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How Big Campaign Donors Like Peter Thiel Are Pushing for a Government Shutdown

David Callahan

Why isn't anyone talking about the role of wealthy campaign donors in gridlocking Washington and precipitating a likely government shutdown?

In the standard telling, it's extreme base voters, whipped up by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, who have turned the GOP into what Paul Krugman called the "Crazy Party" on Friday. But there is another reason why hardline members of the House are pushing demands that even John Boehner won't embrace: they fear the big money on the right that is available to finance primary challenges. 

Make no mistake: a tiny group of super rich donors are as responsible for this brinksmanship as anyone else. And the fact that this cabal could help shut down the government—or, worse, trash America's credit rating—is an alarming testament to the power of money in politics. 

The Club for Growth is the central player here. It has made clear that its huge campaign war chest may be used against members of the House who don't get behind the push to defund Obamacare. This is no idle threat, and it's most menacing to members from very conservative places who have watched colleagues get primaried into oblivion. Over the past few years, the Club has financed successful primary challenges to a range of moderates. It spent $8 million in the 2010 elections and $18 million in 2012. 

Campaign records show that just a handful of contributors supply much of the Club's cash. Tech investor Peter Thiel, for example, gave the Club $2 million in 2012. Thiel is a libertarian and doesn't fit the stereotype of the fringe whackos said to be driving Washington toward a shutdown. He's a billionaire with multiple Stanford degrees who commands substantial respect in the mainstream media. 

We don't have the data to know whether Thiel has made recent donations to the Club for Growth. But his spending in 2012 helped strengthen the Club's fearsome reputation. The investor John Childs was also a huge backer to the Club in 2012 and has similarly respectable credentials, with two Ivy League degrees.

Why isn't anyone calling out people like Thiel and Childs for their role in what's happening in Washington?

The Club for Growth is the most well-known outfit that can spend millions knocking off GOP moderates. But members who don't essentially vote to shut down the government over Obamacare also face threats from Heritage Action, the political arms of the Heritage Foundation, as well as other conservative groups. And these members know that more shadowy big money could also come after them -- like, say, funds channeled through Freedom Partners, the Koch-financed operation that spent $250 million in 2012 without the media even noticing. 

As a government shutdown nears, it's important we get the story right about what is happening: Deep-pocketed donors are as guilty as anyone else for the dangerous deadlock in Washington.