Senator Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, has on a couple of occasions now taken to the floor of the Senate to hack away at the infamous Koch brothers for the undue influence they think they have a right to exercise in politics in America. It was what one might call unabashed proclamation of a belief that in this country, money is king, that the Koch brothers would in turn issue a statement charging that Reid was being “un-American” for lambasting their having a money trough made available to seemingly anyone whose credentials align with the right-wing ideology playbook.
The high profile the Koch brothers’ name has attained in recent times because of this front-row presence in the electioneering process is one of the foremost reminders of a scary turn this country’s politics has taken. More so following the Supreme Court’s clearing the way for a money glut in election campaigns with its devastating Citizens United decision of 2010. That 5-4 ruling, breaking down like so many others along ideological lines among the court brethren, was when all palaver in Washington about campaign finance reform, lily-livered though it tended to be anyway, exited stage right with nary a fanfare.
Truth be told, it was provisions in one of the last congressional brushes with (tepid) campaign finance reform, the so-called McCain-Feingold legislation of 2002, that triggered the Supreme Court’s floodgates-opening decision. Restrictions imposed by McCain-Feingold on campaign funding by corporations, labor unions and others were the focus of a suit that ultimately reached the nation’s highest court. When “swing vote” Justice Anthony Kennedy joined with the court’s conservative faction to overturn the lower court’s ruling, for the Koch brothers and others intent on major influence buying, the war dance was on. Justice Samuel Alito mouthed his disagreement with the president at the 2010 State of the Union, when Obama denounced the negative impact the decision to allow an unimpeded money flow would have on the electoral process. Alito’s “not true” to the president has so far proven to be anything but accurate prognosticating of the effects of his and his cronies’ handiwork.
The necessity to build up a hefty war chest to run for office and remain there if elected has been part of the fabric of American politics for years now, many an incumbent who wasn’t personally wealthy bowing out under the pressure to constantly raise funds and unavoidably compromise the time devoted to serving constituents. It’s one of the reasons there’s justifiable concern about the quality of human stock installed in elective office today and going forward. The eagerness of a profusion of political action committees, many of them funded by giants of industry, to funnel money to candidates or causes just as long as the contributor’s interests are served is hardly a formula for ensuring that the brightest and best wind up as representatives of the people. It is, rather, the means by which we make a mockery of the democratic process.
For years the GOP, overwhelmingly the party of big business and the priveleged, enjoyed a huge advantage in funds available for presidential and other races. In 1988, Michael Dukakis, running against George H.W. Bush, made some strides toward leveling the playing field. Bill Clinton in 1992 took Democratic Party fund raising to new levels, so much as to outshine the other side. But it was the well-oiled machine assembled by Obama in 2008 that broke it open with an unprecedented outreach effort that targeted the full electorate spectrum, from some of the fattest wallets to the grassroots. At least as far as the ability to fundraise, the view from the Democratic side was no longer lopsidedly negative.
But no sooner had Democrats brought themselves somewhat up to battle-ready speed then came the Citizens United game changer. The tycoon prepared to spend whatever it takes to try to get elected is one thing. This gear shift, courtesy the high court, which gave a green light to super rich defenders of the status quo to outlay limitless funds to preserve an America they fancy, never mind majority sentiment to the contrary, is as troubling as it gets. The Koch brothers and others of their ilk are obviously determined to use the authority handed them by Citizens United to deploy resources wherever around the country there are available foot soldiers to get the job done, the job extending even to state and local political control. Senator Reid has every reason to be at once appalled and enraged at this barefaced theft of the people’s democracy.
To hear the Koch brothers tell it, theirs is the American way – a point of view much in tune with voices from within the celebrated one percent, ever since a more powerful beam came to be focused on that group. As for the rest of us, one cringes at the notion of a ruling shaped by five justices compromising the operation of this democratic model of which Americans boast. Its framers, consciously or otherwise, placed their bets on an ongoing exercise of interpretation and re-interpretation of the Constitution. The Citizens United interpretation gave the likes of the Koch brothers, for who knows how much longer, tools to manipulate “We the people.” There’s a lot wrong with that.