Usborne in the USA: How the Koch brothers, backed by the Supreme Court, threaten democracy

Fat cheques have more of an impact than quaint old newspapers

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There was a moment early last year when rumours flew that Charles and David Koch were circling to buy the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune. Why not? Owning big city newspapers has long been a way for families to bend the political landscape to their advantage going back to William Randolph Hearst.

The billionaire brothers, ageing patriarchs of the mighty Koch Industries, based in Kansas, backed off the idea when they realised how quaint it really was. In America these days there is a much more direct way to get the kind of government you want. You use your money like artillery shells to obliterate the candidates you don’t like – it’s hard-hat time for Democrats – while lavishing financial support on those you do.

The river of private cash into American politics became a torrent after a 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United that erased all caps on campaign spending by corporations and unions. That was bad enough. But just yesterday, the Court, voting five to four along ideological lines, doubled down with a new ruling that removes the ceiling on the combined amount of cash individuals can give to candidates, political parties or political action committees over two-year periods.

After Citizens United, big donors like the Kochs quickly began marshalling cash to those action committees, who can then use it to barge into congressional races around the land, blitzing those they want defeated with attack ads. Now they’ll be able to pour still more of their personal fortunes directly into the coffers of parties and candidates.

“If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision we fear will open a floodgate,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion yesterday. “It understates the importance of protecting the political integrity of our governmental institution.”

The limits on private contributions to individual candidates remain, but Republicans were still thrilled. “When free speech is allowed to flourish, our democracy is stronger,” declared Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. The rich, with some notable exceptions, don’t tend to give to Democrats.

Mr Priebus’s characterisaton is absurd. How will it make democracy stronger? With its two rulings, the Court has ensured that what we understand as democracy, where every American has an equal voice in choosing their leaders, will be subverted yet more by the wallets of a tiny class of wealthy political extremists. They also invite ever greater political corruption. These folks expect a return on their money.

“America is not yet an oligarchy, but that’s where the Kochs and a few other billionaires are taking us,” Robert Reich, the former President Clinton Labour Secretary and professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley, warned in a blog post this week, even before this latest ruling. Bernie Sanders, the independent US senator from Vermont, similarly sounded off. “This process – a handful of the wealthiest people in our country controlling the political process – is called ‘oligarchy’”, he said

Consider what happened at the end of last week in Las Vegas when Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner of The Venetian and other casinos, hosted the annual meeting of Jewish donors to the GOP. The keynote speakers were Republicans hoping to run for president in 2016. Jeb Bush went and so did Governors Chris Christie, John Kasich and Scott Walker (New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin.) Their real purpose: to suck up to Mr Adelson, who dispensed $100m in 2012 trying, in vain, to deny Barack Obama a second term.

This pitiful display was dubbed by some the first “primary” of 2016, so vital to all of them was winning Mr Adelson’s favour (and the key to his piggy bank).

The low ebb of the audition parade came when Mr Christie apologised to Mr Adelson after a speech in which he referred to his having flown over the “Occupied Territories” while on a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The audience had collectively shuddered and so had money-bags Adelson. How could the governor even suggest that Israel was guilty of occupying anything?

The Koch’s have meanwhile spent $14m (£8.4m) already this year, mostly via two of their favoured action committees, Americans for Prosperity and American Encore, trying to unseat incumbent Democrats in tight Senate re-election races. On Monday, the latter group, spent $30,000 on television ads bashing Democrat Senate leader Harry Reid in Nevada even though he doesn’t face re-election there until 2016. 

For his part, Mr Reid has taken to lambasting the Koch brothers at every opportunity. Demonising them will be at the heart of the Democratic Party’s strategy to minimise Senate and House losses this November.

“It’s a fool’s errand for the Koch brothers to think they can use their money to frighten me or to brainwash Nevadans or the rest of the country,” he declared on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. “There have been times in my life I’ve been a little afraid, but I’m not afraid of them… I’m proud to be the target of those attacks. I will gladly endure them in order to call attention to the unscrupulous acts of these two barons.”

Just barons. Not press barons, a moniker that used to stir fear in America’s political classes but no longer. How much easier it is to short-circuit democracy by writing cheques than opinion pieces. (So I’ll stop there.)

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