Tom Steyer, the Democrats’ Billionaire for the People?
“Citizen Kane” offers us only a glimpse or two of Charles Foster Kane’s ill-fated run for governor of New York. The most memorable is the boisterous speech that Kane, by this point a famous and well-connected newspaper publisher with an ego as large as his fortune, delivers to his supporters outlining the vaguely populist themes of his campaign. “The working man and the slum child know they can expect my best efforts in their interests,” he bellows. “The decent, ordinary citizens know that I’ll do everything in my power to protect the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed!”
After Kane’s loss, he’s confronted by an old friend, who drunkenly assesses the contradictions of his public career and his self-image as a champion of the working class. “You used to write an awful lot about the working man,” he sneers. “He’s turning into something called organized labor. You’re not going to like that one little bit when you find out it means that your working man expects something as his right, not as your gift.”
Today, a century after the progressive movement that inspired Kane and real-world patricians, class and inequality are once again at the center of American politics. Two of the leading candidates for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have pushed inequality to the center of the Party’s political discourse, levelling indictments at the millionaires and billionaires who have absorbed much of the gains that the economy has made over the past few decades and particularly post-recession. The chief villain of this narrative is now Donald Trump—the self-proclaimed populist billionaire President who got to the White House with the help of a press that both burnished and indulged his reputation as a savvy businessman worth hearing out and taking seriously. Much of the free publicity his campaign was granted can be tallied among the many complimentary perks that the wealthy are habitually offered in this country.
This week, Tom Steyer—who is not only a billionaire but one of the largest political donors in the country, having spent an estimated hundred and twenty-three million dollars on last year’s midterms—joined Sanders and Warren in the progressive lane of the Democratic primaries. Both candidates greeted his entrance coldly. “I like Tom personally,” Sanders said in an MSNBC interview, “but I do have to say—as somebody who, in this campaign, has received two million campaign contributions, averaging, I believe, nineteen dollars a person—I am a bit tired of seeing billionaires trying to buy political power.” Warren tweeted, “The Democratic primary should not be decided by billionaires, whether they’re funding Super PACs or funding themselves. The strongest Democratic nominee in the general will have a coalition that’s powered by a grassroots movement.”
To his credit, Steyer has already built a movement of sorts. His campaign to impeach Trump, publicized in ubiquitous social-media and cable-news ads, claims to have collected 8.2 million e-mail addresses. His nonprofit and political-action committee, NextGen America, registered about a quarter million young voters for the midterms last year and helped rally activists behind environmental campaigns like the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline and the effort to extend California’s cap-and-trade program. In his campaign-launch video, however, Steyer focusses on an all-encompassing fight against inequality. “We have a society that’s very unequal,” he says to the camera, “and it’s really important for people to understand that this society is connected. If this is a banana republic with a few very, very rich people and everybody else living in misery, that’s a failure.”
Sanders and Warren rail against the upper class as a whole—both individual millionaires and billionaires and the corporate world for unbalancing politics and the economy. In Steyer’s narrative, the villains are not the wealthy as a class but a malevolent set of corporations that have bought a disproportionate share of influence within our political system. “If you give them the unlimited ability to participate in politics, it will skew everything, because they only care about profits,” he says in the launch video. “I think eighty-two thousand people died last year of drug overdoses. If you think about the drug companies, the banks screwing people on their mortgages—it’s thousands of people doing what they’re paid to do. Almost every single major intractable problem, at the back of it you see a big-money interest for whom stopping progress, stopping justice, is really important to their bottom line.”
Steyer himself is a big-money interest, of course. But his campaign seems to hinge on the argument that his own wealth has bought him both political independence and courage. “I’m an outsider,” he said in a CBS interview, on Thursday. “I’ve been doing this—successfully beating the oil companies, the tobacco companies, closing tax loopholes—from the outside for ten years. I don’t believe that this failed government is going to be reformed from the inside.” This is part of the case Trump made for his own candidacy in 2016—that only he, an outsider with the privilege to jump into the political system—could drain Washington’s swamp. “Remember, I am self-funding my campaign, the only one in either party,” he tweeted in January of 2016. “I’m not controlled by lobbyists or special interests-only the U.S.A.!”
On the whole, the experience of the Trump Presidency does not inspire much confidence that wealth is a political insulator or purifier of motives. For starters, Trump only self-financed a small portion of his campaign, and ultimately took in millions from donors large and small, while also benefitting from contributions made by mega-donors like Robert Mercer and Sheldon Adelson to Trump-supporting super PACs. Trump’s wealth has not prevented his Administration from developing shady ties to some of those big donors and other special interests; his extensive business holdings, including his hotels, have, in fact, facilitated bribery in plain sight. And his populist rhetoric has been belied by a policy agenda, including a tax-cut package in 2017, that has been well in keeping with the inequality-exacerbating orthodoxy of conservative economics.
All of this has reinforced the sense that the wealthy embrace many of the policies that they do not only because some are beholden to or own this or that particular company but because the wealthy, as a class, share certain common interests. This is the locus of the distrust toward the rich that has built within the Democratic Party post-recession, the underlying suspicion behind the rise of millennial socialism and its superstars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. One of her chief policy advisers, Dan Riffle, uses the Twitter handle “Every Billionaire Is A Policy Failure.” When the New York Times asked the 2020 candidates whether anyone could truly deserve to have a billion dollars, Beto O’Rourke and Kirsten Gillibrand said no. (Sanders and Warren, a bit more cautiously, emphasized the need for the wealthy to pay their “fair share” in taxes. “My guess is when you have that, you’re not going to have too many billionaires left,” Sanders said.) As of last year, according to Gallup, a majority of Democrats do not believe that America benefits from having a class of rich people. These are the currents Steyer will be swimming against. Buying name recognition with ad dollars won’t necessarily bring him buy-in from progressives.
By odd coincidence, Steyer announced his candidacy the day that Ross Perot, a wealthy populist of a different stripe, died. A consensus has emerged among political historians and journalists that Perot’s outsider campaigns likely did not tip the outcomes of the 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns. But he did, through his fortune and reputation, help promote a particular set of ideas, particularly a rough-hewn brand of free-trade skepticism that survives to this day. Steyer might similarly influence discourse during the primary—but any wealthy politician advances, too, in their own person, another set of ideas. Steyer’s candidacy and career rest on an argument that the benevolent rich can truly be relied upon as the benefactors of the working class. Fewer and fewer Democrats agree.