Billionaire Tom Steyer’s entrance into the 2020 Democratic race is the perfect example of the rot at the core of the US political system

  • Tom Steyer entered the 2020 Democratic presidential race on Tuesday, pledging to spend $100 million on his campaign.
  • Steyer adds nothing to the 2020 race, but he can stick around because of his wealth. That is a problem and an indictment of the US political system.
  • Steyer should use that money for any number of other worthy political causes.
  • Sam Adler-Bell is a freelance writer in New York who has written for The New Republic, The Intercept, and other publications. He cohosts the podcast “Know Your Enemy.”
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

I wanted to see what Tom Steyer had to say. What had compelled the 62-year-old California hedge fund billionaire to announce his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination?

I searched him on YouTube. My stomach turned. I clicked on the first few videos and listened to the blandly inoffensive patter of a man who seemed as if he had never been told, really told, “no” deliver a focus-group-tested missive about unaccountable elites, corporate influence, impending climate calamity, and a system rigged against regular people – offering nothing at all that hasn’t been more eloquently covered by better messengers like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Above the din of cable panel speculation about his influence on the already-packed field, about how this decision fits in with his ongoing, ham-fisted campaign to impeach the president, and the irresistible narrative symmetry between this billionaire, non-politician’s idiosyncratic campaign and Trump’s insurgency in 2016, one message rang through Tuesday’s announcement loud and clear: Tom Steyer is running for president because he can.

I’ve written before that one of the greatest problems facing this country is a dearth of skepticism toward the extremely rich. Very rich people do not experience life – the tangled web of mutual obligation and care that makes working-class life possible – in the same way as us.

Really think about this: If for years someone is never subject to the will of another, compelled by the experience of scarcity, coerced by want, that person has been deprived of the human experience from which an ethic of mutuality, a capacity for empathy, grows.

Rich people tend to be less generous than poorer people. And the very wealthy are limited in their ability to comprehend the lived experience of others. Being a billionaire – a liberal one like Tom Steyer or a wannabe authoritarian like Donald Trump – should in and of itself be disqualifying for higher office, much less the presidency.

That a single man has the capacity to shift the political landscape around himself at a whim for the simple reason that he has been prodigiously successful at extracting profit from the labor of others is perhaps the greatest indictment possible of our rotted-out political system.

Steyer has promised to spend $100 million on this endeavor, which has generously been described as a “vanity project” but could less generously be called an “elaborate wealth transfer from one extremely rich individual to a tiny cluster of political consultants and advertisers.”

That figure – $100 million – exceeds the total second-quarter fundraising haul of the 2020 Democratic contenders Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Warren, and Sanders combined. It’s about half as much as Hillary Clinton spent on her entire 2016 primary campaign.

This farce becomes more perplexing when you listen closely the Steyer’s pitch.

“I think that people believe the corporations have bought the democracy,” he says in rolled-up sleeves before a backdrop that appears to be the inside of a barn. “That the politicians don’t care about or respect them. Don’t put them first, don’t respect them, are actually working for the people who have rigged the system. Really what we’re trying to do is make democracy work by pushing power down to the people.”

Let’s just leave aside the hypocrisy of running on a campaign-finance-reform message while buying your way into a presidential race that doesn’t need you. But if Steyer wanted to “push power down to the people,” I can think of thousands of better ways to do that with $100 million.

As many have said, a massive voter-registration campaign would be an undeniably beneficial use of the vast treasure Steyer has sitting in his accounts.

Funding campaigns and litigation to fight the GOP’s crusade against universal suffrage would be another. Even just saving the money to spend on down-ballot elections, as Steyer helpfully did in the 2018 midterms, would be an infinitely better and more principled use of his wealth.

It gets worse. “If this is a banana republic with a few very, very rich people, and everybody else living in misery, that’s a failure,” says Steyer, as images of Donald Trump Jr., Jeffrey Epstein, and a Flint, Michigan, water plant flicker across the screen.

The possibility of Steyer’s egregious success is evidence of a deep perversity in our political economy. His ability to sit in a barn and deliver an entirely superfluous message to the American people – to waste millions of dollars on nothing – is a direct consequence of the system he apparently condemns.

How does Steyer square the blatant disconnect? Well, for one, he’s careful to talk mostly about the influence of corporations and not wealthy individuals. But this is a distinction without significant difference. “Corporations only care about making money,” Steyer says. “If you give them the unlimited ability to participate in politics, it will skew everything because they only care about profits.”

If moneyed interests should not have unlimited ability to participate in politics, if the nation shouldn’t turn its head in the direction of whichever rich person decides to spit out a stump speech on a Tuesday morning, and if any of the problems Steyer apparently laments about American politics are going to be fixed, people like Tom Steyer need, once and for all, to go home.