When Money Controls Politics
Written by Amy Greschaw
American politics are influenced by a churning sea of hotly-contested issues: immigration, climate change, energy, economic policy, education, and healthcare to name but a handful of the hundreds of issues. While each issue is doubtlessly more complicated than a yes or no voting ballot, during an election their complexity will be reduced to just that: one party’s view or the other; the Democrats or the Republicans. Many Americans will vote instinctively along party lines they’ve chosen sometime in the past, but every year millions of undecided voters will rely on advertising to decide which candidate represents their best interests, and how they will cast their ballot on the issues. Though information about an election’s contentious issues certainly abounds, how easily is the message manipulated when the interest of one or a handful of individuals controls a large chunk of the media information?
Charles Koch is an American billionaire and the CEO of Koch Industries, a corporation that earns its money primarily through petrochemicals, manufacturing, and oil refining (Profile, n.d.). Worth more than $40 billion, he and his brother David have invested a significant chunk of their wealth to winning the 2014 Senate election for the Republicans, prompting Sen. Harry Reid to accuse Koch of trying to buy the country (Ibid). Koch denied the accusation, and chastised Sen. Reid for making it, calling the act beneath him (Ibid). However, when you start adding up the issues Mr. Koch and his billions have endeavored to dominate, the accusation seems far from ridiculous.
Mr. Koch’s sphere of influence is wide and varied. Documents uncovered by Republic Report have revealed Charles Koch to be the founder of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), a non-profit organization that conducts research and performs analysis on public policies affecting the oil, gas, coal, and electricity markets (Fang, 2014). The IER is critical of public policy seeking to curb dependence on fossil fuels and to provide incentives for research into and implementation of renewable energy sources, and spends millions of dollars protecting the interests of the very industries in which Mr. Koch makes his living. While the IER makes ads attacking environmentalists and the EPA, other nonprofit groups under the Koch brothers’ control have produced TV ads attacking politicians for supporting a variety of public policies, chief among them Obamacare (Beckel, 2014). The Center for Public Integrity estimates that the Koch brothers’ dollars are responsible for 1 in 10 political ads aired so far in the 2014 Senate election (Ibid). During a summit sponsored by Koch, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, Richard Fink, drew a direct line between increasing the country’s minimum wage and the “rise of fascism, totalitarianism, and terrorist suicide bombers”, even going so far as to raise the specter of the Third Reich (Fischer, 2014). There hardly seems an issue in the 2014 election that Charles Koch and his brother David have not used their wealth to influence.
Of course, like any citizens of this country, the brothers Koch have a right to speak their mind on each and every one of these issues. While their political leanings skew to the right, they are only one example of how wealth and power influence American elections; they are certainly not the only two people guilty of trying to effectively buy an election. They do, however, illustrate a very important principle: while each individual is allowed the unlimited freedom to speak their mind, does possession of disproportionate wealth entitle someone to disproportionate control over information? With his billions, Mr. Koch buys not just a platform for himself. With dozens of non-profit groups and Political Action Committees (PACs), he can afford the appearance of overwhelming consensus on the issues he finds important. And with names such as Americans for Prosperity and Concerned Veterans for America, do the people who encounter the television ads, scientific studies, and policy reports these groups churn out really know who is standing behind them?
The ideas that the business of lobbying should be reformed, and that the interests behind PACs and non-profit groups seeking to influence policy should be more transparent, are not new. However, the very same interests that pump dollars into these elections prevent any reform from happening. An important component of evaluating information is knowing where that information is coming from, and what interests it might serve. Fighting for lobbying reform is serving the interests of the American public and their right to accurate information.
Amy Greschaw will graduate in December 2014 with her MLIS and a Graduate Certificate in Information Management, specializing in Web Design. Amy acts as the Coordinator of Volunteers at Farmington Community Library in Farmington Hills, MI. She’s also responsible for managing the ESL and International Language collections, and she has a hand in programming, including Summer Reading and a monthly discussion group for writers. Amy is a writer herself, and has had a handful of short stories and essays published. Her list of hobbies is always growing, but includes organic gardening, knitting, and riding her bike.
Beckel, M. (2014, September 4). The Kochs’ Political Ad Machine. Retrieved September 7, 2014, fromhttp://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/09/david_and_charles_koch_s_political_ad_machine_the_conservative_billionaires.html
Fang, L. (2014, August 30). Charles Koch Personally Founded Group Protecting Oil Industry Hand-Outs, Documents Reveal. Retrieved September 7, 2014, fromhttp://www.republicreport.org/2014/charles-koch-personally-founded-group-protecting-oil-industry-hand-outs-documents-reveal/
Fischer, B. (2014, September 5). Koch Operative: Raise the Wage, Totalitarianism and Terrorism Follow? Retrieved September 5, 2014, fromhttp://www.prwatch.org/news/2014/09/12588/koch-strategist-connects-minimum-wage-fascism-suicide-bombers
Profile: Charles Koch. (n.d.). Retrieved September 7, 2014, fromhttp://www.forbes.com/profile/charles-koch/