How the One Percent Improve Democracy

David and Charles Koch have decided to withhold political advertisements from Republican candidates who support Trump’s trade and immigration policies and instead run them for those who want freer trade and a less restrictive immigration policy. Regardless of our views on these issues (I am substantially sympathetic to the Kochs’ position on trade and somewhat so on legal immigration), we should be grateful to them and the other members of the one percent who exercise their constitutional rights broadly to disseminate a wide variety of political views.

One of the greatest problems of democracy is the danger that the structure of government and politics will entrench certain ideas, thus impeding civic discussion. For instance, the party apparatus naturally lines up behind the view of its President while in office and promotes a party line. But it is important that even within the President’s party that there be competition between different views, because often the opposition for tactical and ideological reasons will not strongly contest some specific views of the President. The Democrats, for instance, are not strongly opposing Trump’s trade policies.

The tendency of ordinary politics to slight important and coherent political positions is exacerbated by our two-party system—itself a reflection of our first past the post electoral system. In a parliamentary, multiparty system, different parties will represent a greater variety of views. For instance, in Europe there are liberal (in the European sense, of course) parties which take more consistently libertarian positions on economic and social issues than is possible by a party that must try cobble together positions to get affirmation from more than half the electorate. Thus, in the United States, it is even more important to have strong mechanisms for ideological contestation within a party and that contest is facilitated by the actions of wealthy individuals who stand outside narrow party discipline. Because such views are not as influenced by electoral calculation, they will often be more principled.

The role of such individuals may be even more important in the Republican party than in the Democratic party. People largely sympathetic to the Democratic party have outsize influence on our universities and media and thus create power centers within its broad coalition that can more easily contest the partisan imperatives that the Democratic party has at any given time. That said, wealthy people sympathetic to the Democrats play a broadly similar role to the Koch Brothers. Tom Steyer, for instance, has made impeachment an unrelenting focus of his messaging this election cycle despite the views of party officials who want to subordinate this issue to others that they think will get them elected. (Full disclosure: Tom Steyer is a high school classmate with whom I remain on good terms, despite pretty comprehensive political disagreement).

In hundreds of cases the Supreme Court has teased out the logic of the First Amendment’s underlying plan—that a civic discourse created by individual choice will create a healthier democracy and culture than one that is shaped by institutions privileged by the government. We should be grateful those with resources give effect to make that plan more of a reality in our politics.