The Secret Masters
Meet the liberal billionaires who rule your world.

Billionaire Tom Steyer


Matthew Continetti

The timing of a story by the campaign-finance reporters of the New York Times, and its placement in the paper’s national edition, is fraught with meaning. Articles in which the totemic names “Koch” or “Adelson” appear have a habit of being published in the prime time of an election cycle, and share the uncanny ability to float, bubble-like, to the front page. Stories that deal with the liberal moneymen who finance the Democratic party and its affiliates, by contrast, tend to appear after the fact or when nobody is looking, and, like ballast, fall to the back of the A section, obscured by ads for Tiffany’s, Burberry, and Zegna. I wonder why.

A recent example: On the eve of Election Day 2013 the Times ran on its front page an article by John Eligon, “Koch Group Has Ambitions in Small Races,” about local chapters of the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity becoming involved in municipal politics. Fighting over bond issues and tax increases is the right of every American, including Americans who belong to organizations associated with Charles and David Koch; but the Times wants us to know that “the group has not been so welcome” in Coralville, Iowa, where the “nonpartisan campaign” for mayor “has become an informal referendum on the involvement of outsiders.” And these outside agitators, even if their financial contribution is a pittance, are trying the patience of the local bosses. The article was a free advertisement and plea for assistance on behalf of Coralville’s tax-and-spend caucus. It did its work. The left-leaning mayoral candidate won. Another outsider, Joe Biden, phoned him with congratulations the next day. Congratulations that were, no doubt, “nonpartisan.”

It was not until Election Day itself, however, that the Times thought it fit to run a much more interesting, and potentially far more damaging, story on Democratic efforts to flood New Jersey with money in order to prevent Chris Christie from making gains in the state legislature. “Big Money Flows in New Jersey Races to Thwart Christie Agenda,” by Nicholas Confessore, which also ran on the front page, is an astonishing read, not only for the scope of outside spending that it details — some $35 million, much of it from a group tied to the ethically challenged George Norcross III — but also because the story informed the country, and Republican donors, of a huge power play at precisely the moment when nothing could be done to stop it. In this sense Confessore’s piece also did its work. Only a single New Jersey Democrat lost on Election Night.

“In this new world of Citizens United,” a union official told Confessore, “you want to take advantage of all the opportunities you can to advance the candidates you want to support.” I would love to know whether the Times asked the union official whether her logic also applied to donors to Republican and conservative causes; I somehow doubt it. What cannot be doubted is that the left-wing billionaires who “want to take advantage of all the opportunities” have had a fantastic couple of years. In 2012, President Barack Obama’s campaign outraised and outspent Mitt Romney’s, and though Team Red spent more in total than Team Blue, Team Blue certainly got more for its money. A recent study by the Center for Public Integrity shows that Big Labor spent around $44 million in 38 state elections in 2012, with pro-Democratic groups outspending Republican ones by more than $8 million. And in 2013 just three billionaires — radical environmentalist Tom Steyer, outgoing New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Facebook impresario Mark Zuckerberg — have spent more than $25 million to prevent construction of the Keystone pipeline, regulate guns, and give amnesty to illegal immigrants. You and I are living, Politico says, in the “Year of the Liberal Billionaire.”

Has there been any other kind? I ask the question knowing full well that conservative and libertarian billionaires also contribute to politicians and institutions to advance their interests and ideas. But, when closely examined, the differences between the suppositions of billionaires grow somewhat thin. The consensus shared by most of the American elite is well established and long enduring and objectively liberal: a love of economic growth; rhetorical support for fiscal responsibility; a desire to play nice with others and, post Iraq, to avoid war; a belief that the benefits to the economy of comprehensive immigration reform outweigh social cohesion and the costs to low- and non-skilled native workers; an expansive interpretation of all rights, constitutional and judicial, except the right to keep and bear arms; a desire to reduce trade barriers with all nations regardless of regime or labor conditions or the costs, again, to low-skill native industries easily displaced to the other side of the world; a secular-materialist view of nature and support for its protection; and a commitment to multiculturalism and diversity in pursuit of equality.

It is one’s allegiance to these ideas, and not one’s income or the particular industry in which one works, that is the true measure of membership in the Caste. Quibbling over the edges of this worldview — over which programs to cut or expand, which taxes to lower or increase, which industries to subsidize and which to not, how best to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and power America — is a matter of means, not ends. Nor is it a question of one side working for selfish purposes and the other being devoted to a higher morality. Only the half-baked can think that particular charge withstands scrutiny. We’ve known since Plato that all human action, no matter how wrongheaded, is taken with a view toward some good; and that it is difficult for human beings, even Democrats, to separate their view of the good from their view of what’s good for them. Jeffrey Katzenberg may have aggressively pushed his candidates to back a trade deal with China because he believes free trade brings peace and prosperity to everyone involved; or he may have done it because his film studio would profit immensely from the deal; or he may have done it for both reasons, or for neither reason, or for some other reason entirely; in the end the reason does not matter because he did what he thought was good. He did what he thought was right.


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