Reset the old Days Without a New Democratic Presidential Candidate counter to zero: We’ve got a new one, and he’s a real special boy. Tom Steyer, the billionaire ex-hedge fund manager who founded NextGen America and Need to Impeach, is running for president.
Steyer announced his candidacy with a video posted to Twitter today:
Steyer has already had to clarify to one concerned tweeter that, unlike his fellow billionaire kinda-candidate Howard Schultz, he is running as a Democrat.
Though entering late, Steyer starts with some major advantages compared to his rivals. For one, his Need to Impeach campaign amassed an email list of eight million. An email list is worth its weight in gold (or, I guess, a lot more than that, since emails don’t weigh anything) to presidential campaigns, which fill your inbox with pleas for donations for a reason: It works.
Then again, fundraising isn’t an issue for Tom Steyer. He’s pledged to sink $100 million into his campaign, more than Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Warren and Sanders have raised so far combined. In doing so, he is unintentionally showing exactly why billionaires should not exist.
It’s already deeply warped that certain candidates can be floated by millions in donations from the richest, donations promised at closed-doors fundraisers thrown by lobbyists. It’s even more absurd that literally one super-wealthy guy can waltz into the race with more money than the rest of the top candidates have raised combined. And while Tom Steyer having the most money doesn’t mean he’ll win the race, as Jeb Bush can attest, anyone can see that it is simply unfair that one man who has amassed billions of dollars can show up and, as the New York Times put it, “instantly transform” the race through the fact of his wealth alone.
But this isn’t about it being unfair to the Process or other candidates—I’m not losing sleep over someone being unfair to Joe Biden, ever—or about breaking some kind of rule. It’s not that Tom Steyer is cheating. It’s that his obscene wealth and the accordant ability to buy his way into the political system is exactly what’s wrong with America. It’s that the existence of Tom Steyer, billionaire, is cheating. And it’s wrong.
Steyer’s campaign launch video proved he does not understand this at all. Throughout, he railed against big money in politics and corporate interests swaying the political system in their favor—while running a campaign for president that’s only made possible by the billions he amassed at his hedge fund. He doesn’t understand that this isn’t a good thing even if the billionaire with outsized influence happens to be a nice old California hippie type who just loves the environment and says the right things about the rest of the rich guys.
A quixotic billionaire campaign from the older brother from Succession might be better than, say, Exxon Mobil personified running (hey, corporations are people, right?). But Steyer doesn’t realize that he does not have the moral authority to rail against the system that created him just because he is One of the Good Billionaires. The point of democracy is representation by the people, not representation by an uber-wealthy guy who promises real hard to figure out what real people need.
In 2017, our former colleague Alex Pareene wrote this about Steyer’s Need to Impeach campaign:
It’s debatable whether Steyer is stupid enough to believe that his idiotic campaign will help do anything at all to get Donald Trump out of power, or whether he is cynically using the campaign to build name recognition and support in advance of a seemingly inevitable eventual run for senator or governor in California. It might be both. What is not debatable is whether or not Tom Steyer has too much money. He does. Democrats should promise to take most of it away from him and spend it on useful things.
Pareene’s imagination was not bleak enough to foresee Steyer using his platform to run for president, though it might perhaps be even more damaging had Steyer decided to run for Senate, where he wouldn’t have 25 rivals. But he was right: Tom Steyer has far too much money, and Democrats need to promise to relieve him of that burden.
To that point, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren—the two candidates in the race who have a fundamental critique of contemporary capitalism—should immediately and aggressively use Steyer’s candidacy to make a point. This rich guy thinks he can buy your vote, because the world is made for him, but it should be made for you. There’s no reason why a guy whose singular qualification in life is having moved money around in a particularly profitable way should be able to leapfrog ahead of everyone else. It should be just as easy for a teacher or a nurse to influence politics as it is for Tom Steyer. And you can’t trust a guy who’s benefitted so much from our sick and broken system to be the one to dismantle it.
Tom Steyer, in other words, thinks you’re an idiot. He thinks you’re dumb enough to believe that a billionaire, even a smiley one who says the right things, could be our savior. He doesn’t know that political change comes from movements of people, not rich guys who think they know all the answers. Don’t listen to him for one minute.