The Paradoxical Anti-Keystone Billionaire

The role of wealth in politics, and in particular wealth derived from corporate sources, has reared its head again. It was recently reported that a US billionare is throwing a $5,000 per person fundraiser for President Obama. And it’s no secret that said billionaire, Tom Steyer, is an opponent of the Keystone XL pipeline, and is likely to use the opportunity to press Obama not to approve Keystone.

This story is noteworthy for a couple of reasons, beyond the mere fact that some pretty heavy hitters are weighing in on the Keystone issue.

The first of course is that Steyer himself made much of his money in oil. In particular, he was founder of Farallon Capital Management, and reportedly left the fund — “which had invested in a range of oil and pipeline companies, including BP, Nexen and Kinder Morgan, as well as an oil-carrying railway” — because those investments were at odds with his new-found environmental commitments.

It’s also interesting to wonder what psychological and moral tension created for the American left by the involvement of Steyer — a billionaire — in trying to influence policy. Not that there’s anything unusual about the rich trying to flex their muscles. But Steyer embodies something of a value conflict for the American left. Opposition to Keystone, after all, has come primarily from the left. But so has opposition to what is seen as the growing influence of wealth in American politics.

So it’s tempting to poke fun, here. What must be going through the minds of those who are both opposed to Keystone and opposed to the wealthy having disproportionate influence in politics? Can someone who went ballistic over the Citizens United decision really be happy to see a rich guy like Steyer using his wealth (and his wealthy friends) to try to influence the president? Of course it helps that Steyer is associated only with companies most Americans have never heard of. So when Americans hear that a rich guy is hosting a fundraiser for the president, at least it’s not a rich guy from General Motors, or from Walmart, or from Goldman Sachs. That would raise worries not just about the role of wealth in politics, but of specifically corporate wealth. But of course, Steyer’s wealth didn’t exactly come from running a successful paper route after school, or selling organic apples at the local farmer’s market. But for opponents of Keystone, at least he’s on the right side. So in effect what you have is a sort of Bruce Wayne figure, the billionaire businessman with a heart (not to mention wallet) of gold.

But the important lesson, here, isn’t about the role of wealth in politics. It’s about ideology. It is attractive — but a mistake — to believe that all points of view that are in any way ‘anti-business’ have to hang together. It is entirely consistent to want environmentalists to win over industrialists in matters of pipeline approval, and yet share a widely-held ambivalence about the pronounced role that the wealthy will inevitably play in shaping that debate. And it is dangerously polarizing to assume otherwise.

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