Accelerating the Arms Race

It’s time to rejoice, fellow lefties. We have our own sugar daddy. Multi-billionaire Tom Steyer, a retired hedge-fund guru, plans to ride to the rescue with his checkbook, leveling the playing field and saving democracy in the process.

Steyer has announced that he plans to spend $50 million of his own money – with an additional $50 million he hopes will be provided by others – to “to pressure federal and state officials to enact climate change measures through a hard-edge campaign of attack ads against governors and lawmakers,” as the New York Times explains.

The plan is to inject money into a handful of races at both the federal and state levels and elect green-leaning polticians to office. Steyer, as Times reporter Nick Confessore points out, is “taking a page from the Kochs” and using his cash to bend the political curve.

Some on the left view this as leveling the playing field, and there is no doubt that current rules make supporting Steyer – and the handful of other liberal super-funders – seem the pragmatic option.

I see it as just another boulder laid atop the grave of a functioning democracy, but I also see little we can do to change the landscape in the short-term. As Paul Waldman points out at The American Prospect (, “Citizens United is the law of the land” and Steyer’s money will help balance the excesses of the Koch brothers’ money machine — $400 million spent on the 2012 elections alone.

In the era of Citizens United, Waldman said, “there are only two ways an election can proceed”: the rich “attempt to buy” them, “perhaps cancelling out each other’s efforts, or conservatives will have the field to themselves.”

“Liberals would argue that faced with two bad choices, they’ll choose the less damaging one, and the negative effects of Republican victories outweigh the moral compromise that comes from participating in the electoral billionaire auction.”

This pragmatism may seem noble given the damage that the Koch-financed conservatives do on a daily basis. But the “moral compromise,” in Waldman’s words, is not some theoretical construct. It does real damage every day, by ensuring that the only people who can play the game of American politics are the people with big bankrolls.

Rather than simply leveling the playing field, what Steyer is doing is accelerating the election-funding arms race. As Fred Wertheimer, president of campaign-finance reform group Democracy 21, told Confessore, the money is the issue.

“A small number of the richest individuals in America are attempting to use their enormous wealth to purchase government decisions to advance their own personal interests,” he said. “This is about as far away as we can get from ‘representative government.’”

Steyer seems to understand this.

“We have a democratic system, there are parts we would want to reform or change, and Citizens United is prominent in that,” Steyer told Confessore. “But we’ve accepted the world as it is.”

This is nonsense, of course. Steyer is going to spend his money on the issues of most concern to him and I am grateful that he has chosen to come down on the right side of the climate debate – opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, for instance.

But checkbook democracy is far from democratic, and anyone on the left who thinks this will end well is mistaken. The reality is that allowing massive amounts of cash to continue flooding our system means that only those with money will be in a position to determine policy.

There is a desperate need to reform the American economy. What we have now is a plutocracy that funnels the vast bulk of economic gains to a tiny fraction of Americans, while pushing the illusion that consumption equals success and turning everything and everyone into a commodity to be exploited.

Checkbook democracy is a system that equates money with political power, which means that it offers and is designed to perpetuate an inequality that has been growing unabated since the day Ronald Reagan took office. Is that something that Steyer and the rest of the new breed of liberal money men will make a priority? I don’t know. But it is hard to imagine there being a big push among the 1 percent to voluntarily change an economic system from which they have greatly benefitted.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email His blog, Channel Surfing, is at

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2014

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