Today's New York Times has a story about Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund billionaire who is planning to spend $100 million ($50 million of his own, and $50 million of other people's) in the 2014 election to support action on climate change, which in practice means electing Democrats. That would put Steyer in the big leagues, though not at the top—the network of donors established by Charles and David Koch spent at least $400 million in 2012—and it raises the question of how liberals should feel about this kind of thing. If you believe that Citizens United has been a disaster for democracy, and spectacularly wealthy people shouldn't be able to swoop in to a House or Senate race with zillions of dollars and change the outcome from what it otherwise would be, then should you be bothered?
Some conservatives will naturally charge liberals with hypocrisy for being pleased about Steyer's efforts, like this:
Fair enough. But in practical terms, Citizens United is the law of the land, and there are only two ways an election can proceed at this point: either both rich liberals and rich conservatives will attempt to buy the election, 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.
There is one interesting twist here, though. The Times article discusses some of the appeals Steyer's group has made and plans to make on the climate issue, suggesting that the group's advocacy won't stray too far from their central issue. In other words, if they're trying to help Senator Kay Hagen get re-elected in North Carolina and they find out that her opponent is a con man who steals money from widows and orphans, they won't run an ad about that, even if it might be the most effective attack on him; instead they'll stick to whatever appeals on climate they've determined are most effective. Those might help win votes for Kagen, but what if they won't win as many votes as ad showing that time her opponent kicked a puppy?
That shows how folks like the Kochs, who don't have a single issue that motivates them but are instead trying to get government to reflect a broader philosophy, have more freedom to do whatever works. Or at least whatever they think will work, which in practice is often not the same thing (that helps explain why that $400 million they spent in 2012 largely went down the drain; you may recall that despite their efforts Barack Obama is still president). On the other hand, someone like Steyer could quite reasonably decide that the best way to get some government action on climate change is just to elect Democrats, and the election itself is simply a means to that end, so the election doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with climate change. Maybe he'll end up doing that eventually, but it doesn't look like it at the moment. If he's spent all this time and money (and gotten a bunch of other people's money) because of a principled commitment to confronting climate change, he'd have a hard time justifying, to himself and his partners, running campaigns based on anything else.
So no, I don't think it's hypocritical of liberals to say that the current system stinks, but we're glad that the people we like are keeping it from being tilted too far in one direction. And if your taste for hypocrisy hasn't been sated, here's Newt Gingrich in an ad he made in 2008 demanding action on climate change, while here's Newt Gingrich yesterday demanding that John Kerry resign because he gave a speech warning of the dangers of climate change.
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