The Myths about Money in Politics Are Worse Than the Reality

Claims about the dangers of money in politics are riddled with ignorance and hypocrisy.

In each election cycle, there’s a ritual to the mantra about the role of money and how it influences our politics.

It was triggered incessantly during the 2012 presidential race between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, only to see the conservative “dark money” lose by huge margins.

It became an obsession for many in the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election in which Gov. Scott Walker clung to the seat in the Governor’s Mansion despite record opposition from union groups and liberal activists who flocked to the Badger State from around the country.

In the meantime, top progressive voices like Jane Meyer have etched out books warning about the influence of money in politics and the consequences for democracy, using Wisconsin as a key example.

Fast forward to a post-2016 election world, and the fear of billionaire conservatives has been replaced by Russian trolls with swanky algorithms and puny ad budgets.

Almost on cue, articles and research are published that aim to uncover vast alleged conspiracies among very wealthy political benefactors and nonprofit groups and politicians who espouse free-market beliefs.

Still, many activist researchers retain their obsession with the “dark money” demon. Almost on cue, articles and research are published that aim to uncover vast alleged conspiracies among very wealthy political benefactors and nonprofit groups and politicians who espouse free-market beliefs.

In concocting these webs, however, the authors draw connections so tenuous and present rationalizations so shoddy that we’re left to wonder what has become of plausible journalism.

Activist Research

The latest investigation is found in the Guardian, which Elon Musk has labeled the “most insufferable newspaper on planet Earth.” It is written by academic researchers from Columbia and Harvard and is intended to uncover the “big money” scandal between the Koch brothers and the group Americans For Prosperity.

Adding a touch of irony, the research is funded by the Ford Foundation, a left-leaning group with a $12 billion war chest and a frequent flyer status in the modern political debate arena.

For the researchers, the union reforms Gov. Walker proposed were tantamount to billionaire-inspired sabotage. In truth, AFP and the groups present in the debate presented basic facts about the influence of unions on the political process.

In their investigation, they look back to the 2012 Wisconsin gubernatorial recall election with a key focus on the Koch brothers and AFP. For the researchers, the union reforms Gov. Walker proposed were tantamount to billionaire-inspired sabotage. In truth, AFP and the groups present in the debate presented basic facts about the influence of unions on the political process.

They advocated for union reform by pointing out various inefficiencies with public sector unions: The law in contention, Act 10, struck down mandatory contributions to unions in private firms and limited collective bargaining for public sector employees, among other pension reforms (for example, it reduced the vastly bloated pensions available to politicians).

I was in Wisconsin that summer, reporting on the recall election for Watchdog.org, and I was able to interview activists and politicians from around the state on this topic. Their support of the law came down to the state’s finances and the rights of unionized employees. Should unions speak for their workers in politics, or should workers speak for themselves?

Whatever the case, what happened in Wisconsin in 2012 was vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2018 case Janus v. State, County, and Municipal Employees, where the court determined that mandatory union fee collection in public sector unions is unconstitutional. Good riddance.

Too often, employees had their paychecks go directly to supporting (mostly Democratic) candidates they might or might not have agreed with. That is a violation of the First Amendment, and the Supreme Court got that right.

Considering large labor unions contributed over $1.7 billion in the 2016 political cycle, the issue of who actually represents “dark money” is unclear.

Politics Today

In today’s political cycle, the billionaire Koch brothers, philanthropists who believe in free market ideas, have put serious money into defeating the ideas of the Trump Administration, particularly when it comes to trade tariffs and immigration restrictions.

The fact is that if the Koch brothers’ money had the influence on politics that their detractors claim, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president in 2018. Mitt Romney would.

The fact is that if the Koch brothers’ money had the influence on politics that their detractors claim, Donald Trump wouldn’t be president in 2018. Mitt Romney would.

Another egregious case also floated up to our northern neighbor, as witnessed with Canadian public broadcaster CBC during its interview with former foreign minister and now leader of the People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier. The interviewer cited Bernier’s former role at the Montreal Economic Institute, which received funds from the libertarian Atlas Network, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that has received some money from Koch-affiliated groups in the past, as proof that “billionaire libertarians” were trying to sway politics in Canada. It seems the lunacy has made its way north, as well.

Of course, money in politics is something that is far from ideal. Unless, of course, it comes from people like Tom Steyer, the billionaire who has spent a small fortune trying to impeach President Trump, or comedian and talk show host Bill Maher, who donated $1 million to re-elect Senate Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. He also threw $1 million toward the re-election campaign of Barack Obama in 2012.

That’s the reality of the debate today on the influence of money in politics. There is a lot of effort to showcase the interconnectedness or supposed conspiracies of the right but almost no focus on the left.

Topping this all off with more scaremongering about effective policy organizations is just another sign that the latest “dark money” claims are based on false assumptions and a misunderstanding of the realities of public policy. And that’s a shame.

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}