On Campaign Finance: Tom Steyer Gets It

Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer talks about how we can get Americans to "think green" at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in 2012.
Billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer talks about how we can get Americans to “think green” at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in 2012.

By Joseph Plummer

After announcing his presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders was able to raise over $1.5 million in 24 hours. Similarly, Sens. Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul were all able to raise over $1 million very quickly for their presidential bids. That is a lot of money. But it is a tiny fraction of the percentage that will likely be spent on the 2016 election. The total cost of elections in the United States has more than doubled from $3.1 billion in 2000 to $6.3 billion in 2012, according to data from the Federal Election Commission.

Money is a good thing. It allows us to function as a society. Money is simply a representation of value. Everything in the universe has a value. Things can have positive value or negative value. For example, sandwiches have a positive value, and diseases have a negative value. We pay to have sandwiches, and we pay to not have diseases. Likewise, we can assign a value to having someone represent us as an elected official. Or, we could assign a value to preventing someone from representing us as an elected official.

Assigning a “willingness to pay” value for or against a candidate for public office is a useful exercise in understanding how much support a candidate has. For example, we could give everyone 100 fake dollars to either support or oppose two candidates, and this would give us a good indication of which candidate is most likely to be able to lead, or perhaps which candidate is most respected. But, this isn’t what we are talking about when we talk about money and politics.

It is no mystery why we have money in politics. It is similar to the reason lawyers exist. Why do lawyers exist? Because, lawyers exist. In other words, the reason we have money in politics is to compete or battle with the other side. In a recent interview, billionaire Tom Steyer explained this logic perfectly: “There is an immense amount of money on the other side, and as long as this is the system which the Supreme Court has put in place, there’s got to be somebody on our side.” This logic makes sense. And, in the context of the climate conversation in politics, this strategy is likely necessary for progress.

Tom Steyer contributed over $65 million of his own money to support climate candidates and climate conversation in the 2014 election cycle. If you are like me, you probably just had a knee-jerk reaction to learning that a climate activist billionaire spent tens of millions of dollars on politics instead of things like solar panels or wind turbines. That is how we should react to that kind of money in politics. There is something that should make us uncomfortable about billionaires exerting influence on the democratic process. But, we should also recognize that what Tom Steyer is doing is not motivated by greed or self-interest. It is important for us to think about the motivations of individuals and organizations that are trying to exert influence on our democracy.

There will always be money spent to influence the masses (think: Super Bowl ads). And, it is very easy for those ads to be politically charged. What money will never be able to do is buy your vote. You can run the highest production-value campaign in world history and still not get the votes you need to win. This is the beauty of democracy.

To address climate change, we should consider this strategy of climate activist billionaires spending money on political campaigns. Of course, we want the rhetoric from these campaigns to be respectful and informative rather than the typical smearing nonsense. And, we want those climate activist billionaires to spend similar amounts of money on non-political grassroots and capacity-building efforts at the same time. This is something that Tom Steyer has done well through his TomKat Charitable Trust.

We need immediate high-level climate policies, though, which means we need elected officials that are climate activists. Taking money out of politics is likely not a silver bullet. In fact, it is likely not even possible as money will always be something that is used to influence, even if it is under the guise of something non-political. We want to see candidates run low-cost campaigns. We want to see climate activist billionaires spend millions on things like education, installations, research and development, convening, new finance models, and capacity building efforts. But right now, we need climate activists in public office. And, that means spending some money to help climate candidates make their case during election season.

Image credit: Flickr/Fortune Live Media

Joseph Plummer is a degree candidate in the Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program at Virginia Tech, expecting to graduate in May 2016. He currently works for a nonprofit organization that works with schools and school districts on renewable energy and sustainability initiatives.

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