NEW CASTLE, Penn., Feb. 1, 2016 — While liberal George Soros donated $6 million to a super PAC supporting Democratic Party favorite Hillary Clinton, 500 of America’s wealthiest conservatives joined billionaire activists Charles and David Koch for a three-day retreat called “the seminar” to discuss the group’s agenda for 2016.
Seen as secretive and manipulative, Charles Koch felt the need to address the reputation of his clandestine club of wealthy political activists. His opening remarks focused on the need for his fellow donors to be more open about who they are and what they believe.
Koch went on to list four political goals:
- “[R]everse the policies that are moving us toward a two-tiered society”; this includes ending corporate welfare;
- stop “irresponsible government spending”;
- force government at all levels to focus on its “primary responsibility to people”; for Koch, this means keeping the American people safe;
- protect free speech.
“The Devil is in the details,” goes the old adage. Koch’s objectives appear straightforward and honorable, but the policies he says serve those objectives determine whether he is trying to improve American society and strengthen America’s democracy, or cater to his own interest.
Those within Koch’s donor network may believe that free-market policies, free trade, negligible taxes, minimal regulation, an end to organized labor, and minimal government spending are the cure to America’s economic inequality. Moderates and liberals disagree. In a democracy, these views must be balanced.
Most people believe the role of government goes beyond defense. In fact, the Constitution includes provisions to provide for the “general welfare” of the country. As citizens of a representative republic, the American people have the right to decide what their government does.
The Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United ruling equated the expenditure of money to speech. Many critics of that opinion believe people like Koch use their money to disarm government protections and drown out the free speech of others.
If the goals of Koch and his associates are to honestly express their views, engage in political debate, embrace free exchanges of ideas where their ideas can be challenged, and strengthen civil engagement in order to help improve public policy, he is working in line with democratic principles. If he respects the views of dissenters and offers them room to voice their interests, he is helping support America’s democracy.
If Koch and his associates are simply seeking to empower themselves with political influence in order to suppress the interests of others, they are using superficial democracy to build a plutocracy.
Democracy’s strength is its long-term ability to ensure the wildly diverse interests of a population can be heard and adequately addressed; whereas, non-democratic forms of government tend to cater to the views of small groups of elites.
The true test for any democracy is whether powerful people like Koch are willing to forgo their own interests for the interests of their nation as a whole and their fellow citizens.
In all, Koch and his unidentified associates alone are on track to spend $589 million in 2016. Compared to an $18 trillion economy, it is nothing. Even compared to the $4 trillion federal budget, it is a paltry sum. If elections and public policies can truly be bought, wealthy political activists across the political spectrum are spending way too little for the kind of influence they seek.
People like Koch may have billions, but they own no more of America’s democracy than the poorest of Americans. If they recognize this notion and if their true goals serve to strengthen American democracy by helping address the interests of all the American people and improve civil engagement across the country, the money they spend can serve a constructive purpose.