Published on: September 25, 2016 |
This was supposed to be the year that the American billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch, bought the presidency in their zealous bid to reshape the United States into a libertarian utopia.
Another Republican billionaire ended that dream. Donald Trump refused to seek either their backing or their blessing.
On the Democratic Party side, outsider Bernie Sanders nearly derailed the well-funded hopes of Hillary Clinton with his appeal to get big money out of politics.
But it’s folly to take this as evidence that money — especially “dark money” — isn’t a factor, says investigative reporter Jane Mayer.
The Koch brothers are the fifth richest people in the world, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $41 billion. They are at the centre of a tangled web of non-profit organizations and foundations that are spending $750 million this electoral season. That’s nearly equal to the campaign budgets of the Republican and Democratic parties.
While it is completely legal, Mayer calls it the “weaponizing of philanthropy.”
This year, largely because of the Koch brothers, two-thirds of all campaign funds are this so-called “dark money.” Eighty per cent will be spent by Republican candidates for the senate, house of representatives and state governor.
Mayer was in Vancouver Friday on a break from the election campaign to speak at UBC. She quotes former Bush aide (and Canadian) David Frum, who described the Kochs and their supporters as “the radical rich” who have moved Republican Party policies to the extreme fringe.
Others call the Kochs “anarcho-totalitarians,” according to Mayer, a New Yorker reporter who spent five years researching her book, Dark Money.
As Canadians watching the gong-show of the U.S. presidential election and hearing some Americans muse about coming north as political refugees, it’s tempting to be more than a little smug.
That too is folly. Mayer blames citizen apathy for what’s happened in the United States, a lack of vigilance over the ho-hum issue of election campaign financing and spending limits that brought the United States to this place and a failure to demand greater transparency.
Canadians can take some comfort in the fact that the federal government banned unions and corporations from making political contributions in 2015. Only individuals can make political donations and the maximum is $1,500 to each party and $1,500 in total at the riding level.
But the roots of an underground network for dark money are planted at the local and provincial levels. And the Koch brothers are connected to Canada as the largest foreign investors in Alberta’s oilsands and as donors to the Fraser Institute, which has reportedly received $765,000 from them in the last decade.
Given the Kochs’ investments in Alberta, it’s perhaps no surprise that one of the first things Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government did was pass campaign financing laws that mirror the federal legislation.
But in British Columbia, the Liberal government has repeatedly refused to follow those examples. When a private member’s bill was introduced in the spring session of the legislature, it was shot down by the Liberal majority.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong reasoned that the cost of an election campaign should not be borne by taxpayers, but by people, corporations and organizations that “make their own decisions about whether or not they want to support a politician, a candidate or a party.”
As a result, the B.C. Liberal government has also refused to amend municipal campaign financing laws that also allow for donations by corporations, unions and non-profits.
So far, there is no Canadian equivalent to the attempts by the Koch brothers to radically transform the United States both through massive campaign spending and large donations to more than 300 colleges that now have Koch-funded programs, scholarships and academic-funded research.
But there’s no doubt of their influence in the United States. There, through surrogates, Mayer says, they are systematically implementing the Libertarian Party’s 1980 platform when David Koch ran as its vice-presidential candidate.
Included in that platform were promises to eliminate the FBI, CIA and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as end independent oversight of elections, income and corporate taxes, Medicaid and social assistance.
So, as much as the presidential campaign is a train-wreck that most of us can’t take our eyes off, it’s largely irrelevant.
Regardless of whether Trump or Clinton is president, a Koch-aligned Congress will make it difficult, if not impossible, to pass legislation — including campaign financing reform — that doesn’t fit with the Koch agenda.
Trump and Sanders reflected the fact that many Americans recognized that their country is no longer really a democracy. It’s more like a plutocracy or autocracy — a country ruled by the wealthy or ruled by someone with absolute power.
But is it fixable? Mayer is a cautious optimist.
“It’s why I do this kind of reporting to expose things that the public needs to think about,” she said in an interview.
“But the biggest problem now is people are not getting the information. They are sequestering themselves and only listening to things in their own little corners.”