According to a report in the New York Times on Monday, Charles and David Koch are aiming to spend $889 million on the upcoming 2016 election cycle. The subsequent seismic activity noticed in the Nevada area was, reportedly, Harry Reid’s head exploding.
Reid, of course, made the Koch brothers the centerpiece of his final years as Senate majority leader, routinely denouncing them from his bully pulpit on the Senate floor, and the media has been happy to propagate his caricature: The Kochs are “cartoonish evil billionaires“ operating a “shadowy“ network of “secret“ conservative donors “outside the campaign finance system“; naturally, the amount these Professors Moriarty are hoping to spend on the next election is “ungodly.”
But it requires an unusually conspiratorial cast of mind to sincerely believe that the Koch brothers are orchestrating a financial usurpation of the political system from some Goldfinger-style lair in Wichita. It is hard to believe in large part because those same brothers, presumably with that same shadowy network, are said to have spent a staggering $400 million in 2012 — and their man still lost.
In fact, the Kochs are hardly the biggest spenders. In 2012, reports the Center for Responsive Politics (a nonpartisan outlet that tracks political spending), 13 of the 20 most generous organizations making donations to outside spending groups (i.e., those not affiliated with candidates’ official campaigns) leaned Democratic. Koch Industries was No. 136 on that list. The Kochs did not even appear on the list of the top 100 individual donors (to outside spending groups that required the disclosure of donor names — some, such as 501(c)(4)s, do not).
Then in last fall’s midterms, the largest individual donor was California billionaire Tom Steyer, whose $73.7 million went exclusively to Democratic candidates or causes. After Steyer came former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose $23.8 million also worked almost entirely to the benefit of Democrats. The Koch brothers were tied for 24th on the list.
These lists are not comprehensive — there is, obviously, no way to total the amount of money given to political groups that are exempt from donor-disclosure laws — but they suggest that what the Kochs have done so successfully is not simply lavish their own money, but build an effective network of many donors — unlike the Democrats, who seem to benefit from a few big-spending names. That collides with the narrative of champagne-chugging Republican plutocrats, which accounts for the attribution of $400 million in spending to “the Koch brothers,” when it is actually the work of more than a dozen organizations in which the Kochs play only a part.
But the debate over political spending — the undying call to “get the money out of politics!” — is not really about dollar amounts. It is about freedom to participate in the political process.
On a panel with fellow senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz at the Koch brothers’ “secret” retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., this past weekend, Florida’s Marco Rubio said about Tom Steyer: “There is a gentleman out there who has radical environmental ideas who has spent tens of millions of dollars . . . attacking Republicans that don’t want to impose his radical environmental agenda. He has a right to do that.”
Many Democrats evidently feel differently. “We get death threats, threats to blow up our facilities, kill our people,” Charles Koch told Forbes in 2012, describing the consequences of his own political participation. “We get [cyber-hacking outfit] Anonymous and other groups trying to crash our IT systems.”
When it comes to the political-spending debate, there are two distinct cultures in the United States: one that understands political expression as a right, generally regardless of how disagreeable the particulars of that expression may be, and another that understands it as a privilege, contingent upon the content of that expression. Put another way, there is a Right that broadly agrees with Marco Rubio, and there is a Left that cheers on Harry Reid’s Koch-induced ranting one week and turns a blind eye to Lois Lerner the next. It is no coincidence that the IRS targeted only one type of political group.
The Left’s unyielding insistence on donor-disclosure requirements is simply an effort to make easier the political intimidation that is already going on. Democratic donors face no consequences from having their names and contributions revealed; their positions have the support of controlling political-cultural institutions (the media, academia, etc.), and they know that the Right does not take a Tony Soprano–style approach to its political opponents. Only supporters of right-wing causes are likely to suffer a curbing. As Charles Koch told Forbes, “So long as we’re in a society like that, where the president attacks us and we get threats from people in Congress, and this is pushed out and becomes part of the culture — that we are evil, so we need to be destroyed, or killed — then why force people to disclose?”
The problem Reid and others have with “money in politics” is not money in politics, but freedom in politics. They want you to be free to agree with them.
Which, of course, is no freedom at all.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review.