As he demonstrated at his Impeach Trump town hall meeting last week at Beatnik Studios in Sacramento, billionaire activist Tom Steyer is extremely articulate, well-versed on issues, can easily take softball questions, and has a strong presence.
While there are many articulate people who are well-versed on issues, there are few articulate, well-versed, politically ambitious billionaires. That’s why Tom Steyer is a force. It’s a little like the old joke: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? Anywhere they want. This joke explains much about 21st century American politics.
Democratic and Republican analysts agree that a serious campaign to impeach Trump will rally the Republican base and be controversial among Democrats. The end result is that it will help Republican candidates. That is why most Democratic candidates are not on board.
And yet Tom Steyer is. And that only matters because he is a billionaire. Steyer is putting his money where his mouth is, spending $40 million on television ads urging Congress to impeach Trump.
His ads, like his town hall meeting, put much of the focus on Tom Steyer. At Beatnik Studios, about half of the messaging focused on Trump’s impeachment. The other half was on Steyer’s vision for America. It was an impressive vision of higher taxes on the rich, stronger environmental laws and a whole list of progressive agenda items.
But there were no Democratic leaders present. In fact, there was not a single elected official or labor leader at the event. It was the Tom Steyer show. I felt like an extra in a television show. The goal, it seemed, was to provide live footage for the video.
Clearly Steyer is ambitious, and we live in a time when a billionaire without any previous experience can become president of the United States, or mayor of New York. So one has to take Steyer seriously, just as we have to take the Koch brothers and their fellow right-wing billionaires seriously as they pour hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns nationwide.
This power that billionaires have on the left and on the right scares me. I hope it doesn’t come down to a choice of which billionaire to support.
That said, I am not that crazy about the current process for non-billionaires running for office either. Most political candidates spend hours and hours—often literally most of their time—raising money for their campaigns. This reminds me of author Michael Pollan’s insight into the evolution of canines in America. Pollen explains that dogs have filled the companionship niche for humans, while humans provide shelter, food and protection—we even pick up their poop. There used to be equivalent numbers of wolves and dogs on the continent, but now wolves have nearly been wiped out while their domesticated cousins have flourished.
The money these candidates raise will be used to pay their political consultants’ enormous salaries to run their expensive campaigns. But are the consultants working for the candidates, or are the candidates providing shelter, food and protection for them? As any political observer will tell you: No one is picking up the poop.
Which should we choose: The billionaire candidate or the fundraising candidate without time to actually govern? Neither is a great option for our democracy.