Executive vice president
Dear Koch brothers:
We are entering the season where most of us will be receiving emails about your continued political perfidy, so I thought we might as well write you directly. In fact, anyone who has ever contributed any amount of money to a Democrat running for federal office, or for that matter, a number of liberal Republicans, has probably received an email warning them that “the Koch brothers” are buying the election and otherwise destroying democracy. Apparently, the way you destroy democracy is by spending your money in support of your rather public beliefs—in other words, putting your money where your mouth is. Generally in politics, one objects to a person putting their money where their mouth is, unless it is their mouth, in which case it is a matter of supporting principle.
News reports are filled with stories of billionaires who seem to have captured a politico. Several years ago, Sheldon Adelson, the gambling mogul from Las Vegas who, among other things, owns the Venetian hotel, boasted of getting former Republican U.S. House leader Tom DeLay to do his bidding. It was also revealed that he had almost single-handedly financed the 2012 presidential primary campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. And so, like the House of Borgia of old, modern-day political gladiators have their patrons.
The New York Times and the Miami Herald have carried stories to the effect that Sen. Marco Rubio has as his patron a billionaire by the name of Norman Braman. In this telling, Sen. Rubio’s patron has already spent approximately $10 million for the senator’s pursuit of the White House.
Not to be outdone on either the political or personal fortune level, pundits will have a field day kicking around the various sources of finance institutionalized in the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Initiative. The New York Times, no doubt to temper its later endorsement for president, has, to some degree, led the attack on various funding to those nonprofit entities. We can expect a great deal more of this type of coverage.
Academics have jumped into this bashing of the billionaires as patrons of politicians. And in a way, who should know better than those beneficiaries of foundations and billionaires than the professorship? Professor Martin Gilens from Princeton and Professor Benjamin Page from Northwestern University have just published a much-reported study, which basically shows that policy changes in Congress supported by economic elites became law approximately 60 or 70 percent of the time, and policies supported by business lobbies also became law 60 to 70 percent of the time, but policy changes favored only by voters became law approximately 30 percent of the time. This, it is alleged, represents an un-American corruption of democracy and a failure of government.
But what is American is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. And it is this bulwark against the censorious among us that is frequently under attack. Most so-called campaign finance laws are ultimately struck down when they get to a court precisely because they restrict freedom of speech. Politicians who are honest about trying to change this system generally advocate amending the Constitution to achieve that result. Amending the U.S. Constitution is a spectacularly bad idea, but in any event, it takes decades to achieve, so the advocating politician’s election (and, they hope, reelection) is not affected. But there is a deeper hypocrisy here.
Many of the very same people who wish to pass restrictions on freedom of expression also want the government to get inexorably larger. When the government impacts one-third of the entire economy, it’s not unreasonable that a third of that economy will impact the government. In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates was quite proud of the fact that the company employed no lobbyists in Washington. Microsoft got large, and the government instituted an ill-advised antitrust action against Microsoft; Microsoft added battalions of lobbyists.
If you have a large state apparatus, there will be many who see it in their economic self-interest to be deeply involved in the political process. Simple as that.
There are those who believe all campaigns should be financed by the government. In a way, this is kind of the ultimate leviathan—the government becomes so big that it ends up swallowing its own tail and becoming its own lobbyist. Or as I recall Gene McCarthy once testified, “putting the Exchequer in charge of the Exchequer is a bad idea.”
For a good idea, if one is really serious about fighting the Koch brothers and other billionaire patrons, one should look to the experience of Great Britain. Great Britain just had a national election. It lasted six weeks. There were no political advertisements on television and the total cost was approximately $50 million. Short political campaigns vastly reduce the amount of money needed to run them. Something to ponder from across the pond.
Lastly, there are a lot of ways to raise, for example, $1 million for a political candidate. One patron can give a million dollars. Or 10,000 voters can give $100. And with crowdsourcing and social media, the latter is pretty easy and inexpensive.
Meanwhile, while the Koch brothers continue to subvert our political process by writing their checks in support of their views, I hope they continue to employ tens of thousands of people, some of them in Minnesota, in producing Dixie cups, Brawny paper towels and all the other products that we enjoy from Georgia-Pacific.
Vance K. Opperman
In Favor of More
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.