade of stagnant wages, record profits, and runaway asset inflation. In 2010, Jeff Bezos was worth $12.3 billion; today, he is worth $115 billion. The top 0.1 percent – which is to say, America’s wealthiest 160,000 families – now own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households combined. Suffice to say, billionaire megafortunes are growing at a faster rate than the price of television advertisements.
Meanwhile, as America’s political parties, unions, churches, and other civic organizations continue to decline – and Americans become increasingly atomized – mass media exerts an evermore monopolistic influence on our politics. Even the new social movements that have taken shape in recent years typically owe their influence less to the active engagement of a mass membership than to the skill of their cadre at generating and channeling media attention. Further, as Big Tech has eaten journalism’s business model, the Fourth Estate has grown more reliant on the super-rich’s largesse, while the news-consuming public’s attention has become increasingly concentrated on national media. Taken together, all this means that the billionaire class’s capacity to dominate mass media – through gargantuan ad buys and the subsidization of newspapers, local news stations, or other journalistic enterprises – has been rising in tandem with the political value of exerting such dominance.
And, of course, media is just one tool at the politically-engaged plutocrat’s disposal. There are also lobbying outfits to fund, astroturf interest-groups to conjure, revolving doors to turn, and wine-cave dinners to arrange. And considering the Supreme Court’s wildly permissive definition of political bribery, even more direct means of acquiring a legislator’s sympathy are also viable.
Regardless of whether Bloomberg and Steyer’s campaigns inspire other plutocrats to drastically increase their political investments, their runs have illustrated their class’s latent power. Maybe Tom Steyer buying himself a third-place finish in South Carolina won’t mobilize America’s apolitical fat cats. But if a political figure or movement were to raise a credible threat to the median billionaire’s prerogatives, Steyer and Bloomberg have shown how affordably they could make their voices heard. In this context, it is hard to see how a man with $111.5 billion at his disposal couldn’t purchase the veto of any legislation that threatened his company’s core interests.
What then is to be done? Although the threat that concentrated wealth poses to democracy is dire, small-D Democrats can scarcely afford to forswear their own plutocratic patrons, or paper over ideologically discomfiting ambiguities with vulgar Marxism. It is true that a supermajority of billionaire political donors support the Republican Party and conservative causes (i.e. their own class interests). But a few do back indisputably progressive ones. Michael Bloomberg does not oppose Elizabeth Warren’s agenda for purely materialistic reasons. A man with $54 billion has nothing to fear from social democracy. There are billionaires in Sweden. Implement every item on Warren’s agenda and Bloomberg’s great grandchildren still won’t have to work a day in their lives. His objection is ideological. By the same token, Steyer’s comparatively progressive agenda is likely motivated by earnest ideological conviction. Unlike corporations, which face incentives that render them almost universally hostile to pro-labor legislation, the typical billionaire lives a post-material existence. Most still seek to maximize their accumulation of capital, since that is how they derive their sense of purpose and status. But others seek meaning and esteem in less antisocial pursuits. And for now, the left needs its bleeding-heart billionaires. Without Friederich Engels’s fortune, there is no Marxism; without George Soros’s, there (probably) is no district attorney Larry Krasner.
But the latent political power of the billionaire class does remain a problem for both democracy and the left. The typical billionaire donor is well to Michael Bloomberg’s right. And every year that the return on capital outpaces wage growth, that typical billionaire’s latent power grows. Precisely how to build the kinds of social movements and organizations that can check such power, in an age of social atomization, civic decay, and ubiquitous trade-union decline is not obvious. But having one of our scant few progressive billionaires blow tens of millions of dollars on a vanity campaign – instead of investing that capital into progressive institutions – certainly does not help