Friday, October 22, 2010

Tea Party Kochheads?

[This article will also appear in the Macalester Review.]

The demagoguery of politics illustrates an interesting principle; it is easier to ‘otherize’, or alienate, your opponents than to understand them. Such is the case with the Koch brothers, a pair of libertarian corporate moguls who fund a variety of think tanks and activist outfits with their preponderant wealth.

Jane Meyer’s piece (“Covert Operations”) from The New Yorker fits this mold. Her essential thesis? Two men, Charles and David Koch, are employing limitless financial resources to attack the political establishment from all corners on a quest to fill their corporate pockets.

From the very beginning of the piece we see the process of otherization at work. The first photo in the article exhibits the most sinister portrayal of David Koch, a man slowly dying of prostate cancer, the world has ever seen. Continuing with this theme, she shifts to a ‘chilly’ hotel in Austin, Texas, where astro-turfing minions conspire.

I had to raise an eyebrow here. Has Meyer ever lived in Texas? After more summer vacations to Austin than I can count, I can forthrightly attest that the heat is sweltering. But I digress.

The author goes on to delineate the network of organizations the pair funds- the ‘Kochtopus’. Over the span of three decades they have funded and participated in the founding of the Americans for Prosperity, CATO Institute, Reason Foundation, Federalist Society, Institute for Humane Studies, and the Mercatus Center. All focus on different (but often over-lapping) aspects of libertarianism.

Jane Meyer is at her best when she sticks to facts. One of the strongest portions of her article deals with some of the less savory actions of Koch Industries. For example, she describes how one Senate committee accused Koch Oil of “a widespread and sophisticated scheme to steal crude oil from Indians and others through fraudulent mismeasuring” and launched an investigation the matter (after a flood of Koch Industries lobbyists descended upon the committee, no charges were filed).

Similarly, the company was forced to settle when accused of responsibility for three hundred oil spills and the release of the carcinogen benzene into the environment. She also accurately points out that, “their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000.”

All of these provide an excellent perspective to the mindset of the Koch brothers in the business world. Nevertheless, Meyer begins to err when she claims their libertarian views “dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”

For example, in one instance she argues that the Mercatus Center’s advocacy for deregulation of all types was a clear example of the Koch brothers funneling money to an institution solely to advance its business interests. However, libertarians hold that regulation can act as monopolizing forces for companies like Koch Industries. Thomas O’Malley, a major player in the petroleum industry, asks “Why in the world would you fight clean fuels? ... The more stringent you make specifications, those become barriers to entry. ... Strong companies would have an advantage.”

Similarly, Meyer makes a fuss about the brothers’ admiration of Nobel laureate of FA Hayek. However, she fails to grasp what Hayek actually supported. For example, the 2005 energy bill that gave large companies like Koch Industries tax breaks and subsidies would be an example of government-encouraged monopoly; Hayek explicitly rejects this concept in several books. In addition, his work Law, Legislation and Liberty describes a certain role for general environmental rules set by the government in a libertarian society. In essence, Hayek would likely not endorse the business methods of his admirers.

In fact, many of the groups which the Koch brothers support would actually disapprove of their actions. The Reason Foundation, which vociferously attacked the Koch-supported President Bush, is a strident opponent of corporate welfare. In addition, the Institute for Humane Studies often hosts Timothy Carney, who generally discusses “the evils of corporate welfare and bailouts, and the destructive influence of the Big Business lobby in Washington,” at events the Koch brothers attend.

Furthermore, it seems that the brothers’ donations to political candidates seem to contradict their ideology. In New York, David Koch has donated large amounts to Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign. Similarly, Koch Industries funnels significant funding to Kansas Republicans Todd Tiahrt and Sam Brownback, two beacons of social conservatism. In fact, the company’s PAC donated the maximum sum to Trey Grayson in the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, despite the presence of libertarian standard-bearer Rand Paul in the race.

It seems that there are two political sides to the Koch brothers. One the one hand, they lobby Washington for special business privileges and environmental exemptions by donating to candidates who control the gears of power. On the other hand, the corporate executives donate millions of dollars to those institutions which can shift public discourse towards their ideal political system. Rather than viewing this as a symbiotic relationship, the two goals are almost mutually exclusive.

But is the corporate money itself immoral, regardless of intentions? In this regard, the critics of the Koch brothers have less ground to stand on. Let’s face it: smart people who publish academic studies cannot feed themselves without money. Even Meyer must acknowledge this point, as Tim Carney points out that she, “cites the blogs ThinkProgress and ClimateProgress, the Web site Media Matters and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy without ever mentioning they are funded by billionaire financier George Soros.” Soros, of course, is the liberal billionaire who donated over $100 million to MoveOn.org in the hopes of ousting President George W Bush in 2004. Iconoclastic liberaltarian David Weigel explains, “The reality is that think tanks and public interest magazines are funded by rich people.” The same would apply to activist outfits like Americans for Prosperity, the much-maligned brainchild of David Koch.

One final point must be made. If the Koch clan really intends to monopolize and control the Tea Party movement, they have done a pretty shoddy job. Kenneth Vogel writes in Politico, “the handful of tea party groups that have raised substantial amounts … through pre-existing connections to wealthy donors, are viewed suspiciously within the movement.

Local groups have been left to literally pass hats seeking donations at their meetings or rely on their organizers’ bank accounts…”

As somebody who has attended Tea Party protests in the past, I can attest that the individual local rally has zero connection to some shadowy financier. The Koch brothers may, in a very indirect fashion, provide some activism training and organizations capacity to small pockets of an angry conservative electorate. However, the efforts of national groups at micro-managing or co-opting Tea Party supporters is like throwing a rock into a river and hoping it will stop flowing.

After bailouts and record deficits under President Bush and stimulus spending and healthcare reform under President Obama, the conservative electorate of the country is angry at some alien ‘establishment. This has generated surprising amounts of activism from those on the right. When I attended the Republican Party of Texas state convention this year, they announced that over half of those present were attending for the first time. The electorate is angry, but it is seeking a way to engage.

Nevertheless, it is inconvenient for those on the left to simply ascribe their electoral troubles to anti-establishment furor (a weapon first utilized in 2008 by President Obama). Conservatives otherized Barack Obama on talk radio, speculating on his faith and shady associates to alienate him from the majority. Now, we see the left undertaking a similar experiment- the otherization of the Tea Party. David and Charles Koch just happen to be the convenient others to lambaste.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Spoil Your Vote: The Case For Voting Third Party

[Note: This article will also appear in the Macalester Review].

[Secondary Note, 4/3/2012: Since writing this article a long time ago I have since rethought some of these arguments. In general, there are many advantages to working within the two party system, considering the unworkability of everybody voting in the manner described in this piece and the resulting inability to form a meaningful electoral coalition. Still, I think I articulated an interesting perspective in this piece that is worth reading.]

When you have to vote for the lesser of two evils, voting can give you a dirty feeling. Take our last three presidential elections. In 2000, 96.3% of voters supported a major party candidate for President of the United States. In 2004, the figure jumped to 99%. In 2008, the numbers were relatively unchanged at 98.6%.

But what did the country gain from its steadfast support of the two major parties? President Bush’s record of fiscal recklessness, including a deeply flawed Medicare reform package and corporatist bailouts, stands for itself. Similarly, President Obama has made little effort to substantively cut the deficit, increasing defense spending while passing a massive stimulus package filled with corporatist public-private partnerships.

Readers may be surprised to discover the striking parallel between Republicans and Democrats on other issues. Under President Bush, the DEA destroyed the concept of federalism with its rampant drug raids of medicinal marijuana dispensaries; similarly, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder opposed the marijuana-legalizing Proposition 19 in California on the grounds that it erodes federal authority.
Foreign policy is the same. President Bush supported war in Iraq and Afghanistan, killing tens of thousands of civilians and destabilizing two nations in the process. Meanwhile, President Obama’s administration continues combat operations without the name in Iraq and backs a nepotistic regime with a new troop surge in Afghanistan. Furthermore, President Obama has dramatically expanded President Bush’s nascent drone strikes in Pakistan (which according to former Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen killed approximately 14 senior Al Qaeda operatives to 700 civilians during a three-year span).

Even on civil liberties, a fundamental bulwark of procedural integrity in any democratic state, the parallels between our heads of state are readily apparent. Bush embraced Guantanamo Bay; Obama has given up on its closure while acting like similar problems do not exist in bases like Bagram in Afghanistan. In addition, both men embrace the growing power of the executive branch of government. Infamous blogger Glenn Greenwald sums it up best when he declares that “on matters of American empire or “state secrets,” the administration is as bad as Bush if not worse.”

Albert Einstein once declared that insanity is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Considering the insanity of the electoral status quo for our country, it may be high time to vote for a third party.

Many will claim that a third party candidate cannot win; however, history dispels this motion. For the purposes of this article, I exclude those candidates who are Independent or minor party candidates on the basis of expediency (including Senator Joseph Lieberman and Governor Charlie Crist). Successful outsider candidates include our own former Reform Party Governor Jesse Ventura, current Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and former Maine Governors James Longley and Angus King. In fact, every year a handful of Independent and minor party state legislators are elected nationwide.

In addition, some state-level minor parties have made significant strides in creating viable electoral alternatives to the two major parties. Two examples rise prominently above the fray. First is the Minnesota Independence Party. This was the party that helped elect Jesse Ventura Governor of our state. In addition, the IP regularly fields candidates breaking double-digit support in statewide contests, including Tim Penny in 2002 and Dean Barkley in 2008.
Similarly, the Vermont Progressive Party has become a significant force in that state’s electoral politics. In 2006, Progressive Anthony Pollina polled over 25% in November, defeating his Democratic opponent for runner-up status. Each year, its candidates win several seats in the state legislature. In addition, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has a longstanding relationship with the party.

Other state parties are also on the rise. The Green Party maintains strong organizational capabilities in Maine, Arkansas, and Illinois. Similarly, the Libertarian Party has shown growing strength in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. One can similarly find growing Constitution, Working Families, and even Pirate Parties all over the country.

Even on a presidential level, the potential exists for a winning Independent candidate. In 1992, Ross Perot led the polls throughout the summer before the election; he arguably lost the election only upon inexplicably dropping out of the race for an entire month. Despite this major blunder, the eccentric billionaire managed 19% of the vote in November. Such an election could happen again; in fact, statistical guru Nate Silver points out that, “It’s quite easy to make a case that the terrain could be favorable for a third-party candidate in 2012.”

Of course, there are third party candidates who never have a chance to win. They may have negligible fundraising, little media attention, or simply choose not to campaign. Nevertheless, credible reasons remain to pull the lever for such candidates.

Let’s confront reality- your one individual vote will often not change the outcome of an election. Most congressional and state legislative districts are gerrymandered, so we know which party will win an election before it ever happens (unless you were in Massachusetts for Scott Brown’s upset). In addition, if an election is close enough to make each individual vote count, you simply move into the recount stage (which puts its primary emphasis on which votes are deemed valid).
However, individual votes do matter for minor parties and Independent candidates. The simplest function of this is the protest vote- you are an average citizen who is pissed off with the major party candidates, and you want to scream your displeasure by ‘spoiling’ your vote. This does serve a certain purpose, as it can force the major parties to expand their political base to account for your interests (provided enough similarly-minded voters also ‘protest vote’).

Nevertheless, there is a more practical function performed when you vote third party. Candidates outside of the major parties have difficulty creating a political base with the requisite fundraising capabilities and volunteer network. However, a strong showing at the polls can help alleviate this burden. For starters, many states have vote tests that determine ballot access for minor parties. Without meeting a certain polling threshold in previous elections, minor parties like the Libertarians and Greens must funnel thousands upon thousands of dollars to petition their way onto the ballot. However, if a party meets a vote test it can save this money for actual campaigning. In addition, strong electoral performances signal viability to potential donors and volunteers in subsequent bids for office for third party candidates. Thus, in a paradoxical fashion voting for a candidate who will not win can have a bigger effect than voting for the candidates that can.

I must add a caveat before I conclude. I am not saying that every major party candidate should be disowned. Indeed, I am a Republican who voted in my party’s primary and attended the state convention in 2010. Every now and then, I find decent candidates slip through the cracks of the Republocratic machine and find themselves on general election ballots. In that case, have no qualms about voting for a major party candidate. But if you really don’t like the major party choices in November, don’t feel dirty; spoil your vote.