Something Everyone Can Agree On: Dark Money Across the Aisle

This past week, the Koch brothers announced that they were pledging roughly $900 million to back select conservative candidates during the 2016 election cycle. Being a staunch liberal myself, the news ignited white-hot flames of fury and fear in my stomach, as apparently it did in most of the media. Many news organizations portrayed the Kochs as a conservative menace and “new political party.” Pundits claimed the immense funding provided by Republican donors and super PACs is destructive to American democracy. Conservative media shot back with accusations of hypocrisy; after all, Democrats have long benefitted from donors like California billionaire, environmentalist and founder of the NextGen Climate super PAC Tom Steyer. Steyer pledged $50 million in the 2014 gubernatorial elections to target Republican candidates who disavowed climate change. George Soros, who backs the Democratic donor network Democracy Alliance, contributed $32.5 million in individual donations to 527 groups from 2001 to 2010 (the Kochs only donated $1.5 million in the same time period, though you can bat the numbers around however you want – for example, they far outstrip Soros in terms of lobbying expenditures and individual donations to political candidates). While the Koch brothers are taking the amounts of donations to new heights, conservative media outlets have long argued that they aren’t doing anything that hasn’t been done before.

Andy Kroll at Mother Jones responded to these allegations by arguing that there’s a good reason to focus on the Kochs above all other outside political players: “increasingly… they’re the biggest outside money players in town. By a long shot.” Kroll has a very good point – a Koch-backed political network of nonprofit groups raised $400 million in the 2012 elections. It “financially outpaced other independent groups on the right and, on its own, matched the long-established national coalition of labor unions that serves as one of the biggest sources of support for Democrats.” While the unions did manage to raise $400 million for elections across the board in 2012, and liberal donors through Democracy Alliance raised an additional $100 million, the Koch network was responsible for one-quarter of all dark-money donations in the entire election. The new push by the Koch brothers for the 2016 cycle will dwarf the contributions so far made by any individual donor or collective organization to any political party in American history. It is the scale of their efforts, many liberal writers have argued over the past few years, rather than the mechanism through which they can act, that poses such a threat to the integrity of American politics.

By simultaneously using the same tactics used by the right to net Koch dollars – and positioning it as a morally upstanding position – Democrats have become complicit in a system that actively damages American democracy, and far less likely to ever push for measures to fix it.

The defensiveness from both parties over undisclosed campaign contributions has transformed campaign finance into a partisan issue, though it shouldn’t be. It’s not just the upcoming 2016 election that is at stake – it’s the future of the American democratic process. The egregious and increasing ability of billionaires to influence elections is the legacy of Citizens United (2010), which, as the Center for Responsive Politics reported, “helped unleash unprecedented amounts of outside spending in the 2010 and 2012 election cycles” and was responsible for super PACS spending $600 million out of the $1 billion non-party finance spent in the 2012 election cycle. Superior outside spending doesn’t equal an automatic win – President Barack Obama won against Mitt Romney despite only attracting $100 million in outside spending compared to Romney’s $350 million – but the infrastructure for individually-funded campaigns has now been firmly laid on both sides of the aisle. The Huffington Post reported that the Democrats “have more recently streamlined their super PAC infrastructure” and “set up entities that allow donors to focus on specific races” in order to catch up with the Koch-built policy apparatus. A NextGen Climate spokesperson was even quoted as saying that Steyer and other progressive groups are “the David taking on the Koch Goliath… we can make up the delta between our resources and the amount of money being spent by the Kochs because we have truth and justice on our side.” This hypocritical righteousness is dangerous for the left to adopt. By simultaneously using the same tactics used by the right to net Koch dollars – and positioning it as a morally upstanding position – Democrats have become complicit in a system that actively damages American democracy, and far less likely to ever push for measures to fix it. As a consequence, Democrats who accuse GOP donors of being destructive simply because they have more capital elude the true issue: The Citizens United decision handed both sides of the aisle a mechanism to distort and buy the political system through individual, undisclosed donations and the ability to spend limitless dark money during election cycles. The Koch brothers, George Soros and Tom Steyer are all actors within this larger frame of a campaign finance structure that needs immediate reform.

And while billionaires undoubtedly wield an extremely disproportionate amount of influence within the political system thanks to Citizens United, perpetual handwringing over their distorted effect also distracts from groups who wield far more power in democratic elections. A recent analysis by Slate shows that the American upper middle class “collectively wields far more influence” than the small handfuls of billionaires trying their hands at swaying elections. Not only do upper middle class households have the money, time and influence to dedicate modestly to political campaigns, they also vote in far larger numbers than most other socioeconomic classes – in the 2010 elections, households making more than $150,000 had a voter turnout rate of 61.6 percent, compared to 26.7 percent of households making less than $10,000. Meanwhile, billionaire liberals actually topped the list of the largest super PAC donors during the 2014 elections. While the Kochs are set to upset that trend, the hype around billionaires means that Democrats aren’t looking to where they’re truly losing out on voting power – the influence of the conservative-leaning upper middle class.

The legacy of Citizens United is just like the now quasi-unconstitutional power of presidential signing statements – great if the president is doing what you like; extremely concerning if he (and hopefully she!) is not. Similarly, Big Money isn’t just a Republican or Democratic weapon. While both parties may benefit from it in the short run, the bottom line is that everybody loses. Political and media rhetoric would do much better to focus their investigations on the Supreme Court decisions that got us to where we are today – and how to solve the bind they put American democracy in – instead of using an issue that affects the integrity of the democratic process to trade partisan jabs.