Billionaire Tom Steyer. Image: Gage Skidmore

Why Democrats Need to Be Careful About Dismissing Billionaires (and Their Money)

Watching last night’s Democratic debate, I was struck by how often the issue of billionaire donations came up. Of course, I’m not at all surprised by this development. The issue of who takes donations from billionaires — and in what circumstances — has become something of a litmus test in this campaign. After all, who can forget the infamous “wine cave” fiasco, in which Elizabeth Warren took Mayor Pete quite thoroughly to task for his willingness to cozy up to big-time donors. A similar discussion took place on the debate stage Friday night, and once again it was Mayor Pete who was taking the most fire.

To some degree, this is shrewd strategy on both Warren’s and Sanders’ part. They know that there’s a great deal of populist anger on the left (and on the right), and they hope to be able to leverage that to win the nomination. However, in so steadfastly and vigorously eschewing the contributions of the donor class, they might be painting themselves into a corner, one that might doom their candidacies should they become the party’s eventual nominee.

As Nancy MacLean documents in exhaustive and depressing detail in her book Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, we ignore the right’s financial power at our own peril. Throughout the last half of the 20th and into the 21st Centuries, men like the Koch brothers have poured truly astronomical sums of money into not only political races but also into think tanks, universities, and foundations, all of which have done a great deal to build both an intellectual and political case for unfettered capitalism in the United States. They long ago realized that the path to unlimited, unfettered capital lies not only in the controlling the levers of political power, but also in ensuring that the apparatuses of education are greased with big money.

And, of course, the ruling in Citizens United was the apotheosis of their efforts, unleashing a flood of money into American politics to a degree that is truly staggering in its volume. At every level of the ballot, from the local to the national, money talks. Money allows candidates to drown their opponents in television ads and in general operations, and while that is an unpleasant and unpalatable political reality, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a reality.

While the left isn’t nearly as replete with billionaires, there are a few, and many of these have done exemplary work helping with progressive causes and helping to get progressive candidates elected. Already, some of these people have expressed significant reservations about both a Warren and a Sanders candidacy, and while many on the left have interpreted this as a sign that those two candidates are doing something right with their message of class warfare, I am far less sanguine about this prospect.

Because the reality is that while Democrats may be willing to abide by these “no billionaires” and “no PAC” donations rules, they do so at their own peril. We’ve already seen the way that ignoring the demands of money can torpedo a campaign (see: Kamala Harris), and I really do worry that this pledge is going to come back to haunt us if either Sanders or Warren ends up becoming the nominee. Make no mistake, while we Democrats like to take the high road when it comes to these issues, Republicans have proven time and time again that they have no such moral compunction. They’ll continue to actively court the wealthy in their bids for power, and we know that they’ll use it to maximum effect.

There’s also the fact that, in 2020, Trump has the benefit of incumbency, and that means that he’s going to have a truly enormous war-chest at his command. I can’t help but think our collective leftist reticence about fighting fire with fire is going to end up getting us a second Trump term, if for no other reason than that he’s going to outspend us enormously, and in a national election — particularly one that turns so much on battleground states — that can spell the difference between winning and losing.

A better, more effective strategy, I think, would be to leverage the goodwill that certain billionaires have toward liberal causes — Tom Steyer and Mike Bloomberg are two notable examples of this type — using their enormous wealth to power the eventual nominee. Wouldn’t it make more sense, I find myself wondering, to put these resources to good use rather than spurning it? Once again, though, it seems like many of my fellows on the left are proving willing to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and I fear that, as in 2016, we are all going to pay the price for it. If the donors decide to sit out the election or support Trump (as shortsighted and petty as such a decision might be), it could very well spell our doom.

At a broader level, I personally have serious reservations about the policy proposals that call for taxing the wealthy into oblivion. Aside from the fact that such plans have next to zero chance of making their way through the Senate (and their chances in the House are similarly unclear), I can’t help but wonder whether their numbers really add up. There’s no question that proposals like the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and free college are popular at first blush, drilling down into the mechanics of it all, at least for Medicare for all, reveals a more mixed message. No matter how many billionaires you tax, sometimes it just doesn’t add up to the trillions that would be required to get these programs off the ground, let alone to allow them to function in future.

It’s very popular these days for a certain segment of the internet left to make pointed jokes about eating the rich, and I understand that sentiment. There’s no question that the wealthy have played their own outsize part in the damaging of our democracy, and I don’t want to underplay that fact. However, for better or worse they are still a key part of our political and economic landscape, and we have to be very careful about how we go about making them pay their fair share. Clearly our system of giving corporations and billionaires carte blanche to do what they like isn’t working, but I don’t think that allowing the pendulum to swing the other direction is the answer either. Burning a system down may seem appealing, but the aftermath is often not what we’d like it to be.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the left tends to act as if the world that they want is going to magically appear just because they wish it were so. Thus, they seem to think that if they demand that their candidates adhere to this “no money from billionaires” pledge that somehow this will translate into money disappearing from politics by some sort of strange alchemy. Don’t get me wrong, I wish that were so, but I long ago realized that there is a world of ideals and a world of realities, and the path from one to the other is rarely as easy or as orderly as we might like.

If we really want to make a country that’s more fair and just for everyone, we’d best learn to use all of the weapons at our disposal. In this case, we need to make sure that we leverage not only the fiery anger of the masses, but the cold, hard cash of the wealthy. If we learn how to thread that needle, we just might pull off a win in November.

Ph.D. in English | Film and TV geek | Lover of fantasy and history | Full-time writer | Feminist and queer | Liberal scold and gadfly

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