It has been almost fifteen years since I worked as a fundraiser for the Libertarian Party. I was not very good. In fairness, it is extremely difficult to raise money for a third party in the United States. There are few victories. There are a lot of failures. It takes an extraordinarily skilled and experienced fundraiser to make it work. Unfortunately, I was just out of college and had neither skills nor experience.
But I learned quite a bit about money in politics. I have a different perspective because there was not much opportunity to corrupt the process. I did not have any offices to sell. We fought a uphill battle to become statistically significant. There was never enough money. The Democrats and Republicans had too many advantages.
I just finished Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money. It’s mainly about Charles and David Koch but describes the larger Conservative large donor machine. David Koch is a Libertarian folk-hero because he ran for Vice President on the Libertarian ticket. His role was to personally bankroll the campaign into relevancy. As a candidate he was able to contribute as much as he wanted to the political campaign.
Mayer believes the 1980 Presidential campaign proved people did not accept Libertarian ideas. The campaign won 921,000 votes for just 1.1%. They would not win as many votes until 2012 (1.3 million) or 2016 when they won a larger percent of the vote (3.3%). The difference was the money. A small campaign uses money to create exposure and develop credibility. But Mayer account of the 1980 Libertarian campaign shows she fails to understand the hurdles for American third parties.
The bulk of the Koch money was spent on ballot access. The big accomplishment in 1980 was just getting onto the ballot. The American political system has challenges for small political parties unknown in other countries. Each state has different requirements to get onto the ballot. The major parties remain on the ballot because they meet specific thresholds. Indiana requires 2% in the Secretary of State’s race. Without this threshold it takes signatures from 2% of voters in the state. Petition campaigns this large rely on paid workers. It is common for signatures to get thrown out, so it takes substantially more signatures.
American third parties face a variety of legal and cultural obstacles to legitimacy. This creates a discouragement loop. Media coverage is rare because the polling numbers are low. This continues to suppress poll numbers because the media does not take their candidates seriously. Libertarian candidates do not qualify for public matching funds because they need between 5 and 25% of the vote. They do not qualify for the Presidential debates because they do not have enough support. But they do not have support because they are left out of events that legitimize their candidacy. In the end, their candidates are weak. Strong candidates want to win elections.
The Libertarian Party of 1980 faced all these obstacles. But they ran candidates and continued to survive to this day. Why? Mayer mistakes the extremism of the Libertarian Party as a natural outcome of their beliefs. Its extremism is a necessity of electoral laws. The obstacles they face are insurmountable, so the only supporters left become those who feel so disenfranchised from the major political parties they accept its fate. Political activists are typically more radical than the average voter. The Libertarian Party is stripped of its moderate voter base, so it is just left with the most extreme of its activists. But like the early years of the Worker’s Party in Brazil, it was able to retain its identity through ideological fidelity.
I learned money does not buy elections. It is insulting to believe people will change their vote because somebody spent enough money. Even in cultures where vote buying has become the norm, it is not acceptable to pay too much for their votes. But I did learn those committed to political activism have the largest wallets. Volunteers find a way to make another contribution. It is harder to raise funds from someone who lacks a personal connection to a campaign, political party or cause. And the largest donors and most involved activists do expect influence. They expect to have a larger say.
I don’t think the Kochs compare themselves to a middle-class household who finds a way to give $100, $500 or even $1000 to a candidate they believe in. They look at other wealthy donors and wonder why they don’t give more. There is a free rider problem for the wealthy. Mayer is right that the political causes the Kochs support will help their bottom line. But she misses that most corporations do not see the returns from the money the Kochs give. Most companies give enough money to get access. They want just enough influence to affect politics at the margins where people don’t pay attention. The Kochs want to affect the core of American policy. This takes evangelism.
Mayer is right that the Kochs do not represent the best in business. She points out numerous behaviors that cross the line from inappropriate to illegal. And she is right they want to transform politics. But she takes some credible attacks and mixes them with ad hominem assaults. The premise in her book is that money corrupts politics. She assumes the business interests think solely in terms of profit margins. I believe it is possible to both act in one’s self interest and according to one’s personal ethics. Especially because our ideas are shaped by our experiences. And the experiences of the Kochs are unlike the rest of America. They have had a privileged life. Why would their politics reflect my experience?
jmk, carmel, indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org