Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Untangling the Strings of the Puppet Masters

I recently came across two very similar articles. The August 30 New Yorker published an interesting piece by Jane Mayer on the Koch brothers, Charles and David. A few days later, having missed it originally, I picked out of the recycling Steve Ford’s opinion piece about Art Pope in the News & Observer. The subjects of the two essays were different but the message was the same: Today’s conservative politics are directed tightly, from a position of obscurity, by individuals like the Kochs and Pope. What we see is their “puppet show.”

This is an argument popular on the left. No rational person could have right-of-center political ideas without being paid to acquire them. Conservatives are manipulated to deliver policy outcomes from which their masters will profit personally. Many are “wing nuts,” individuals naturally missing a few brain cells who are shepherded into following a political message. Liberals, on the other hand, draw their views independently from real-world experiences and observations.

This is, of course, all quite untrue. First, for the Kochs and Popes of this country to be choreographing matters, there needs to be a conservative movement willing to be led. This doesn’t seem to be the case. Obama did very well among those with a postgraduate education in 2008, but his greatest support came from those who did not have a high school education, with his lowest support by Americans with a college degree. If there are uneducated sheep among the populace, they can be found on the left, not the right.

What’s more, the movement’s heterogeneity defies control. Americans who consider themselves conservative spend as much time arguing with each other as they do taking on liberals. There are social conservatives, libertarians, and traditional conservatives — those who believe politics should resemble the word’s dictionary definition.

Conservatives have conflicting views on issues like immigration and trade — free markets for labor and goods versus the need to protect American culture. On others their views vary from intense to insouciant — many who fret about the size of government care little whether same-sex marriage is legalized, for instance. If this is organized political action, whoever’s in charge should be fired.

Second, that the puppeteers are focused on their personal economic self-interest is flimsy reasoning. The Kochs have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the arts and for medical research. The John W. Pope Foundation, of which Pope is president, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to local charities and educational institutions.

What’s more, their contributions to political causes hardly provide a lucrative return for these individuals personally. To be sure, the groups they fund push for policy outcomes consistent with their economic interests.

But, if successful, the Kochs and Pope are paying for millions of other peoples’ tax cuts or subsidies. At least they’re employing people and contributing to public life. The real villains by this logic are the rich who free-ride on these efforts. All in all, if I was one of the Kochs’ financial advisors, I wouldn’t recommend giving to groups like Americans for Prosperity. You won’t see that money again.

The current Wake County schools imbroglio provides a nice illustration of this point. White, middle-class, inside-the-Beltline residents who take the pro-diversity position are cast as altruistic, even though their kids currently have fewer poor and black colleagues in their classrooms than they would under the proposed neighborhood schools approach.

The campaign contributions to the new board majority by Bob Luddy, the founder of the private Thales Academy, are considered self-interested even though polling shows a much greater proportion of residents who have kids in Wake County public schools oppose the diversity policy than those who do not. If Luddy wanted to drive public schools out of business, he should donate to the pro-diversity cause.

It is not as though the ideas funded by the Kochs and Pope are out of the mainstream, either. About one-third of Americans consider themselves conservative. Nor do their contributions disrupt the “natural order” of politics. The $100 million the Kochs are estimated to have invested over the past 30 years pales in comparison to the $3.5 billion spent from all sources on the 2008 election. Roughly the same amount was spent on federal lobbying in 2009 alone.

Indeed, the Kochs and Popes of the world are participating in a political process where competing interests have entrenched and advantageous positions. Much of this country’s political class, particularly in the media and academia, has left-of-center views. Journalists and professors, who are unelected, are situated uniquely to exert considerable influence on public debate and ultimately policy outcomes.

I found it interesting that Ford laments Pope’s disproportionate influence as he pontificates from a perch as the editorial page editor of a newspaper with a circulation of about 180,000.

But why should you listen to me? I know Art Pope and co-direct a program at N.C. State University that is funded by the Pope Foundation. I do not know the Kochs, but I’m currently applying for a small grant from their foundation.

I can’t think independently. I’m just a puppet on a string.

Andy Taylor is Professor and Chair of the Department of Politial Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at N.C. State University.