Politics & Policy

Who’s Really Corrupting Politics with Huge Gobs of Money?

(Les Cunliffe/Dreamstime)

It’s not often that a chart almost makes me spit out my coffee. But last night while reading through a Vox article purporting to demonstrate how the Koch Brothers and other conservative mega-donors are allegedly weakening the Republican Party, I almost ruined my keyboard.

The article’s thesis was interesting — it asserted that since Republican donors are increasingly directing their money to outside groups, the party itself exercises less control and influence within the broader conservative movement. That’s quite plausible. After all, the party can’t control those it doesn’t employ, and independent activists have interests and priorities all their own.

The problem with the piece is the evidence used to back up this argument. Vox writer Jeff Stein relies on research from the Scholars Strategy Network, a far-Left research initiative run by Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez that purports to track shifts in spending on outside advocacy groups. According to the Network’s website, this information will be used to, “ask how these shifts contribute to GOP extremism, government gridlock, and public policies that spur economic inequality.”

Ain’t biased academic scholarship grand?

Well, yes, when it proves the opposite of what it purports to. To show the increase in spending by outside groups, Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez generated this chart:

What’s your takeaway? That conservatives are spending more on activist groups and think tanks? They are. But that’s of minor consequence compared to that long blue line snaking across the chart — the blue line that indicates that leftist “constituency mobilizers” (which include labor unions) have a collective budget of $1.8 billion per year.

In other words, if you add the annual budgets of all conservative-leaning institutions, they might add up to the Left’s constituency-mobilization budget. Taken together, however, the chart indicates that left-wing groups enjoy a more than $1 billion annual budgetary advantage. That’s “billion.” With a “b.”

So, yes, I can totally see why it’s important to study and obsess over the nefarious impact of conservative money in politics. After all, the Washington Generals might be putting in some new plays. The Jamaican bobsled team is purchasing new uniforms. Eddie the Eagle has new skis.

#share#I kid, I kid. Conservative organizations are full of talented people who punch well above their financial and organizational weight. I’ve spoken pro bono at a few of the famous Koch seminars and provided pro bono legal advice to the Charles Koch Foundation, so I know firsthand of the Kochs’ commitment to excellence. I’ve spent about half my professional life working for conservative Christian nonprofits. I know we did good work, but I also know that our resources paled in comparison to the Left’s.

RELATED: Dems Rage against Money in Politics, But Howard Dean Admits It’s Selective

And charts like this understate the Left’s organizational advantage. Yes, labor unions spend immense sums to influence American politics — from 2002 through 2014, unions accounted for seven of the top ten “organization contributors” according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with roughly 99 percent of contributions going to Democrats. But let’s not forget the extraordinary resources spent by liberals in higher education, in the media, and in progressive corporations.

The Left’s base of financial power dwarfs the Right’s.

The process of political change is about much more than political donations — where the two sides tend to be far more evenly matched. It’s about political and cultural influence as well, and here the Left’s base of financial power dwarfs the Right’s. The Right simply doesn’t have any institution that competes on equal terms with big labor. The Right’s educational institutions are dwarfed by the Ivy League alone. And conservatives would happily trade the influence of Fox News and talk radio for the influence of every other major broadcast and cable network, every major newspaper, and NPR. Conservatives have only the smallest presence in movies, television, and pop music.

I have no problem with money in politics, or with private citizens, corporations, and educational institutions using their resources to influence fellow Americans. That’s everyone’s right as an American. But it is almost unbearably hypocritical to see the Left decry the use of private financial resources to influence public debate while . . . using private financial resources to influence public debate.

RELATED: The New York Times Gets Money in Politics All Wrong

Harvard’s Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez are a great example. They both work for a university that last year had $4.5 billion in operating revenue and net assets of $44.6 billion. All of that immense wealth services the needs of an ideological monoculture that is stocked top-to-bottom with thousands of liberals who dedicate themselves to both living out their worldview and fostering those same commitments in the students they educate.

#related#Or consider Vox itself. Last summer, NBCUniversal invested $200 million in its parent company, Vox Media Group. Though that’s certainly not a political donation, it is definitely a direct investment in a corporation with a decided ideological bent.

The obsessive focus on campaign cash and the Koch brothers represents an effort to silence or limit the few methods through which the conservative movement can get an unfiltered message to the American people. The same Left-wing institutions that gladly use private money to advance their views are the ones crowing loudest about the Right’s corruption of our campaign-finance system. These complaints are not about fairness or equality; they’re about control. The Left has all the free speech it wants. The Right has to fight for the free speech it needs.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.


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