Koch Brothers.

In 1967, Charles (b. 1935) and David (b. 1940) Koch took over the small-time, Kansas-based oil refinery company built from nothing by their father.[1] Since then they have massively expanded the company into a petroleum and related products industrial conglomerate. Each man is now estimated to be worth $42 billion. This gives them a lot of money to play with. Like a lot of other successful Americans, they decided to “give back” by donating to good causes.

What has caused controversy is that their idea of “good causes” isn’t the same as that of Bill and Melinda Gates.[2] The Koch brothers are libertarians who favor a smaller, less intrusive government. They favor legalizing gay marriage (where President Obama’s opinion has evolved to match their own long-standing position) and of marijuana (where President Obama’s position has not yet evolved). They also oppose a minimum wage law, food stamps, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and environmental legislation. If they had a potato farm in Vermont and sent out a monthly Xeroxed newsletter, that would be OK. However, they are fabulously wealthy and have a range of contacts with other fabulously wealthy people who think in the same fashion. So they can raise a ton of money for campaign contributions and political advocacy. Their various funds supported “Tea Party” candidates in 2010, then spent $400 million on the 2012 election, about $300 million on the 2014 elections, and are hoping to spend about $889 million in 2016.

Nominally, Democrats are outraged because of the flaws that it reveals in American electoral law. Supreme Court decisions have gravely weakened efforts at campaign finance reform introduced back in the 1970s. The “Citizens United” case is a particular “bête noir.” The chief funding arm of the Koch brothers is “Freedom Partners.” Because it is classified as a social welfare organization engaged chiefly in education on public issues, the donors to “Freedom Partners” are allowed to remain anonymous.[3]

Is it permissible to wonder if the source of the Democrats rage—and the complacency of Republicans—is that the Koch brothers’ money is going to Republican candidates? Democrats don’t vocally complain about the money from George Soros or Tom Steyer that flows into the coffers of Democratic candidates or liberal causes. For example, Steyer donated $74 million to Democratic candidates who supported his environmental policies in the 2014 elections.

One puzzle about this spending is whether it actually has any impact. The electorate is pretty much as divided as it was for many decades before the appearance of the Koch brothers.[4] Over the last thirty years the successful presidential candidate has captured an average of 49.74 percent of the popular vote. The best any candidate has done was George H.W. Bush in 1988, who won 53.37 percent. So, at the presidential level, the Kochs seem to be spending an awful lot of money to move a small number of votes. Economists would question the efficiency of this expenditure. At least four of the last seven presidential elections have been won by Democrats.[5]

It is rare to encounter someone who says that “I was a Democrat until I saw those ads the Koch brothers were running.” People commit to political parties for complex reasons related to life experience, fundamental beliefs, and economic interests. Perhaps the Koch brothers’ money has its greatest impact on the bottom lines of media outlets and political consultancies.

[1] “The Koch brothers’ agenda,” The Week, 13 March 2015, p. 11.

[2] You never hear people getting furious about the Gates Foundation giving too much money to fighting malaria.

[3] Why individual voters should be allowed to remain anonymous behind the curtain of a voting booth, but campaign donors should be compelled to reveal themselves is a question not much addressed.

[4] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_presidential_elections_by_popular_vote_margin

[5] There’s no point in going into the whole Gore v. Bush episode.

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