The Politics of Personal Destruction—Campaign Finance Version

The Washington Post’s Radley Balko had a great tweet this morning—“Rich progressives hold secret meeting to discuss how we can ban rich conservatives from holding secret meetings.” He linked to a long morning POLITICO piece by Kenneth P. Vogel, “Big donor secrecy: ‘Irony, but it’s not hypocrisy,’” about a gathering in Chicago this week of major Democratic Party donors that’s raised more than $30 million for liberal groups—a meeting that included a bit of strong-arming to keep unwanted reporters at bay, Vogel reports.

Secrecy aside, one of the issues I found most interesting among the many interesting things in Vogel’s piece was his discussion about what motivates big political donors—and the different perceptions liberals and conservatives have about that question. Both sides argue, he writes, that “their donations are animated by a desire to right a country headed down the wrong path.” But,

The liberal strain of the argument is usually sprinkled with a heaping helping of moral superiority. Their most generous backers are giving to candidates and causes that could hurt their bottom line by raising taxes on the denizens of their elite tax bracket, the argument goes, whereas conservative big donors are seeking to pad their pockets by trying to slash taxes and regulations that impinge on their business.

“The people who are giving money into politics here are interested in changing the system. They’re not interested in getting return on investment,” said former Stride Ride president Arnold Hiatt, who donated $1.9 million to Democratic super PACs in 2012, not including gifts to nonprofits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. “You can focus on the irony, but it’s not hypocrisy because we’re not trying to get something for our donations.”

There you have it: white hats and black, and we know which side’s hats are black. It will surprise no one that the Koch brothers played a prominent role in the moral narrative that surrounded this gathering. What is hard to believe, however, is that these Democratic donors believe their own rhetoric. Yet they’re asking the rest of us to believe that the Kochs and the Sheldon Adelsons and the rest of the conservative and libertarian big-money donors are in it for the money.

The argument doesn’t pass the straight-face test, but of course it’s part of the class-warfare tack that Progressives took when they first teamed up with Populists at the end of the 19th century. It’s not enough to rebut your political opponent’s arguments. You’ve got to vilify him as well—what has come to be called the politics of personal destruction—and that’s especially important when you can’t rebut his arguments. In no area of our public life today do we find this politics practiced more zealously than campaign finance.

Fortunately, Vogel gives us a few facts that undermine the morality play unfolding this week in Chicago:

Of course, there are some examples where liberal donors’ causes overlap with their economic interests. San Francisco hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer, whose aides delivered a Tuesday morning presentation to [Democracy Alliance] donors on his plan to spend $100 million in the 2014 midterms boosting environmentally minded candidates, has invested in renewable energy initiatives that could be boosted by his advocacy. And DA partners Amber and Steve Mostyn, who declined an interview request in Chicago, have spent heavily against advocates of tort reforms in Texas that could crimp their legal business.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of top conservative donors whose giving is animated by causes unrelated to their bottom lines. While Adelson would undoubtedly benefit from GOP tax policies, he donates mostly on the basis of a single issue—the defense of Israel—that is detached from the casino empire that built his $40 billion fortune. And the Kochs often cite their opposition to ethanol subsidies that benefit their sprawling industrial empire as an example of a political stance that could hurt their bottom line.

So do the liberal donors gathered in Chicago this week really believe their own rhetoric? Of course not. If we’re talking about morality, then, let’s do so. Repairing to the title of Vogel’s piece, it’s not irony; it’s hypocrisy. Let’s put the black hats on the proper heads.