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Thoughts for the very wealthy political donors

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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018 3:57 PM
A portrait of Bret Stephens, columnist for the New York Times, taken in New York May 9, 2017. (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

If your net worth is south of $25 million, feel free to skip today’s column. I’m writing this as an open letter to a handful of readers, distressed by the general state of our politics and disgusted by what they see on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who have the financial means to influence the outcome of elections in November and the course of the country in 2020.

Have we met? It’s possible. In 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, more than a quarter of all disclosed political donations came from just 31,385 people, or about 0.01 percent of the U.S. population. The number of truly big-money donors is much, much smaller. You could all fit comfortably between Water Mill and Southampton – or, if you prefer, Chilmark and Vineyard Haven.

My pitch is simple: The next time you meet a candidate asking for your money, start the conversation with two questions. First: “When did you last change your mind on a significant political, economic or social issue, and why?” Second (if the candidate is already in politics): “When did you vote with the other side?”

You already know that the ability to change one’s mind is a crucial mark of intelligence and maturity, whether in business or politics. You also know that at least some amount of partisan and ideological heterodoxy is good for the soul — and essential for democracy. Otherwise, what were the tributes to John McCain all about?

Yet chances are the candidate will struggle to offer compelling answers, particularly on the second question. Party-line voting in Congress increased from around 60 percent to about 90 percent between the 1970s and recent years, according to a paper by political scientists Logan Dancey and Geoffrey Sheagley. That’s despite the fact that voters hate this: “High levels of party-line voting,” the authors note, “are associated with decreased vote shares or approval ratings for legislators.”

So why is party-line voting on the rise? One big reason is misguided campaign-finance “reform” that steers political money away from parties – whose aims are to find and finance candidates who can win office, irrespective of ideology – and toward issue-advocacy groups and super PACs that demand ideological purity in exchange for support.

But another big reason is, well, you. The interesting finding from the Sunlight Foundation analysis is that big-money donors are hyper-partisans in their giving, even if they are more moderate in their general political outlook. Only a small fraction of you ever split your money between the parties; mostly, your contributions are either all-red or all-blue.

Why is that? In person, many of you are nuanced, balanced and sane in your overall political outlook, irrespective of whether you lean left or right. The problem is that you tend to care mainly about specific policy outcomes – killing the Iran deal, say, or acting on climate – and you’re willing to swallow your misgivings about the other stuff, like Donald Trump’s character or the Democrats’ Sandernista tendencies.

Sacrificed in the bargain is much concern about the tone of campaigns, the rules of politics, the process of policymaking, and ordinary considerations of collegiality and respect.

Let me ask you to think hard about the increasing cost of that bargain. A president who rages like King Lear on the heath because an op-ed in The New York Times was mean to him. Senate Democrats who cheerfully turn a Supreme Court confirmation hearing into a carnival show while they audition for the Democratic nomination. The collapse of regular order. The vanishing filibuster. The constant threat of government shutdowns. The ceaseless campaign that always comes at the expense of governance. The administrative state on which we increasingly rely to run things because elected officials can’t. The rush to the exits by the more honorable public servants.

This is the politics of maximum polarization and total paralysis, waged with the intensity of the Battle of the Somme and yielding about as much ground. Right now, you’re contributing to this. Stop.

There’s an alternative. Split more of your money between the parties. Fund candidates with proven or potential cross-party appeal. Help out politicians with scores below 100 percent from the NRA or the Sierra Club. Set up a PAC – call it SanePAC or NotNutsPAC – to help candidates facing primary challenges from the further-right or further-left. Expand the reach of purple America at the expense of deep red or deep blue.

There are political leaders who fit that description today: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in blue-state Maryland; Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in purple-state Colorado and Republican Gov. John Kasich in purple state Ohio; Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen in red-state Tennessee. Plenty of other names. You could contribute by securing their base and amplifying their national profile.

For many of you, professional and personal success has not meant getting everything you want. It’s about knowing the difference between what’s essential and what you can live without. What’s essential today is a healthier political culture, not a temporary policy win. Invest your money accordingly.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service

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