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Spending $100m to Save the Planet is a Bad Thing For 'Sugar Daddy' Politics

Don’t believe Tom Steyer and his liberal Super Pac’s push for climate change: donor-doers aren’t doing democracy any good.

An ad opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and produced by Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action was pulled by NBC just before President Obama's appearance on the Tonight Show last summer Photograph: LM Otero / AP

Move over, Koch brothers. Clear some room, Sheldon Adelson and George Soros. There’s a new billionaire activist on the block. His name is Tom Steyer, and he’s a former hedge fund guru turned environmental activist who  believes that, like the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, combating man-made climate change is the challenge of our time, “the issue we’ll get measured by as a country and a generation”.

On Tuesday,  the New York Times reported that Steyer, who is worth an estimated $1.5bn, plans to spend $100m ( or more) during the 2014 US midterm elections. And he plans to spend all of it demanding that state and federal legislators take action to slow the rapid warming of the planet. It is by far the biggest single-person, single-issue commitment in the crooked recent history of campaign finance, and politicians who deny the science of climate change or block Steyer’s efforts can expect a blitz of negative ads from his organization. For the Republican Party, the 56-year-old Steyer is the next liberal bogeyman, the heir to Soros. For the environmental movement, he’s the new Daddy Warbucks.

Steyer, like many of his fellow liberal mega-donors, bemoans the political playing field left in the wake of Citizens United and other court decisions, in which an astronomically wealthy few people can freely raise and spend millions. Billions, even. But he refuses to sit on the sidelines, accepting – if not exactly embracing – the new game. If you’re a “ dark money” reporter like me, you hear it all the time from the left: I hateCitizens United, but I’ll play by the rules until the rules change.

But until that day, Steyer and his fellow “donor-doers”, as they call themselves, are set to inflict real damage on our democracy. Trust in government can’t go much lower, but if the political arena becomes a billionaire’s playground, dominated by the voices and interests of a handful of 1-percenters, we may see just how low the public’s trust can go. If you think your congressman is “bought and sold” now, wait until his reelection depends on a Super Pac paid for ... by one person.

Environmentalists, of course, could use the reinforcements. Robert Brulle, a professor of sociology and environmental science at Drexel University,  calculates (pdf) that the 91 organizations comprising what he calls “the US climate change counter-movement” – the think tanks and trade associations and corporate front groups spreading misinformation about the validity of climate science – have $900m at their disposal each year. Steyer’s $100m goal – half the money his own, the rest matched by fellow donors – pales in comparison to the war chest of the fossil fuel industry and its allies.

But don’t go celebrating Tom Steyer’s quest to save the world just yet. Noble as his intentions may be, his plan to use big money to fight big money is trouble for the rest of us. Indeed, the super-donor arms war further relegates political parties to mere bit players while alienating everyday people – and at precisely the time when their voices and their involvement are needed most.

You can’t blame Steyer or Adelson for getting in the ring in a big way. Super Pacs, the steroid-injected siblings of the traditional political action committee, allow anyone with the means and inclination to dump unlimited amounts of money into state, congressional and presidential races. Want to bet the house  on your favorite horse? Or  get your daughter elected to the House of Representatives? All you need is a good lawyer plus some cash to spare, and you, too, can have your very own Super Pac. Welcome to the era of the billionaire unchained.

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