News of billionaire Tom Steyer's plan to spend $100 million to elect pro-environment candidates provoked some interesting reactions on both the left and right. New York Times editorial board member David Firestone lamented, "Big money pollutes politics whether it comes from the Koch brothers...or from Mr. Steyer and his liberal friends." The Guardian's Andy Kroll tut-tutted that Steyer's "big money" will "alienat[e] everyday people...at precisely the time when their voices and their involvement are needed most."
Conservatives, normally champions of the notion that campaign money is a glorious exercise of one's First Amendment rights, accused President Obama of delaying approval of the Keystone pipeline to stay on the right side of Steyer's checkbook.
Also this month, prior to Steyer's announcement, liberals were stoking the usual panic about the free-spending Kochs, following a Washington Post scoop that the libertarian brothers have already spent $27 million on the upcoming midterm elections.
All of this should shock precisely no one. There is money in politics. There has always been money in politics. There will always be money in politics.
As President William McKinley's campaign manager Mark Hanna said in 1896, "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can't remember the second." That year the business-backed McKinley outspent the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan 12-to-1 to win the presidency.
But the populists had the last laugh. McKinley's re-election and subsequent assassination brought the trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt to the White House, ending the Gilded Age and ushering in a Progressive Era that big money was unable to stop.
The ideological whiplash from over 100 years ago reminds us that despite the long-standing role of money in our democracy, the game is not fundamentally rigged. The political pendulum still swings in favor of non-moneyed interests.
This is not to say that money is meaningless. Obviously the country's plutocrats carry disproportionate political influence. Politics favors the organized, and money often helps buy organization.
The question is what citizens in a democracy should do about this situation. Do we try to change the process, and legislate campaign money out of the system? Or do we do our damnedest to win policy fights within the process we have?
Of course, we could do both. But some on the left myopically believe that nothing is possible until campaign cash is eradicated. For example, Michael Moore once pledged to support only those candidates who prioritize passing a constitutional amendment to ban private money in politics, saying, "Nothing — and I mean NOTHING — we want to accomplish, from creating jobs to protecting the environment to preventing wars, will happen as long as those who hold the purse strings are the ones who own our Congress."
Not true. Despite governing in a time of weak campaign finance regulations, President Obama secured a historic expansion of health coverage and huge investments in renewable energy, while increasing regulation of the banking, food, and auto industries. And now he has the coal and utility industries in his sights, as the EPA will soon issue major regulations to cut carbon emissions.
Conversely, advancements in campaign finance reform often did not yield the result advocates might have expected.
The liberal campaign finance limits of 1974 couldn't stop the wealthiest from propelling Ronald Reagan to the White House in 1980. George W. Bush raised $350 million more in 2004 than in 2000, despite the McCain-Feingold law being passed in the interim. And while conservative opponents of campaign finance regulations won a historic victory with the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, they found that newly legalized anonymous corporate cash couldn't stop Barack Obama's re-election in 2012.
Supporters of campaign finance regulations can argue that past reforms simply weren't comprehensive enough to make a difference. But as long as Citizens United is in place, the whole debate is moot. Any attempt to impose strict campaign finance regulations has nowhere to go. Winning the super-majority support for a constitutional amendment in our politically divided country has no chance. Reformers can't do much but hope for a conservative justice to depart on Obama's watch.
But ultimately, as I previously argued in a New York Times op-ed, even if Citizens United could be wished away, money would still be in politics at the time when it mattered most. Even if corporations couldn't spend on elections, they "can and will spend freely during the legislative process. And when they are unified, they have the resources to dominate debate."
Nothing short of altering the First Amendment can change that fact.
And yet we've still managed to enact Social Security and block attempts to dismantle it and hand it over to Wall Street. We've managed to create Medicare and the Affordable Care Act. We've managed to clean our air and water, and we are making progress on protecting the climate.
Why? Because successful politicians and activists were willing to engage in an imperfect process, organize at the grassroots level, bargain with and divide corporate interests, and make compelling arguments to the public.
Both Steyer and the Kochs are getting in the arena and trying to win the argument. They have more money than most of you. It's not fair. But life's not fair. Get over it, and get in the game.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Chuck Hagel was a huge mistake
- 5 quick things you can do today to boost your creativity
- What would it take for humans to build a settlement on Mars?
- Want to eliminate the scourge of frat culture? Lower the drinking age.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- It's official: The religious right is calling it quits
- Why we gossip, according to science
- Yes, the Obama administration's green loans are unprofitable. They should be.
- Obama just kneecapped Jeb Bush and Chris Christie's 2016 prospects
Subscribe to the Week