Buying Free Speech: The Impact and Influence of Koch Money

September 2, 2015
Jeff Easterling

A campaign finance system, which allows billionaires Charles and David Koch to commit nearly $900 million dollars toward the 2016 general election, guarantees that politicians can be bought. This unprecedented financial pledge will impact American society in a very real way by helping elect candidates who will support efforts to reinterpret the Constitution and our founding history, rewrite democratically enacted laws, and reshape political parties all for the sake of corporate profits.

This new norm in American politics is the result of a long and coordinated effort by elite corporatists to reinforce and expand corporate Constitutional rights at the expense of individual liberty. In 2010, the Supreme Court's majority ruled in favor of unlimited campaign spending in Citizens United vs. FEC on the grounds that corporations are legal persons with Constitutional rights (corporate personhood) and can exercise the First Amendment right to free speech through expenditures.

Corporate Constitutional rights, or "corporate personhood" has its origins in the Gilded Age (1870 -1900), which is widely acknowledged as an era of massive economic inequality and instability in America. The contemporary push to cement corporate rights through Constitutional reinterpretation originates with efforts by the Tobacco lobby and the United States Chamber of Commerce's National Litigation Center to overcome government regulations on public health and campaign spending (1). Since then, similar attempts to challenge laws originally passed to protect people or the environment have been largely successful. Notable case examples include Boston v. Bellotti (First Amendment), Hale vs. Henkel (Fourth Amendment) Noble v. Union River Logging (Fifth Amendment).

The Koch Brothers support entities actively expanding corporate Constitutional rights, including the Pacific Legal Foundation, United States Chamber of Commerce and The Project on Fair Representation. The Koch Brothers did not create the concept of corporate personhood, but their support--to a greater extent than any other billionaire activists--enable corporate rights to continue expanding at the expense of the individual citizen.

Corporate personhood is important for the Koch Brothers' political activities because it allows them to exploit their financial advantage to its fullest extent. With the ability to use their corporate profits to leverage the political process, the Koch brothers can also contribute their own individual wealth and channel funds from other donors to reshape the entire electoral process through issue advertising. The Koch Brothers back many Political Action Committees (PACs), including KOCH PAC, Freedom Partners Action Fund, and Americans for Prosperity (AFP): the largest and most powerful campaign organization they support.

Other writers have noted, in many ways AFP is doing the work of a political party. AFP's interests are often aligned with the Republican Party, but it occasionally supports alternative candidates opposed by the Republican establishment. In one instance, according to the New York Times, AFP's activities ensured Justin Amash's primary campaign for the House of Representatives. It utilizes campaign infrastructure equal only to political parties and has the unlimited ability to finance its own activities, and only backs candidates who will likely support AFP's agenda.

The Koch Brothers continue to affect the public process outside campaign cycles. For instance, in state legislatures across the United States, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), another organization which has received large donations from the Koch Brothers, lobbies members of state legislatures for the purpose of creating big business-friendly legislation while ignoring the harm these laws inflict upon low-income and working families and the environment in which they live. ALEC is infamous for collaborating with legislative staff on drafting bills and distributing those drafts to multiple state legislatures for passage.

ALEC's activities and revenue sources reflect the underlying reason why the Koch Brothers fund activities which alter the Constitution, influence political campaigns and control state legislatures: the Koch Brothers ultimately benefit. The Koch Brothers, and other wealthy activists like them, effectively invest their money in return for favorable legislation. And, this activity is enabled through the preservation and expansion of highly suspect and questionable corporate Constitutional rights.

An important feature of the rule of law is equal access and representation, and since most Americans cannot safeguard their own interests as billionaire political activists in the way the Koch Brothers do, it is necessary for the viability of our democracy to eliminate corporate Constitutional rights. Furthermore, leading economists, such as Joseph Stiglitz, effectively argue that the establishment of corporate personhood is a contributing factor to rising economic inequality in America. This activity, which distorts the rule of law and the meaning and intention of our Constitution, is barely legal. Fortunately, systemic problems can be fixed by way of amending the constitution. Read the We the People Amendment that has been introduced in Congress. Click here to sign a petition and help eliminate corporate personhood and money as protected political speech.

1. Clements, Jeffrey D. Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy from Big Money and Global Corporations. First ed. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2012. Print.

Jeff Easterling is a political organizer currently interning at Move To Amend. He attended DePauw University and currently resides in Chicago. He can be contacted at jeff.e at movetoamend dot org.