"We're actually in danger," Tom Steyer, one of the wealthiest people in the world told an auditorium full of Stanford students, faculty, and staff today. I was in the fourth row, fixated.
He was talking about the United States of America, under our current President -- and he was deadly serious. The old way of American democracy -- where disagreement was fine and natural, as long as all parties were patriotic, wanted what's best for the people of the country, and believed in data, objectivity, and facts -- those days are gone. What we're experiencing today is something completely different.
Steyer, whose net worth is $1.61 billion (billion, with a b) according to Forbes, founded www.NeedToImpeach.com, and has invested a few million dollars on television advertising and grassroots organizing to advance the movement to remove the president. He has almost 3 million signatures already. According to the letter he sent to members of Congress, "Donald Trump has brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice, and taken money from foreign governments. We need to impeach this dangerous president." He later adds, "Congress has impeached past presidents for far less."
He's not wrong.
Who is this guy? The Wikipedia intro says he is an "American billionaire hedge fund manager, philanthropist, environmentalist, progressive activist, and fundraiser." He also has degrees from Yale and Stanford and may run for Governor or Senator of California.
While Tom Steyer was the boss at Farallon Capital, an investment firm, he invested a lot of money in coal. He was asked today, if he could go back and do it again, knowing what he knows now, would he have made the same investments. "No," he said, shaking his head. There was a slight, awkward chuckle from the audience -- partly because Steyer is now famous for his advocacy and organizing around climate change, but partly because he had been called out.
His response struck me as honest, heartfelt, and genuine. About ten years ago, he told us, he realized that climate change was really important. "I wish I were smarter and figured it out sooner," he said. Eventually he realized that the American system of democracy, which has dealt with so many major, complex problems throughout history, was failing to solve climate change. The "loud, messy, conflictual" way of American politics, where people come together to compromise in the name of solving problems, wasn't working. He explained that we've all grown up in a fossil fuel dependent society. "The real question," he said, "is what are are we going to do about it?"
Steyer, for his part, is doing something about it. Steyer is an admitted progressive, and he puts his money where his mouth is. In 2013, he founded NextGen America, a climate advocacy organization. He's poured well over a hundred million dollars into electoral campaigns. He's trying to make an impact.
Some might ask (like today's moderator): Doesn't this just make him like a liberal version of the Koch brothers, though? Actually, no. Steyer is trying to build a better, more inclusive democracy. He's spending his money on registering more people, particularly people underrepresented in their government, to vote. He's trying to "make democracy more complete," as he told us.
I appreciated the way he spoke about money in politics, too -- he gets it. In his words: "There's no question that money in politics is completely out of control...it's a cancer." So why is he spending significant chunks of his personal wealth on politics? In his view, he had two choices: sit on the sidelines or "suck it up and spend the money." He chose the latter, and I'm grateful that he did. I'm grateful he's continuing to fight this battle.
He closed the conversation with a reminder. "Any one year, any one election, isn't going to do it. You've got to build capacity over time." I hope that all of us can remember that, well after President Trump's stay in the White House is over.