by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

Look, my guess is that these people are not harassing the Kochs because of these guys' ideological interests.  It's because they are super rich, and they use their money to get congress to pass laws which benefit the super rich.  Why is this anger so difficult for you to comprehend? There are a lot of people hurting out there right now.  Two years after the crash, Wall Street is humming along, bailed out, bonuses intact.  None of the folks who nearly gambled away our economy have had to pay any kind of a price.  And on Main Street, ten percent unemployment and millions of homes under water, regular citizens who played by the rules.  This is not about ideology.  It's about class.  Have we all decided that class is just not something we're going to even talk about anymore?  I honestly don't get that you don't get this.

I absolutely understand antagonism to Wall Street, resentment of companies who took advantage of the economic meltdown and their government connections to enrich themselves, and even opposition to the financial industry that predated the meltdown. There's a reason Elliot Spitzer's campaign commercials were effective.

If I heard that protestors were shouting to make themselves heard outside a Goldman Sachs shareholders meeting, I'd think to myself, "Okay, I get how that happened." Insofar as I can tell, however, the antagonism to the Kochs has a lot to do with the ideological causes they support, and very little to do with the shady behavior that characterized a lot of firms who raised populist hackles during the financial crisis.

Another reader writes:

While this is hardly the first event like this hosted by the Koch brothers, it's the first one that generated a dozen or more articles in my RSS feed the next day, including yours.  That almost certainly wouldn't have happened except for the protesters, who, as you correctly noted, were a collection of miscellaneous leftist groups with different axes to grind.  The only common thread was a desire to draw attention to the role big money players have in right-wing politics.

It's true that the protest generated media attention, though I don't see how that translates into policy changes in this case. (To be fair, I very rarely see a protest and think, "Ah, that makes sense." But occasionally!)

He continues:

As for "bullying," give me a break, Conor.  Bullying implies a disparity in coercive power exactly the opposite of the two sides here.  Do you really think the assorted billionaires and political pooh-bahs at the event felt the slightest bit threatened by the
protesters?

Honestly, I don't know.

In my time as a reporter, I was around my fair share of protests, sometimes interviewing rich people or college presidents or powerful politicians while people shouted or chanted outside. Every situation was different, and people in powerful positions reacted very differently to the presence of antagonistic activists, often in ways that didn't really correspond to the actual likelihood of physical confrontation. And I definitely know a lot of people who'd think twice before attending an event if they knew an angry crowd would be gathered outside. But perhaps no one in attendance at Rancho Mirage was bothered at all.

He concludes:

And please tell me you understand the difference between "folks donating to ideological causes with which they genuinely agree," and the distorting effect large concentrations of wealth can have on the political system.  When private individuals can not only fund think tanks and media outlets to ceaselessly promote their agenda, but also summon senior government officials and legislative leaders to be lectured on policy by hand-picked speakers behind closed doors for an entire weekend, that goes well beyond "donating to ideological causes."

I understand the distinction, but this gets back to my point about protesting methods of political giving versus protesting a particular ideological donor's activities. It seems to me that the activist groups in question aren't opposed to rich people funding think tanks, media outlets, and conferences in principle – they reserve their objections for big spenders who disagree with their ideological agenda.

Isn't that the only conclusion one can raw in light of this reporting by Tim Carney:

The protest's organizer, the nonprofit Common Cause, is funded by billionaire George Soros. Common Cause has received $2 million from Soros's Open Society Institute in the past eight years, according to grant data provided by Capital Research Center. Two panelists at Common Cause's rival conference nearby -- President Obama's former green jobs czar, Van Jones, and blogger Lee Fang -- work at the Center for American Progress, which was started and funded by Soros but, as a 501(c)4 nonprofit "think tank," legally conceals the names of its donors. In other words, money from billionaire George Soros and anonymous, well-heeled liberals was funding a protest against rich people's influence on politics.

Sympathetic as I am to the notion that money plays a perverse role in politics – this is a killer series on the subject, by the way – I am relatively libertarian when it comes to campaign finance restrictions. Where the progressive protestors and I would probably agree is on questions of transparency, and perhaps corporate giving. If they want to argue that it's nefarious for very rich people to fund political causes, I won't hold their efforts against them, even if I ultimately disagree with the policy changes they propose.
But if they're funded themselves by a billionaire and his far-reaching network of ideological non-profits, it sure seems a lot like they're actually just antagonistic toward their political opponents being funded by rich people. That said, I'm always ready and never surprised to hear actual examples of big business nefariously impacting legislation in a way that detracts from the public good. And I'm desirous of that happening less often.

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