In some conservative quarters, there exists an unhealthy, conspiratorial obsession with the billionaire-philanthropist George Soros and his supposed political machinations. Some, such as Heritage Foundation’s Mike Gonzalez, even defended Viktor Orbán’s authoritarianism in Hungary on the grounds of fighting Mr. Soros – someone who’s supposedly “equally bad” as Vladimir Putin.
But if you think that such displays of tribalist, conspiratorial thinking are exclusive to the Right, think again. The left-wing flapping about the Kochs and their “dark money,” flowing to think tanks, universities, and magazines is a mirror image of the Soros hysteria on the Right.
“The Koch brothers have infiltrated the Trump administration,” warns Public Citizen, a non-profit “championing citizens’ interests” in Washington. Vice President Mike Pence and the EPA head Scott Pruitt are among the 44 high-level officials with “close ties to the Koch brothers.”
The frenzy is fed by poor scholarship, such as Democracy in Chains, a thoroughly debunked book by the Duke University historian Nancy MacLean. The book argues that the free-market movement, with the financial backing of Koch brothers, is working as “a fifth column” undermining American democracy. Furthermore, the argument goes, the movement has been driven by racial resentment of figures such as the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James Buchanan, who happened to be born in rural Tennessee and who supposedly opposed the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
More broadly, the quest for dark plots and shadowy money is unhealthy because it serves as a substitute for a real debate over ideas and their merits. “Who pays you?” might be an effective debating shortcut but substantively it amounts to an ad hominem fallacy, devaluing democratic deliberation over policy and other important matters.
Indeed, the Kochs have spent substantial amounts of money supporting think-tanks, university research centers, and individual academics holding free-market or conservative worldviews – just as George Soros, the Ford Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation are spending resources on liberal and other causes in academia and elsewhere.
Of course, ideas that benefit from such financial backing ought to be contested vigorously. Perhaps some, or even many of them, do not rise to the intellectual standards expected at research universities. But such contestation is very different from calls to “unKoch” university campuses – a rejection of the idea that private philanthropy is a part of living in an open, pluralistic society.
One might have similar concerns about the growing pre-occupation with Russian propaganda and its interference in Western political debates and elections. To be sure, the rising awareness of the fact that the authoritarian, aggressive regime in Moscow is seeking to undermine Western democracies by whatever means available, including by lies, corruption, and funding for extremism, is salutary.
What is less salutary is the knee-jerk temptation to seek nefarious financial dealings behind any and every populist political voice or bad idea. The fact that the Kremlin seeks to exploit the West’s divisions does not mean that the underlying divisions are not real, often with people of good faith on both sides of the argument.
The United Kingdom, for example, recently saw a fuss over imagined ties of the Legatum Institute, a pro-Brexit think tank influential with the current government, to Russia. As someone who once worked at the Legatum Institute – together with Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Gedmin, hardly Russia appeasers – I can only attest that the charges against the organisation that long had one single funder, an idealistic billionaire from New Zealand, were hysterical nonsense.
Do not get me wrong: I fully support the efforts to make it harder for corrupt money from regimes such as Russia to find their way into Western societies, including by a wider adoption and enforcement of the Magnitsky Act. However, it is a grave mistake to believe that pointing to funding sources is a sufficient or appropriate response to right-wing populism, whether it takes the form of Tea Party candidates, Brexit, Donald Trump, or Europe’s blood and soil nationalists. Such political causes primarily respond to real grievances of voters – legitimate or not – and not to supposed manipulations by billionaires or foreign powers.
Without curing the underlying malaise, including by making sure that democratic capitalism is no longer seen as a rigged or zero-sum game, the efforts to root out non-transparent funding are bound to remain a fool’s errand. And in the worst case, such efforts might even jeopardise one of the West’s key strengths: its pluralism and openness.