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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.

Reader Discussion

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on August 03, 2018 at 10:12:26 am

"Because such views [presumably the the views held by the Kochs' and McGinnis] are not as influenced by electoral calculation, they will often be more principled."

Is McGinnis channeling Jonathan Swift, here?

Is he asking us to join him in agreeing that no views could be more principled than the views of plutocrats aimed solely at expanding their own wealth and power at the expense of the rest of us? Conflating blatant rent seeking with principles is simply outrageous. No, it's worse than outrageous it's high Federalist Hamiltonism.

The west is quickly dividing into factions we can describe as "the well affected" and "the malignants" and the Kochs have just gone all in with the malignants.

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EK
on August 03, 2018 at 10:45:39 am

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….

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…

Does McGinnis favor a parliamentary system over the US system? I don’t recall him suggesting this before, and would be curious to learn more.

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….

Interesting. On the other hand, the GOP has fundamentalist Christianity. I expect McGinnis would acknowledge that the GOP’s views on abortion/LGBT issues are heavily driven by churches, and libertarians seeking GOP endorsement face pretty stiff headwinds on these issues. (Both Reagan and Trump had to flip-flop on abortion in order to get the GOP nomination.) On the OTHER other hand, these churches do not seem inclined to comment on the president’s own morality, so maybe the power of that faction is eroding.

[T]he logic of the First Amendment’s underlying plan [is] 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.

Max Weber argued that bureaucracy was the most powerful form of human organization yet devised, due to its ability to remain resilient at large scale. Weber expressed concern that this would result in mankind eventually being trapped in an “iron cage” of bureaucracy. But Weber conjectured that personally powerful individuals would be able to leads movements to overturn entrenched bureaucracy. Arguably Trump fits in this category. And perhaps the Kochs do as well.

But let’s consider the political efforts of one particular member of the one percent: Putin. Is McGinnis praising his willingness to expend resources to influence elections?

Why not? After all, I have not heard that Russia has bribed government officials or blown up polling booths or stolen funds. Mostly, they seemed to have engaged in setting up web pages and sending out e-mails—you know, speech. And, ok, they stole e-mails and disclosed them. That’s inappropriate and illegal—but as far as I’ve heard, the e-mails they released were accurate, not “fake news.”

Arguably people express frustration not with the use of speech, but with the disingenuous use of speech. Russia isn’t simply releasing “Radio Russia” broadcasts arguing the merits of, say, annexing Crimea. Instead, they’re covertly funding speech that would not appear to have anything to do with Russia for the purpose of manipulating people. This speech never invites a rational discussion of Russia’s agenda; it’s designed to distract from focusing on that agenda entirely.

Yet isn’t that the nature of advertising generally? The classic ad would tout the merits of a good or product (“It tastes good, like a cigarette should,”) but those ads have been overtaken by purely emotional imagery and association (the Marlborough Man on his horse, or product placement in a movie or with internet “influencers”). We are not invited to consider the merits of the product; the work is all subliminal.

I don’t begrudge Putin or the Kochs from having political views, or for spending money telling people about the merits of their views. I don’t begrudge them financing research and symposia discussing their views. That would forthrightly invite people to consider the merits of their policies.

Likewise, if the Kochs want more immigration, I favor their running ads saying “Vote for Joe ‘cuz he’ll support more immigration.” I’m less happy with them running ads saying “Vote for Joe ‘cuz he’ll drain the swamp and Make America Great Again.” And I’m especially unhappy with them covertly funding ads saying, “Joe’s opponent eats babies for breakfast!” McGinnis, in simply praising the political activity of the rich, does not acknowledge any distinctions between these activities.

In short, I share McGinnis’s support for “civic discourse.” But civic discourse requires putting the issues on the table, not concealing them and sneaking them in through the back door.

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nobody.really
on August 03, 2018 at 16:09:12 pm

Generally agree! Let the Fat Cats say what they want. It is up to each of us to regard or disreagrd.

I am, however, surprised that you did not challenge McGinnis for this:

"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."

Now really (oops, I used your last name again-Ha) WHEN did those folks actually contest Democrat Party partisan imperatives. On the contrary, they would appear to be as unified and coordinated as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
All together now, kiddies. Let's have another chorus of Happy Days are Here Again.

And EK is right re: Kochs and Hamiltonianism (excpet, of course, Hamilton would not open the immigration floodgates).

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gabe
on August 03, 2018 at 16:17:19 pm

Many years ago as an undergraduate, I was assigned "Democracy for the Few." The brief above brought to mind a chapter titled: The Plutocratic Culture - Institutions, Values, and Ideologies.

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Anthony
on August 03, 2018 at 18:14:03 pm

Would you say that the Values of the Plutocrats have changed since that piece was written?

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gabe
on August 04, 2018 at 10:52:15 am

Slavery and the importation of unskilled immigrants have this in common; they are both forms of wage arbitrage. Hamilton accepted slavery for the sake of his economic model and the Kochs, like all economic libertarians, are more than happy with all forms of wage arbitrage.

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EK
on August 04, 2018 at 15:12:18 pm

"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."

For decades, the GOP's "narrow party discipline" - fully supported by the Koches - was reflexive support for free trade (with scant thought for its costs or for cheating by our "partners") and a come-one-come-all immigration policy (which, in a decade or two, promises to turn the entire country into the one-party dystopia already found in California). Now, with Trump's cynical manipulation of public discontent with these orthodoxies to advance his reality-show presidency (while doing little to put more constructive and sustainable long-term policies in place), the Koches continue to pour their dough into promoting mindless orthodoxies of 30 years ago in which most of the public no longer believes and which no longer serve (or, in the case of immigration, obviously disserve) the American people's particular national interest. Meanwhile, intelligent advocacy of a more restrictive immigration policy calculated to serve the interests of America's existing citizenry and their descendants is run on a shoe-string, resulting in an idiotic, fixed debate between the clownlike, inconsistent and incoherent Trump and the bipartisan open borders machine.

So I am not signing any love letters to the Koch brothers. Their first amendment right to publicize their views (which are not all bad) should be defended, but that is not a reason to praise them for pushing positions that are destructive to the nation.

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djf
on August 04, 2018 at 15:58:51 pm

In the above, I should have written "which no longer obviously serve" rather than simply "which no longer serve." I think there's more to be said for the free trade position (although I believe that orthodoxy should thoughtfully reconsidered to address the costs, economic and otherwise) than for open borders - which seems to be where people like the Messrs. Koch want to take us.

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djf
on August 05, 2018 at 08:59:48 am

In plain English my dears.....it seems to me that it is only the wealthy who are heard. The rest of us are just so much flotsam and, jetsam and are so easily dismissed… as the rabble.

The GD brown-shirts are in our streets now today, and the authorities are shielding them and what about the people’s right of redress? The streets belong to all of the people.

Daily we are told to sit and be quite and polite and just go vote. By then it will be too late and we are finished.

It is not the Republicans, who are desperately rushing to take people off the voter rolls. If they wanted fair elections they would be encouraging more people to vote.

Why is it Americans think that these vile things cannot happen here in America. It’s the Hitler’s playbook and we sit and watch like deer in the headlights. The pot is boiling and we are told to sit and wait and be good, and then somebody wonderful we come along and be elected to save us. WTF! We must help ourselves
“Implicit Faith belongs to Fools, and Truth is comprehended by examining Principles.” _ Algernon Sidney

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Ladyhawke1
on August 05, 2018 at 11:43:34 am

Short version: One-percenter donors like the Koches may be necessary for the conservative/free-market right to compete with the progressive Left, given the latter's dominance of news, entertainment, education, etc. But, contrary to Prof. McGinnis's view, those one-percenters generally reinforce existing party orthodoxy, as the Koches are, and push back against the feeble attempts of elected officials to escape that orthodoxy when they perceive,, however dimly, that is no longer politically viable.

And bear in mind, the GOP's Reaganite orthodoxy is a losing creed. See Henry Olsen's recent essay at American Greatness on the GOP's failure to focus on the white working class voters who enabled Trump's victory. This failure (along with Trump's foolish antics) seems to be leading to a disaster in the upcoming midterms.

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djf
on August 05, 2018 at 12:08:50 pm

Here's a link to the above-referenced Olsen essay: https://amgreatness.com/2018/08/03/the-blue-collar-elephant-in-the-room/

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djf
on August 05, 2018 at 23:45:22 pm

Hypothesis:

The impact of large contributions in politics depends on how important the issue is to people, paradoxically in an inverse relationship. You are more likely to get results by donating millions in an effort to change the state bird than expending the same amount to pass laws to privatize police or remove protections for freedom of conscience.

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z9z99
on August 13, 2018 at 17:47:02 pm

"Them what has the gold makes the rules"--Citizens United.

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excessivelyperky

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.