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Billionaire Donors and True Believers

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Democrat billionaires are always looking for an excuse to justify their outsized political spending. Aren’t liberals supposed to be against the wealthy few pouring great gobs of money into the political system? How can they justify railing against this state of affairs while lefty billionaires are filling their side’s ever-expanding coffers?

The more reasonable excuse is the practical one: that it doesn’t make sense for Democrats and liberals to “unilaterally disarm” against Republicans who have no qualms about flooding the system with cash, as Nancy Pelosi put it recently. The Dems would prefer that all this money weren’t going into the political system, they say, but, the rules are what they are, and so it’s important to match Republican political spending dollar-for-dollar as long as these rules prevail. There are problems with this point of view (what, exactly, is your long-term plan for changing the system, then?) but at least it’s a realistic description of our current political system.

But then there’s the much more tiresome, self-aggrandizing excuse, which goes like this: unlike selfish Republican megaspenders, we, the noble liberals, throw money at issues that aren’t actually in our own self-interest. Watch, as we selfless heroes pat ourselves on the back!

Take Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager whose plan to spend $100 million this election cycle—$50 million of his own, $50 million from rich buddies—to support environmentalist issues has given him the appearance of being “the left’s Koch brothers.” (In much the same way as the Koch brothers were once called “the right’s George Soros,” and so on and so forth.) Well good heavens, Steyer says, how dare you compare me to those self-interested monsters! From Politico:

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer insisted Tuesday that he’s not the left’s version of the Koch brothers.

“That is not something I embrace. I think there are real distinctions between the Koch brothers and us,” Steyer said in an interview with POLITICO and The Washington Post taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers,” which will air on Sunday.

Steyer, who hopes to use his vast personal fortune to make climate change a top priority in the upcoming midterm elections, said he’s not entering politics for personal gain.

Charles and David Koch’s priorities “line up perfectly with their pocketbooks—and that’s not true for us,” Steyer said.

To which a Koch spokesperson had this response:

“That assertion is false and disingenuous, and people can see through that. Koch opposes all mandates and subsidies, even when they exist for businesses in which we operate. In doing so, we act against our self-interest. We have been consistent in this position for over 40 years,” spokesman Robert Tappan said in an email.

The Koch spokesman is not wrong. Charles and David Koch have been waging a public war against any and all corporate welfare for many decades. The idea that the Kochs are only doing what they’re doing to better their personal financial position is reductive and doesn’t quite get to why the current campaign finance landscape—in which Steyer is very much a player—is so scary.

The people who spend tens of hundreds of millions of dollars through independent expenditure groups these days to sway elections are, in fact, frequently acting out of true belief. If the goal is to either push through or stymie a certain piece of legislation or regulation that might hurt their bottom line, then they work through another channel: lobbying. Lobbying is a more under-the-radar process, doesn’t cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and it comes out of company money. If Charles and David Koch wanted a certain regulation killed, lobbying through their company or a trade association—which they do, all the time—would be the way to go.

Charles and David Koch really do believe the libertarian, magical free-market theology they espouse. Did you read Charles Koch’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed? He’s quite taken with, and well-versed in, many decades of annoying libertarian literature. He and his brother want to remake society in that image because they believe that it’s the correct one. Libertarianism is their religion. They are true believers; it’s not a show for them. Similarly, we have just as little reason to doubt that Tom Steyer truly fears the dangers of climate change.

What is frightening about the current political spending landscape is that any true believer can come along and bend an entire party to focus on its pet issue by simply cutting a $100 million check. The Kochs read a bunch of dumb radical libertarian books, and because they’re rich, the entire Republican party has to play book-club with them. Sheldon Adelson just happens to be an insane pro-Israel hawk, so the prospective presidential candidates all have to go to Las Vegas to push the party into new frontiers of pro-Israel hawkishness.

Maybe liberals give Tom Steyer a pass because his issue is climate change, but what if a liberal billionaire came around and offered $100 million dollars to candidates who supported, I don’t know, ponies? Would they think it was a good use of the Democratic Party time’s to devote an entire campaign season to talking about ponies and pony policy?

Campaign spending doesn’t corrupt politics today through what Supreme Court chief Justice John Roberts would call “quid pro quo corruption.” No, corruption would be easier to unroot if it were that simple. The problem is much more subtle. The entire political system is catering to a few billionaires and their whims, whatever they might be. This is very much about your “pocketbook,” Tom Steyer; just not in the way you might think.