Relax. Is Kochism really bad for America? Is it really a big deal?

Posted at 2:35 PM, Jan 27, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-27 14:51:15-05

Hats off to the Brothers Koch for transparency. There was nothing sneaky or smoke-filled about their announcement earlier this week that their network of political organizations will spend $889 million on the 2016 elections.  This is a wonderful model of openness in influence peddling.

If the clock started on the day of the announcement, the Koch network would be spending about $1.36 million a day until Election Day 2016.

To put that in some perspective, the main Democratic Party organizations spent $646 million in the 2012 cycle, the Republicans $673 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It is easy and tempting to condemn this as the greatest and most grotesque episode of power-grubbing yet.  It is hard to defend.  But allow me to propose five arguments why Kochism is good for America – or at least not a big deal.

1. It isn’t that much money.  Sure, in the abstract $889 million is a lot of cabbage.   But look at it this way: Most of the money will be spent on advertising and compared to corporate ad budgets $889 million is peanuts.

Here are the top spenders on advertising in 2013 according to Ad Age (via Business Insider):

Procter & Gamble....……$5.00 billion

Comcast………………….$3.08 billion

AT&T……………………...$2.91 billion

Ford…………………..…..$2.56 billion

Verizon……………………$2.44 billion

L’Oreal…………………….$2.34 billion

So are we supposed to believe that it is an existential crisis for the nation that a network of conservative groups will spend about 30 percent of what a big shampoo company spends on advertising? Seems like a stretch.

Allowing for inflation and a liberal version of Kochism, let’s say $4 billion gets spent on the next election in 2015 and 2016.  Many individual companies will spend more.

And in the great ocean of all advertising, in the tsunami of American marketing, political marketing is little more than a tidal pool, a puddle, a nuisance.

We have better things to worry about. Like selecting the proper hair conditioner.

2. It won’t affect confidence in the government.  A common argument is that the flow of big money into politics undermines trust and confidence in the institutions of government. This is true whether the money comes from right-wing fat cats, left-wing tech titans, labor unions or investment banks.  This new Koch splurge will just make it all worse.

Well, how exactly could things get worse?  Trust in government is already about as low as possible. It is at its lowest point in history according to the Pew Research Center.  About 24 percent of Americans have some trust in government.

And according to the Gallup poll, in 2014 only 7 percent of Americans had any confidence in Congress.

How could these numbers possibly plummet more? I know: Shut down the government! Nope, tried it.  How about a sex scandal between a president and an unpaid intern? Been there, done that. 

Maybe Americans could hold their government in lower esteem – maybe. But it won’t be the fault of the Brothers Koch.

3. Dispersing power away from the two corrupt monopoly parties is a good thing.  It is hard to see what benefits the Democratic and Republican parties bring to humankind anymore.  Their primary role is to organize governance in the legislative branch and they don’t do that anymore. They are simply opposing teams, feuding fraternities, Hatfields and McCoys.  They’ve polarized the country and the government. And they snuff out anyone who wants to start a third party.

So if people like the Koch Brothers want to bankroll some candidates and besmirch others, what’s the big deal? Maybe it will prod the parties into doing better work.

In 1971, the most scholarly reporter of his generation, David Broder, wrote a book called “The Party’s Over.”  “The reason we have suffered governmental stalemate is that we have not used the one instrument available to us for disciplining government to meet our needs, “ Broder wrote. “That instrument is the political party.”

If the parties were weak in 1971, they are now in full comas, kept alive solely by unnatural, mechanical means. If other entities can garner power and influence, more power to them.

4. All money spent on politics helps the republic.  You hear this argument from George Will and the occasional academic. The idea is that Americans know so little about government, and care so little, that even the most scurrilous, negative and inaccurate advertising and rhetoric helps educate the masses and breeds better citizenship.  With less advertising, there would be less engagement, knowledge and civic virtue.

There is a reason Procter & Gamble spends millions of dollars year after year advertising Charmin. They want to educate consumers about toilet paper. Personally, I believe I am now well educated in that arena.

But good-government types want to deprive citizens of this proven method of mass education. It doesn’t seem right. 

Remember, the Supreme Court has said that when it comes to elections, money equals speech. It follows that the more money in politics, the more speech. And that is a good thing.

5.  The Democrats will spend just as much money as the Koch Brothers.  Maybe there won’t be an exact liberal equivalent of the Koch network, but the Clintons and Democrats will find a way to match the money.

This is essentially the theory of democratic pluralism.  The idea is that for every interest group, there is a counter-weight. For every Koch, there is a Soros; for every company, there is a trade union.  All the money and lobbying cancels itself out and politics functions like a proper market, efficiently, fairly and optimally. Don’t worry; be happy.

Lastly, if not for people like the Brothers Koch, who will help give voice to that tiny American minority – the 1 percent?

[Also on DecodeDC: Will race define Obama’s legacy?]

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