Tom Wolf Is the Future of Politics

A Supreme Court decision means candidates will be defined by their access to money.


We’re just a few weeks out from the Democratic primary election in Pennsylvania, and two should-be contradictory facts appear to be completely true:

• Barring a disaster, Tom Wolf will win the Democratic nomination for governor, and win big. A new poll this week showed him leading the pack with 33 percent support — which doesn’t sound like much until you realize the closest competition commands just 7 percent support.

• We still don’t really know that much about what kind of candidate he is.

Oh, sure, we know he drives a Jeep. We know he’s run the family business, and that the business shares profits with employees. And we know those things because Wolf has used his personal fortune to put commercials on TV a lot earlier — and certainly more often — than his competitors. But aside from TV time, can you say what differentiates Wolf from his competitors?

More specifically: Can you name three policy differences between Wolf and Allyson Schwartz, the one-time putative front-runner in this race? Can you, without Googling, name the most important government position Wolf held before this race?


The point here isn’t to bash Tom Wolf or say he’s a bad candidate; I’ve talked to him and he seems more thoughtful and less relentlessly on-message than many politicians, which is something of a relief.

But our political future probably holds a lot more Tom Wolfs: Candidates whose defining feature is a big pile of money — although, in most cases, it won’t be their own money.

The Supreme Court, you may have heard, this week struck down federal limits on how much an individual can donate to political candidates and party committees during a single election cycle. Coming after the Citizens United ruling a couple of years ago, it now seems that it’s only a matter of time before all limits are overturned: After all, the argument is that money equals speech. And that the First Amendment says the right to speak freely shall not be abridged. The logical result is that any limits on political money are unconstitutional.

Which means it’s going to be easier and easier for big campaign donors to foist their choices on the rest of us.

Big money always has played a role in swaying our elections — think of Philly’s infamous “walking around” money (aka WAM), and certainly Tom Corbett wouldn’t be our current governor without a little help from his friends — but the limits kept expenses somewhat tied to the real world. The limits meant that campaign fund-raising could be read, somewhat plausibly, as a proxy for a candidate’s actual popularity and real-world election prospects. As those limits disappear, though, all a candidate will need is a fortune — their own, or someone else’s — to flood the airwaves and push their way past other contenders. Which is great only if you consider wealth (or the ability to successfully glad-hand wealthy people) to be a reasonable sign of governing capably. I’m skeptical.

The court’s logic is ostensibly designed to maximize freedom — who could possibly be against free speech? — but what it really does is put the Constitution in the service of something akin to the “heckler’s veto.” Call it the Plutocrat’s Veto: Rich political donors don’t have to actually silence us to make our freedom of speech less valuable and vital; all they have to do is drown us out with sheer volume. That’s exactly what they’ll do.

Before, money mattered in politics. A lot. We’re about to find out if it’s the only thing that matters. That’s different. Good luck keeping our democracy in the process.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.