One Percent's ideological crusade: For Kochs and Adelson, it's not just money

Critics who reduce these right-wing billionaires' motives to sheer profits are missing the real -- scarier -- story

Published May 9, 2014 1:20PM (EDT)

Sheldon Adelson, David Koch                                     (AP/Julie Jacobson/Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
Sheldon Adelson, David Koch (AP/Julie Jacobson/Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Well, well, well, here we were just talking about how the Sheldon Adelsons of the world throw their money around in the politics game -- as ideological hobbies in big races, for bottom lines with lobbyists and lower-level pols -- when who decides to chime in but the senior senator from Nevada, Harry Reid.

As you may have noticed if you follow politics for at least one millisecond per month, Reid has been dragging the name of the Koch brothers, Charles and David, through the muck recently. Basically, whenever anything bad happens, Reid is quick to relate this to the Koch brothers' nefarious plots to upend our hallowed democratic traditions. Which is all well and good -- their network of donors, operatives and shady nonprofit pass-throughs, anchored by Americans for Prosperity, is spending tens or hundreds of millions of dollars once again this election cycle to refashion America, and specifically its Senate, in its "free market," libertarian visage. Fair enough: Current lax interpretations among conservative jurists of "free speech" relating to political spending allow the Kochs to do what they want; more traditional readings of "free speech" allow Reid to respond in kind, by free-speechifying on the Senate floor.

But why just the Kochs? Why doesn't he go after that other, similarly well-heeled GOP megadonor of infamy, Sheldon Adelson? Reid explained, quite poorly, why he doesn't in an NBC News interview yesterday:

Talking about the Koch Brothers, whom he routinely criticizes on the Senate floor, Reid said: “Understand these are the two richest people in the world. And they are in it to make money. That's their whole goal here -- to add zeroes to their billions.” But then when the conversation turned to Adelson, who gave Republican groups nearly $100 million in 2012, the Senate majority leader said: “I know Sheldon Adelson. He's not in this for money. He's got money. He's in it because he has certain ideological views. Now, Sheldon Adelson’s social views are in keeping with the Democrats on choice, on all kinds of things. He just got a beef with organized labor a few years ago. And he previously was a Democrat.”

Woof. This is not a good look for Harry Reid. It's obvious to anyone that the only reason Reid would say such kind things about Adelson, who drops a lot of money to defeat Democrats on the federal level, is because the two share a residency in Nevada. And, as Nevada's Jon Ralston writes, "[Adelson] may be the only human being who could change the calculus for Reid’s re-election bid in 2016." Of all the states that Adelson has bought and paid for, Nevada tops the list.

There is some truth to Reid's line that Adelson is "in it because he has certain ideological views." That is why Adelson's in "it," if by "it" we mean presidential contests. Adelson, as we noted yesterday, seems to funnel so much money into presidential contests because dictating American policy toward Israel appears to be his favorite hobby. The other "it" that he's very much into -- lobbying legislatures -- is specifically "for the money," to "add zeroes to his billions," by protecting his casino interests.

The Kochs aren't all that different. Yes, the free-market policies they promote do align more neatly with the sort of deregulation that would increase their bottom lines. But their bottom lines are still pretty damn OK even in this world of perceived crippling red tape. And their ideology does eschew certain things that could benefit the family company, such as industry subsidies. The Kochs, like Adelson, conduct much of Koch Industries' day-to-day bottom-line enhancing through lobbyists -- it comes from company money and is more below the radar than their massive ideological agenda spending.

Because the Koch brothers really are ideologues, and are well-versed in all the libertarian, free-market economic literature of the last century. Just look at the general tone, tenor and word choice of Charles Koch's recent Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal:

A truly free society is based on a vision of respect for people and what they value. In a truly free society, any business that disrespects its customers will fail, and deserves to do so. The same should be true of any government that disrespects its citizens. The central belief and fatal conceit of the current administration is that you are incapable of running your own life, but those in power are capable of running it for you. This is the essence of big government and collectivism.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson warned that this could happen. "The natural progress of things," Jefferson wrote, "is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground." He knew that no government could possibly run citizens' lives for the better. The more government tries to control, the greater the disaster, as shown by the current health-care debacle. Collectivists (those who stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives) promise heaven but deliver hell. For them, the promised end justifies the means.

Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.

Hoo boy. What we have here are the words of someone who's interested in more than just increasing his bottom line, which he could do with less visible means through lobbyists. We have someone who has clearly drunk the ideological Kool-Aid and is on a mission against the "collectivists" and so forth.

Most likely Harry Reid chooses to describe the Kochs the way he does, as folks who are simply trying to buy the government solely to enrich their business, because it's a simpler form of corruption for the public to wrap their heads around. It's the basic form of transactional, quid pro quo bribery that John Roberts narrowly defined as political corruption in his McCutcheon decision.

But the Kochs' huge public outlays really are ideological in nature. They consider themselves on a mission from God to create a utopian free-market society, just as Adelson considers himself on a mission from God to maintain an unflinching position on Israel.

Lest it sound like we're letting any of them off the hook, or lauding the purity of their visions, this sort of ideological spending environment is far scarier than one in which it was all traditional ol' bribery. There's something almost rational, containable and comforting in a world where billionaires are only trying to boost their business profits. You know the score, at least. It's much more frightening when the billionaires really are ideological zealots, true-believers in their own tent revival hysteria and determined to throw money around until kingdom come.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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