The 2020 presidential death march, I mean presidential campaign, ground on Thursday night with yet another debate. Despite it being hosted by the snoozefest publications PBS and Politico, it turned out to be the most interesting and substantive debate so far, by a wide margin. There was the longest discussion of climate change we've seen, and some interesting arguments about foreign policy. The most disputatious moment, however, was about campaign finance. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders attacked Pete Buttigieg over his gigantic big-dollar fundraising, and even Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar joined in the scrum. (It appears many of the candidates find Buttigieg as obnoxious as the online left does.)
In response, Buttigieg endorsed political corruption, arguing that it was good to rake in tens of millions of dollars from American oligarchs. It's a false argument, and a horrible look for a 2020 Democratic candidate.
The fight started when Warren criticized Buttigieg over big-dollar fundraising, referencing especially his infamous recent "wine cave" fundraiser with $900-per-bottle wine service. "Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States," she said. Buttigieg responded first with a tu quoque, arguing that because Warren herself is modestly wealthy, she is a hypocrite for refusing corporate outside spending. "This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass ... If I pledge never to be in the company of a progressive Democratic donor, I couldn't be up here."
Buttigieg then went on to argue that taking big checks from the billionaire class is fine, actually: "If you decided to go to [his campaign website] and give the maximum allowable by law, $2,800 would that pollute my campaign because it came from a wealthy person? No, I would be glad to have that support! We need the support from everybody who is committed to helping us defeat Donald Trump."
This is risible nonsense that undermines years of progressive organizing. To start with, Warren is a candidate, not a business owner or a special interest lobbyist. Moreover, while she is considerably wealthier than the average American, she is not remotely in the same time zone as the real oligarch class. Buttigieg claimed that Warren has 100 times his wealth. That is just possibly true, as Warren has a quite considerable $8.75 million. But Bill Gates, the world's richest man, has 12,229 times as much wealth as she does. It's ridiculous to suggest that she is in the same category as CEOs and Wall Street bankers — and furthermore, the only reason Buttigieg is so "poor" is because he's young and hence not sitting on decades of fat profits from consulting and lobbying gigs that are assuredly already waiting for him. When he is Warren's age, Buttigieg will unquestionably be rich beyond the dreams of avarice.
More importantly, Buttigieg casually skates past reams of evidence and argument about the festering cancer of money in politics. For instance, the Citizens United Supreme Court decision released a flood tide of money into American politics — indeed, as economist Thomas Philippon writes in his book The Great Reversal, there is today fully 50 times as much political campaign spending in the United States as in comparable European countries, and the top 0.01 percent of U.S. donors account for 40 percent of all spending.
Are we really to think that wealthy Americans are not getting something for all that money — or that Europe's far more restrictive regulations on political spending have nothing at all to do with their more equal economies? Please.
But direct bribery isn't even the major mechanism by which oligarch money bends politics. Instead it is what might be called the economy of influence, which works through campaign cash channels, institutions, jobs, and so on which reward people who toe the billionaire line. Everything is technically deniable and aboveboard — it's just pure coincidence, they say, that the candidates who get the money, and the post-career buckraking and lobbying gigs, are the same ones who will never challenge the power of the oligarch class. Eventually oligarchs don't even have to ask; ambitious young strivers internalize the values they must hold to become rich. (This is how you create Mayor Petes in the laboratory.)
Indeed, Buttigieg is following a well-trodden path of centrist Democratic sellouts before him. He has already reportedly dropped more ambitious reforms like packing the Supreme Court or getting rid of the Electoral College on the advice of the big money, and his attacks on left-wing policy are being heard loud and clear. As Matt Stoller explains, "You say we want to do the same thing as the progressive with the idea, that there is no difference in values. Then you come up with this pedantic disagreement which basically tells the elites that you won’t do it."
There are a few billionaires who claim to be progressive. But even they tend to be reactionary on questions of taxes and regulation, for the obvious reason that those threaten their gargantuan dragon hoards. That is why Sanders (alone among Democratic 2020 candidates) has refused all donations from billionaires — to send a signal that he is really serious about taking on their power. It's part of a general campaign to break the billionaire stranglehold over the political system. Buttigieg's message that he will take oligarch money while simultaneously attacking the universal benefits and high taxes oligarchs hate, by contrast, speaks for itself. He's been bought and sold.
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