All political activity costs money. The need to pay bills is not confined to candidates running for office. Community organizing and issue campaigns too require funding. The question of who provides the funds is an important one that always arises.
But there is another concern that has to be addressed. What kind of political activity is being funded? That is important because the greater the level of political involvement at the grassroots, the deeper is the democratic content of the political system. We should be looking not only at who is providing the money, but what donors are buying.
Overwhelmingly, political contributions are used for television advertisements; large donations for citizen organizing are rare. Deepening democracy is not a priority for funders. Rather than attempting to involve and mobilize the population, their money typically is spent as if citizens were consumers to be persuaded to buy one candidate or another with their votes. Once the election season is over, they are ignored until the next marketing effort occurs, two or four years later.
A case in point is the recent news that Tom Steyer, a billionaire retired hedge fund executive, has pledged to raise $50 million from other super wealthy individuals to match his own $50 million. His goal is to run advertising campaigns for candidates who support measures that would offset global climate change.
Many environmentalists will endorse this effort. Greens have long been overwhelmingly outspent by anti-environmental special interests, such as the deep-pocketed Koch brothers. To a large extent the fact that Congress has not moved at all on climate change, and that the Obama Administration has been confined to nibbling around its edges is due to that discrepancy in candidate funding.
But there is something decidedly unsavory about Steyer's effort. If big private expenditures are bad when your opponents make them, aren't they also bad when your side does so? The New York Times quotes Fred Wertheimer, a long time advocate of campaign finance reform as saying, "this is about as far away as we can get from 'representative government.'"
But while what Wertheimer says is true, a politically more fruitful critique would be to ask whether the funds that are being advanced could better be used. They could after all be employed to underwrite grassroots organizing efforts rather than paid media advertising. They could be used to deepen citizen involvement in the politics of environmentalism. Doing so would make the United States a more politically engaged and democratic nation.
A robust grassroots environmental movement would also increase the likelihood that we would undertake a serious effort to reduce fossil fuel emissions. Citizen involvement would enable large numbers of people to understand the intractable nature of the environmental crisis and the costs required to solve the problem. Whether it is a carbon tax, emission permit trading or the funding of research and development efforts on renewables, it is the case that curbing greenhouse gases will be expensive. Unless and until the people of the country come to accept this, their support for environmentalism will be shallow and easily reversed.
Advertising is a poor vehicle to secure the deep understanding that will allow people to be willing to pay to save the earth. Television commercials on behalf of candidates will not ever emphasize the costs of effectively addressing climate change. The fear of jeopardizing the chances of victory at the polls is too great.
What environmentalism needs is a grassroots movement. Even at this late date, it has not developed one with sufficient clout to pressure Congress to do what is needed. Because that is so, it is possible to make a strong critique of Steyer's effort. By spending money to support candidates, he is neglecting the kinds of movement-building expenditures that would not only produce the most effective environmental outcome but strengthen democracy at the same time.
The aim of such expenditures should be to develop a population that possesses a sufficiently sophisticated understanding of the danger of climate change to be willing to make sacrifices for the environment. That level of sophistication can be achieved if citizens are encouraged to take matters into their own hands by actively engaging in a social movement. The context of a social movement is similar to what can happen in the most effective classrooms. Learning there occurs best when students become active participants and make the subject at hand their own. The same is true with regard to the formation of attitudes concerning public policy. Environmentalism requires a deeper understanding of what is at stake than the people in this country currently possess. And television advertising will not get the job done.
There is no conflict in using money both to deepen democracy and advance a climate change agenda. The vast sums of money earmarked to support environmentally friendly candidates could better be used to fund grassroots organizing. Only the latter will sustain the effort to be good stewards of the earth when the costs of doing so become clear.