If money is the root of all political evil, can liberal money still be pure? If your name is Tom Steyer, the billionaire liberal environmental extremist, the answer is obvious. Steyer and other liberal donors are cracking the whip on President Obama to ensure that he doesn’t stray off the left-wing reservation even if it means approving a project that would boost the economy and U.S. energy independence. Steyer’s pledge to pour $100 million into the 2014 midterm elections was enough to influence the administration’s decision to stall the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline even though a State Department report debunked the claims that it would damage the environment. But don’t you dare compare Steyer to the conservative donors that are trying to do the same thing on the right.
In a C-Span interview previewed at Politico, Steyer is at pains to try and draw a distinction between his efforts and those of the Koch brothers, the conservatives who have become the centerpiece of liberal talking points this year in an effort to distract voters from the failures of the Obama administration. As far as Steyer is concerned, people who give to conservative causes and candidates just aren’t on the same moral plane as people who share his politics. While the Kochs are playing the same game by the same rules and merely attempting to speak up for their principles, Steyer isn’t willing to extend them the courtesy he demands for his own efforts, even when they constitute nothing less than a bribe to force the president to spike a project that is clearly in the national interest. But in doing so, he is illustrating not only his hypocrisy but also the real cancer that is eating away at the core of the American political system.
Steyer’s self-regard and contempt for the Kochs is blatantly hypocritical, especially since he and the members of the chattering class that share his liberal ideology like to pretend that politics can only be pure once it is purged of money. But while this quote can be merely filed away along with innumerable other instances of left-wing cynicism, it tells us far more about what is wrong with American politics in 2014 than the usual bromides we hear about the baleful influence of the Tea Party. Having invested heavily in the meme that income inequality is the top problem facing the nation, the Democrats have made the Kochs and other conservative donors such as Sheldon Adelson the centerpieces of their current demonization project. But in dismissing the apt comparison between his activities and those of his counterparts on the right, Steyer is not merely demonstrating the kind of chutzpah that perhaps only a billionaire can get away with. Steyer’s comments reflect the basic divide between left and right in that he thinks the difference between the two parties isn’t so much an argument about policy as it is one between good and evil.
From 2008 through President Obama’s successful reelection campaign, Democrats concentrated on demonizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney as the font of all American political evil. In Obama’s sixth year in office, that well has finally run dry and the president has sought to revive his scandal-plagued second term by substituting conservative big givers like the Kochs and Adelson for Bush And Cheney. Given that even these enormously wealthy men have little ability to influence policy in the age of Obama this is, at best, a stretch even for most liberals who know that their money wasn’t enough to alter the political balance in 2012.
But the defamation campaign aimed at the Kochs is especially tough to swallow once you realize that the Democrats appear to be far more dependent on Steyer and his cohorts than anyone in the GOP is on either the libertarian brothers or Adelson.
Steyer’s attempt to tar the Kochs as self-interested in the interview is easily dismissed. The billionaire brothers are hard-core libertarians and have always opposed all subsidies for business even when they might potentially help any of the enterprises they own. The same goes for Adelson, who has devoted himself to opposing the spread of legal gambling on the Internet even when most of his colleagues in the gaming industry are cheering that prospect. For better or worse, they are ideologues that prize principles even over the potential to reap extra profits via the kind of crony capitalist schemes that have been a hallmark of Obama administration programs.
But by trying to draw a distinction between conservative giving and the ways his money has been used to hammer the administration into opposing a vital project like Keystone, Steyer is demonstrating the contempt for democracy that is at the heart of modern liberalism. For such people, those who oppose their ideology can’t be opposed in a spirit of open and honest debate in which both sides are treated with respect. They must be damned as “un-American” (Reid’s epithet of choice for the Kochs) or lampooned as holding a Las Vegas auction for GOP presidential wannabes (as Adelson was in the last month even though Democratic notables flocked to Steyer’s San Francisco home just weeks earlier). Instead of looking to talk radio or the Tea Party to find the reason why politicians can’t find common ground anymore, pundits would do better to listen to Steyer and fellow liberals to discover the real reason why the partisan divide has become unbridgeable.