In his farewell address in 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of a “military-industrial complex” that was binding arms manufacturers, politicians and lobbyists in an iron triangle of self-interest and enrichment. Today America is in the grip of an equally dangerous “campaigns-industrial complex”.
This is the electoral arms race that was first ignited by the “Citizens United” ruling of the US Supreme Court, five years ago this month, that allowed private entities to donate their own funds to political action groups created with the sole aim of influencing the outcome of elections.
The Court concluded that limits on private spending on political candidates and causes violated free speech. Some remain. The Super PACs are not meant to coordinate with the candidates – emphasis on “meant”. But in general, if you want to fork out to get the folks you like elected, go for it.
What followed was predictable. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, in the 2006 midterm election only two donors in the land gave $1m (£659,000) or more to outside groups. In 2010, that rose to 26. Last year 84 people exceeded the $1m donation. At what point does all this spin out of control?
It’s time we talked (again) about Charles and David Koch. Their day job is running Koch Industries. America’s second largest conglomerate operates mines, mixes chemicals and makes the paper cup on my desk. But they also run a sprawling network of political action groups all sharing their libertarian, small-government agenda.
At the network’s hub is something called Freedom Partners, which this week played host to a private gathering of 450 of its wealthiest donors. The Koch brothers attended, as did three Republican presidential hopefuls. Before it was over, the organisers announced their preferred budget for the 2016 election cycle. It will total $899m. Why not just go for a full billion?
The number sent shockwaves through the entire political universe. Someone at MSNBC fished out their calculator and reckoned that if they turned on the tap now and kept spending until Election Day in November 2016, the groups affiliated with the Kochs would disburse $1.36m a day. That’s hard to comprehend. But just so you get it, that’s around $56,899 per hour, and $948 per minute.
Their goal: to ensure that the Republicans keep control of both sides of Congress, that nothing erodes the tally of 36 states now run by Republican governors and to stop the Democrats holding on to the White House for another four years is. That $899m trove, according to the World Bank, is more than the gross national product of 14 countries. It could buy you a whole air force complete with pilots.
It is also more than the two traditional political parties themselves can hope to spend. In 2012, by way of illustration, the Republican National Committee and other party committees devoted to congressional candidates raised $686m. “It’s almost as if these folks are creating their own third political party,” said former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland, a Democrat. A party with a very tiny, elite membership.
“It’s a staggering amount of money and it’s probably just the beginning,” added Bill Burton, a Democrat consultant in Washington who was once deputy press secretary for President Barack Obama. “The truth is Democrats will never match what Republicans can put into these races.”
If we assume that she both runs and becomes the Democrat nominee, Hillary Clinton will, all by herself, send the scramble to raise and spend money to a new level. Conservatives, including the Koch network, will be energised like never before to stop her. They will characterise her at every opportunity as an enemy of free enterprise, a re-run of President Obama and his alleged secret-socialist agenda.
Charles Koch set the tone at Monday’s retreat. “Americans have taken an important step in slowing down the march toward collectivism,” he proclaimed, scaring up the crowd with good Soviet terminology. “But as many of you know, we don’t rest on our laurels. We are already back at work and hard at it.”
Democrats are no slouches at this game, by the way. In 2012, the Obama campaign raised just over $1bn for itself. And the party has its own billionaire allies, including George Soros and Tom Steyer, a California hedge-fund manager whose last year spent nearly $80m on outside groups backing his pro-environment stance. But when one signal group plans to spend almost a billion dollars all on its own, the playing field will never be levelled.
And thus the electoral arms race will escalate further. We can put much blame on the Brothers Koch, but not all of it. Both sides will participate and democracy in America as we think we understand it will be imperiled more than ever. Replace “military” with “campaigns”, and you see why Mr Eisenhower’s admonition to his country from just over half a century ago seems so apt in this context, even eerie.
“Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society,” he declared. “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Indeed.