A network of conservative advocacy groups led by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire inheritors of the Koch Industries fortune, announced on January 26 that they plan to spend a staggering $889 million as part of a coordinated effort to back Republican ideals and candidates in the 2016 elections. Their funds will go mainly toward Freedom Partners, the tax-exempt business lobby that operates as the axis of the Koch-backed political operation.
Along with Americans for Prosperity, its main political advocacy arm, the networkfinances groups such as Concerned Veterans for America, the Libre Initiative, and Generation Opportunity. The 17 allied groups in the network raised $407 million during the 2012 campaign and plan to spend nearly $1 billion in 2016—this amount nears what both the Democratic and Republican Parties plan to spend in the upcoming elections. The resources will go into field operations, new data-driven technology, and policy work, among other projects. It remains to be seen whether the group will spend some of that money in the Republican primaries. Such a move could have a major impact in narrowing a large field of contenders, but could also undercut the Koch network’s standing as a mediator and facilitator of conservative ideals.
$889 million is a lot of money, but it is just the next step for a political system that is increasingly centered on money. In the landmark case Citizens United v. FEC (2010), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation. This decision saw the evolution of political action committees (PACs) into Super PACs, political action committees that spend money on behalf of candidates rather than making contributions directly to candidates. Today, these organizations can accept unlimited contributions; we are at a time in the history of our democracy when money in campaigns is unlimited, untethered, and unstoppable.
Over the last two elections, Democrats have used the Koch brothers and their political network as a symbol of all that is wrong with our political system. Democrats across the country led an anti-Koch campaign in the 2012 elections, holding up the brothers as evidence that the Republican Party is the party of the rich and that our political system has been corrupted by money. As then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it, “Republicans are addicted to Koch.” Republican leadership sees the Democrats’ constant attacks on the Koch brothers as a political scheme. “There are a bunch of Democrats who have taken as their talking points that the Koch brothers are the nexus of all evil in the world,” said Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Conservative activist Grover Norquist added, “It’s not like a Chicago political boss where Charles would say, ‘We’re all for this guy.’ But if he said, ‘I really like this guy’ and did an op-ed, it would matter.”
But the Koch brothers’ rise from behind-the-scenes political operators to the Democrats’ public enemy number one raises a fundamental question about the effectiveness of spending money to influence politics. In a recent PBS debate, New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed the Koch brothers’ ambitious spending plan. The Koch brothers “spent hundreds of millions of dollars four years ago,” Brooks says. “It had no effect. They lost most of their races. This year, they’re doubling up.” The political efficacy of money is “vastly overvalued,” says Brooks. “There’s just a ton of political science on this…once people reach a threshold, you can dump in a ton of money and have very little effect.”
As Brooks notes, many political scientists believe that money only works to influence voters’ opinions about relatively unknown candidates and issues. The public generally holds previously formulated opinions about prominent issues and political figures despite a constant bombardment of Super PAC-funded influence.
However, the Koch brothers’ network has spent a considerable amount of money and effort supporting lesser-known candidates in House and Senate races. The GOP now controls 68 out of 98 partisan state legislative chambers—the highest number in the history of the party. Republicans currently hold the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 24 states, while Democrats have that level of control in only seven. And the Tea Party, an organization that Koch money helped move from plucky upstart to political force, secured seats for 58 of its 80 endorsed candidates in November’s election.
But the issue of money in politics goes beyond elections. Since Citizens United, our democracy has begun to look more and more like an oligarchy. 0.26 percent of the population gives 68 percent of the money in political elections, and millionnaires have more access to and response from politicians. A study by Joshua Kalla and David Broockman of UC Berkeley revealed that if a person seeking a meeting with a congressman is explicitly revealed to be a donor, he is four times as likely to get a meeting with the chief of staff and twice as likely to get a meeting with the member of Congress. With unfettered access comes power, as political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern showed in a study last year. They demonstrated that as support among average citizens on an issue grows, they’re not any more likely to get what they want, a shocking find in a democratic society. In contrast, if support among economic elites for a certain policy change grows, they are more likely to get what they want. Specifically, if fewer than 20 percent of wealthy Americans supported a policy change, it only happened about 18 percent of the time. But when 80 percent of them were in support, the change ended up happening 45 percent of the time. For comparison, the effect that increased support among average Americans has on policy shifts is effectively zero.
So when the Koch brothers spend more on the election than both parties combined, they are buying influence, power, and political capital, rather than a president or a congressman. Their money has created a tax code that includes huge breaks for corporations and a wage scale in which the CEO-to-worker pay ratio is 331:1, the largest discrepancy ever. Their money went toward normalizing Tea Party ideals that were once seen as radical, and to shifting our political system to the right. Hillary Clinton or another Democrat may win the presidential election in 2016 despite the landslide of money against them. But even if they do, they will assume power in a political economy shaped by the Koch brothers and the influence of money in politics.