Democrats are spending a lot of time criticizing Charles and David Koch these days, for a few reasons. They'd like to inoculate people against the Koch brothers' political ads, most of which are funneled through Americans for Prosperity (though it's difficult to do that when people have no idea that an AFP ad comes from the Kochs). It's also good to personify the issue of the influence of big money in identifiable individuals, particularly if those individuals are the billionaire owners of an oil company. And, as my colleague Greg Sargent has argued, it's about putting a face on policy differences between the two parties, a way of demonstrating that Democrats are the party of regular folks with an economic agenda to match, and Republicans advocate for the interests of the wealthy.
And when people ask those Democrats, "Well, don't you have your own billionaires pumping money into campaigns? How is that any different?" the Democrats reply, "It's totally different!" Do they have a case? Let's consider it.
Kenneth Vogel of Politico went to a meeting of the Democracy Alliance, a group that coordinates the contributions of a select group of wealthy liberals, mostly for the purpose of chasing after politicians and donors who didn't want to talk about what they were doing, which he could then describe in a mysterious third-person account ("Jarrett refused to make eye contact with a reporter...a handler stepped between the quick-walking mayor and a reporter...Democracy Alliance staff chastised a reporter...another grabbed this reporter's arm…"). As it happens, the DA isn't primarily oriented toward campaigns (they direct a lot of money to liberal organizations), but if you want to find the rich liberals who are playing in this area and the people who surround them, a DA meeting is the place. And Vogel gets people to give him three arguments for justifying this kind of activity even when they're criticizing the Kochs, all of which are only partly persuasive.
The first argument is that Democrats are guppies in this ocean compared to the Kochs. Which may be true—with the help of some associates, the Kochs spent at least $400 million, and probably substantially more, trying to get rid of Barack Obama in 2012. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million all by himself. But that isn't particularly relevant to the question of the propriety of Democrats' spending; if the Democratic donors wanted to spend more, the recipients of their largesse would be all too happy to accept it. Some of the DA donors don't have the ability to spend that kind of money (they're multi-millionaires, not billionaires), but others do, and just choose not to. And yes, it's true that there will always be more conservative super-rich than liberal super-rich, which puts Democrats at a disadvantage. But it isn't as though Democrats' spending is justifiable only as long as they're behind in the money chase. If the independent spending system (if you can call this free-for-all a "system") is inherently corrupting, then it doesn't matter whether Democrats spend 90 percent of what Republicans spend or 101 percent.
The second argument is about the donors' view of the system itself. "Most of these people [the Democratic donors] would prefer a country in which big donors didn't play as large a role in our politics," David Axelrod tells Vogel. "But so long as money in politics is required, there are going to be people on both sides who are willing to step up and provide it." If we assume that's true (and I think it is, even if many of the liberals enjoy the feeling of power and influence their giving lends them), it doesn't mean they aren't just as implicated in the distortion of the system as the conservatives are. If huge independent spending is a distortion of democracy, then whether the billionaires doing the spending feel bad about it or relish every minute of it doesn't change the fact that the system is, in fact, distorted.
The final argument is perhaps the one you hear most often from Democrats, perhaps because it comes with a moral tinge and not just a practical one. Unlike the Kochs, they say, the Democratic donors are not in it for themselves:
"George Soros isn't trying to get a tax break or relief from regulation or whatever. He is basically saying, let's have a system where somebody like me would be taxed more heavily," [Democracy Alliance chief Gara] LaMarche said last week. On other side of the 1 percent aisle, LaMarche asserted, conservative donors treat their political giving as "a business expense." Their giving "coincides with self-interest in a narrower sense more than it does on the progressive side, so I think that is a distinction that is significant."
As Vogel points out, that isn't always true—there are conservative donors who push for issues in which they don't have a direct financial interest, and some liberal donors whose fortunes coincide with their giving. But even if we accept that it's substantially more true on the conservative side, with the Kochs advocating for low taxes for the wealthy and corporations, along with looser environmental regulations of the kind an oil company finds inconvenient, then the question is, does that matter? Does the motivation of the billionaire who's distorting the political system make a difference?
On one level, everyone thinks their objectives are good for the country. Democratic mega-donor Tom Steyer is deeply concerned about climate change and the threat it poses to all humanity, so that's the focus of his efforts. And I'm sure that the Kochs believe, no less sincerely, that cutting their taxes will bring prosperity to America. They happen to be wrong, but they believe their motives are admirable.
And while their motives may affect how you judge those particular individuals and just how villainous you believe them to be, from a broader standpoint, it really doesn't change much. Let's say, for instance, that a billionaire had a company that developed a new energy technology that was so remarkable it provided low-cost, zero-carbon energy that could power every car, home, and business on earth, putting an end to the need for all fossil fuels and stopping climate change in its tracks. And he swooped into the election, spent half a billion dollars, and got a whole bunch of people elected who would ease the way for approval and adoption of his technology. And then let's imagine that his girlfriend gave TMZ a tape on which he said that he didn't give a crap about the planet, all he knew was that this was going to make him so much money he could spend the rest of his life snorting blow and having Nazi-themed parties at his estates while reclining on rugs made of baby harp seal pelts.
In that case, you'd have 1) a distorted election, producing 2) a wonderful result for humanity, 3) done for atrocious reasons. How would you feel about it?
My guess is that most of us would say, "Well, I don't like the election being bought, and the thing about the Nazi parties and the baby seal pelts makes me a little squeamish, but if we can eliminate all fossil fuel use, then it's worth it." Which shows that what really matters to us as observers is the policy outcomes that result, no matter how we feel about the motives of the players.
Does that mean we're all hypocrites? Not really. We care about fair procedures, but we usually end up caring more about results. And if the Supreme Court insists that it's completely kosher for elections to be auctioned off, we all want somebody who shares our agenda to be in on the bidding.
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