Confessions of a Campaign-Finance Racketeer

The year was 1988, the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote, and the trauma is still nearly too much to recount. The duo, brothers, arrived at my dormitory room at the University of Texas, hauled me from the intensity of my studies and dragged me to a polling place, where one wrenched my left arm behind my back and the other bodily placed the right on the voting machine and, depressing the lever, made my choice. As they released me into the chill and black of a November night, I demanded their names. “Koch,” they replied, their snarls announcing they made no apologies and felt no remorse.

My first ballot was actually less of an anecdote. I formed an opinion, surely influenced but certainly not dictated by advertising, and cast a ballot. Alone. David and Charles Koch have yet to bribe or compel me.

I cannot, of course, speak for others. But here is Jane Mayer, scarcely three pages into Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, her exposé of the Kochs, exposing instead the fundamental fallacies of the campaign-finance racket. Having recounted David Koch’s turn as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1980, she declares: “The Kochs failed at the ballot box in 1980, but instead of accepting America’s verdict, they set out to change how it voted.  They used their fortune to impose their minority views on the majority by other means.”

It is actually in the nature of republicanism that losers do not have to acquiesce permanently to the sorrow of defeat. They are allowed to keep arguing. But the legitimacy of doing so depends, in some circles, on the content of one’s views. Replace “Kochs” with “Democrats,” and the first sentence—“they set out to change how [America] voted”—might ring less sinister in some ears.

Yet where the Kochs are concerned, we learn they used their fortune to “impose” their “minority” views on the “majority.” This is, precisely speaking, gibberish.

There is not a documented case anywhere, anytime—unless these brothers are badder than they give off—of the Kochs imposing (Oxford English Dictionary: “To lay on, as something to be borne, endured, or submitted to; to inflict (something) on or upon; to levy or enforce authoritatively or arbitrarily”) their views on anyone. To impose is to leave no choice.

Yet what, on Mayer’s account, did the Kochs do?  Cover the children’s ears. They “waged a long and remarkable battle of ideas.” They subsidized “think tanks and academic programs” and advocacy groups to—hey, get a load of this—“make their arguments in the national political debate.” They “hired lobbyists” to persuade Congress as well as operatives who seeded “synthetic grassroots groups” to create “political momentum.” They “press[ed] their cases in the courts” with “legal groups and judicial junkets,” the latter of which might be questionable, but on the whole, the courts are not an arena from which the left can be understood to have exempted itself.

Lost in all of this is the target of their alleged imposition, the voter, who appears in Mayer’s account—and in the campaign-finance cosmos generally—as the dupe of ad men, academics and operatives, so unthinkingly prey to manipulation that to attempt to persuade him or her is automatically to “impose.” This is the same condescension that gave us What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which assumed the incapacity of working-class voters who cast ballots for Republicans to discern their true economic interests or, if they could, to balance them with competing moral concerns.

One takes it that regulating advertising or limiting advocacy for other causes on the grounds that the target audience is too easily manipulated would offend the sensibilities of campaign regulators. Yet this is the distillation of the “money buys elections” argument.

To be sure, if it is understood in any strict way, it is actually illegal to buy elections with money. All the Kochs buy—all Mayer accuses them above of buying—is the means of persuading voters. This “imposes” on voters only if voters cannot think, a charge regulators do not explicitly make but that lurks just below the surface of their arguments.

Yet voters, being contrary, do think independently of the money spent to persuade them. If they did not, Jeb Bush ($24.8 million in campaign contributions, $103 million in outside money) would be preparing to be anointed, which he is not, and Hillary Clinton, ($77.5 and $20.3 million respectively), would be polishing her nomination address, which she probably is anyway. Similarly, Bernie Sanders, ($41.5 million campaign, $25,000 outside) and Donald Trump ($5.8 million campaign, $131,600 outside) would have been forced to find other outlets for their anger.

In turn, campaign spending on the part of some political actors victimizes others only if argumentation is a scarce commodity, such that the Kochs making an argument deprives someone else of the opportunity to do so. Yet argumentation and information, including information with which political ads can be verified or disconfirmed, have never been more plentiful or cheaper.

This is political speech, however, that the regulators wish to restrict. It is perhaps unsurprising that those who take the view that individuals are incapable of evaluating arguments are also only loosely committed to the First Amendment’s freedom to make them. What is curious, though, is that the reformers typically adhere to other political commitments supposedly rooted in the “dignity” of the individual—a minimal condition of one’s dignity, apparently, being agreeing with them.