For the left, the Koch brothers were the big billionaire bugbears. For the right, George Soros is the main money monster. While they have received most of the attention, there are other billionaires in politics. Somewhat ironically, the Democratic race included multiple billionaires…at least for a while. Their failures provide a context in which to discuss the influence of money on politics.
Most recently Mike Bloomberg bought his way into the race, spending $500 million to buy ads and create an organization. On the face of it, Bloomberg seems to have wasted that money—he recently dropped out.
This result might lead some to conclude that claims about the power of money in politics are exaggerated. If money had great power, Bloomberg should have been able to buy the nomination. On the one hand, it is true that money is not a sufficient condition to cinch the nomination or win an election. Bloomberg seemed to have some momentum and success until his past underwent scrutiny under the eyes of today and Elizabeth Warren scored a critical hit on him during the debate. As such, it is true that one cannot simply buy a nomination for president. Otherwise Bloomberg would be the nominee.
On the other hand, a billionaire who talks seriously about running for office gets instant media attention. One who decides to run seems to automatically be taken somewhat seriously as a candidate. Compare, if you will, what happens when a billionaire declares versus what would happen if you or I made a similar declaration (assuming you are not a billionaire). Billionaires can also use their vast fortunes to purchase considerable advantages. Returning to Mike Bloomberg, he instantly became a viable candidate and he was able to buy an organization and a significant degree of success—despite jumping in the race late. Only someone with $500 million to spend could have done this—and only an extremely rich person has that much money of their own to spend as they please. True, Bloomberg did fail—but he bought his way into the race and bought an impressive level of success. He was in a position to fail because of his money and if he did not have all those past issues (or the times were different), if he did not get crushed by Warren and if he was more charismatic, then he might have secured the nomination over a failing Biden. As such, the lesson to take away from Bloomberg is not that money cannot buy the nomination, but that money can buy one a long way towards that nomination. If Bloomberg did not have that $500 million to spend, he would have not gotten nearly as far—so money seems to be a powerful factor in politics, thus giving billionaires a vast advantage over everyone else.
It could even be argued that Bloomberg will get a return on his investment. While he failed as a candidate, his main goal was to defeat Bernie Sanders and his efforts seem to have paid off—Biden has currently stopped floundering and has started winning. While it is not certain that Bloomberg was a factor here, he certainly spent lavishly trying to beat Bernie and it seems to have paid off. Bloomberg is rather concerned about what Sanders would do as president—and it would clearly not be to serve the interests of billionaires like Bloomberg.
While Bloomberg and Steyer have left the race, they still have vast sums they can spend—presumably to help Biden beat Bernie and then Trump. This raises the usual moral and practical concerns about the influence of money on politics. While I certainly support freedom of expression, this right is not an unlimited right. Just as a person does not have the right to scream their view over the voices of everyone else because they happen to be the loudest, a person does not have the right to drown out the voices of everyone else because they happen to be the richest. As such, I agree with limits on political spending for the same reason I agree on putting limits (in relevant contexts) on people screaming loudly over other people to drown out their voices. The competition should be between the content of the views, not a battle over who is the loudest or who can buy the most expression.
There is also the obvious concern that Bloomberg, Steyers and their fellows can subvert and corrupt the democratic process with their money—while they cannot simply buy the results they wish, they can influence the powerful of the party to shape how the nomination process unfolds and they can shape the policy of the party. While I would obviously not forbid any Democrat from having a role in this process, the threat presented by billionaires is clear. To use an analogy, they might not be able to buy the captain’s chair but they can certainly exert disproportional influence on who sits there and what course the ship will take.