Whenever a party can't answer for its own record, it looks for easy figures to demagogue as a distraction. Neither party's hands are clean in this regard, but the treatment of Charles and David Koch by the Democratic Party — and by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in particular — breaks new ground in the art of distraction and accountability avoidance.
The Koch brothers, as they are commonly known, run an enormous empire that operates primarily in the energy industry. While they inherited a family business, the two brothers have vastly expanded its reach over the last few decades through their own acumen, risk, and toil. They are billionaires who adhere to a libertarian, laissez-faire set of political beliefs, in both fiscal and social policy. They have no reservation about using their personal fortune in activism, focusing mainly on opposition to the growth of the regulatory state and on freeing capital for investment and economic expansion.
No one doubts that these efforts represent their own self-interest, as well as service to their core political beliefs. And no one denies that their wealth makes them extremely effective in their activism. They provide much of the funding for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that organizes grassroots activists and produces attack ads against progressive candidates at the state and federal level. Most of those ads in this cycle are aimed at incumbent Democrats in Congress, in a year that won't likely to be terribly kind to their re-election chances anyway.
As anyone who enters the public debate knows, scrutiny is part of the price one pays for promoting an agenda of any kind. Whether a person contributes to organizations that push a political vision, conducts the speech directly, or even has less direct connections to the policy issues at hand, their activism becomes fair game for criticism and opposition. No one will lose sleep over critics launching attacks on billionaires for their political efforts, nor should they. Advertisements funded in part by contributions from the Kochs are certainly part of that territory. To the extent that their factual claims can be challenged, opponents are well within their rights to correct the record and to challenge their motivations. Free speech does not mean freedom from rebuttals — as the Kochs themselves would surely be the first to acknowledge, given how much of their effort goes into such criticism in the first place.
Democrats, however, have gone far beyond this. Reid has used the Senate floor to cast the two industrialists in terms that echoes the worst of McCarthyism. Starting a few weeks ago, Reid declared the Koch brand of dissent "un-American," a charge he repeated on more than one occasion since. Running ads against ObamaCare — a government program whose incompetent design and rollout practically scream for accountability — amounts to an attempt to "buy America," according to Reid.
"It's time that the American people spoke out against this terrible dishonesty of these two brothers," Reid railed from the dais, "who are about as un-American as anyone I can imagine."
Nor is Reid alone in this. Democratic organizations and affiliated PACs have made the Kochs the focus of their fund-raising and messaging strategies. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) doubled down on Reid's assertions in a recent appearance on MSNBC's Morning Joe, when host Joe Scarborough demanded a straight answer on whether speaking one's mind and contributing one's own money to political causes qualifies as "un-American," or only when that speech opposes the Democrats' agenda. "No two people should have such a huge influence on our politics. That's not First Amendment," Schumer finally responded. "I think the commercials he is running are against the American grain and un-American, yes."
The First Amendment, it should be noted, offers no such commentary on how influential one, two, or even 535 people should be in relation to everyone else. It does have something to say about who should make that decision, however: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or the press." The text further states that Congress has no say over the right of people "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances," of which ObamaCare clearly qualifies for the majority of Americans. The framers didn't intend to create a utopian system of equal influence for everyone, but made sure to keep the government from dictating who could influence politics, and how.
This populist shriek is a nonsense argument even beyond Reid and Schumer's oddly constipated response to the backlash. Democrats like Reid and Schumer, and their party and its affiliates, had little complaint when billionaires like George Soros organized grassroots into messaging attack dogs against Republicans. Reid and Schumer all but rented out the Senate last month on behalf of another billionaire, global warming activist Thomas Steyer, even though Senate Democrats had no legislation to offer.
But Schumer's argument on the First Amendment is revealing in more than one way, and not just about Democrats. The Republican Party routinely demonized Soros during the 2006–08 election cycles in much the same way Democrats are doing with the Kochs in 2014. In both cases, the party in power had nothing more to offer the American electorate other than the demonization of peripheral characters. Neither had the courage to run on their own records and cheerfully withstand accountability on the basis of them.
Republicans didn't get far with Soros-noia, and so far Democrats aren't scoring with Kochs-teria, either. The Reid strategy hasn't actually succeeded in engaging the electorate where those efforts have been concentrated, perhaps in part because fact checkers keep demolishing Democratic attacks on the Kochs. Voters aren't impressed, which may be the silver lining in this cloud of irresponsibility.
The First Amendment was intended to keep government from suppressing dissent to ensure that elected officials are held accountable for their actions. One doesn't need to cheer for billionaires to recognize that the attacks from Reid and Schumer are an attempt to thwart that accountability. That kind of politics isn't un-American either, but it's closer to that mark than anything the Koch brothers have done.