Last August, Jon Schwarz over at The Intercept wrote a piss-take about how if the dreaded Koch brothers* really cared about corporate welfare and criminal justice reform and intervention-skepticism, instead of just cynically using those issues to make their self-interested policy atrocities go down smoother, then they would be backing the democratic socialist Bernie Sanders. "The alternative to taking the Koch brothers at their word," Schwarz wrote, "is to conclude that all the stuff they say that progressives love is just a scam — that when it's time to get out their checkbooks to put people in office, the only thing they actually care about is whether those politicians will make them richer."
This kind of binary gotcha game, in which there are forever only Doors #1 and #2, and politics always counts 100 times more than decades worth of philosophically based issue advocacy, is an almost-amusing attempt at enforcing tribal norms via cheap rhetorical entertainment. (Here's how easy it is: "The alternative to taking George Soros at his word about drug legalization, foreign policy overreach and the death penalty is to conclude that all the stuff he says that libertarians love is just a scam—or else he would have supported Ron Paul instead of Barack Obama.") Like almost everything about two-party presidential politics, such exercises are designed to erase ideological complications, sort people into clearly delineated camps, and make us all a little bit dumber.
The senator is upset with a political and economic system that is often rigged to help the privileged few at the expense of everyone else, particularly the least advantaged. He believes that we have a two-tiered society that increasingly dooms millions of our fellow citizens to lives of poverty and hopelessness. He thinks many corporations seek and benefit from corporate welfare while ordinary citizens are denied opportunities and a level playing field.
I agree with him. […]
[T]he United States' next president must be willing to rethink decades of misguided policies enacted by both parties that are creating a permanent underclass.
Our criminal justice system, which is in dire need of reform, is another issue where the senator shares some of my concerns. Families and entire communities are being ripped apart by laws that unjustly destroy the lives of low-level and nonviolent offenders.
Koch goes on to explain how his policy solutions differ from those of Sanders ("History has proven that a bigger, more controlling, more complex and costlier federal government leaves the disadvantaged less likely to improve their lives"); points out that it's "results, not intentions" that matter, and closes with a passage that reads as much as anything else like a warning shot across the bow of Republicans:
When it comes to electing our next president, we should reward those candidates, Democrat or Republican, most committed to the principles of a free society. Those principles start with the right to live your life as you see fit as long as you don't infringe on the ability of others to do the same. They include equality before the law, free speech and free markets and treating people with dignity, respect and tolerance. In a society governed by such principles, people succeed by helping others improve their lives.
I don't expect to agree with every position a candidate holds, but all Americans deserve a president who, on balance, can demonstrate a commitment to a set of ideas and values that will lead to peace, civility and well-being rather than conflict, contempt and division. When such a candidate emerges, he or she will have my enthusiastic support.
Those last italics are mine, to underline the not-so-veiled slap at the remaining Republican field.
Now, this rhetorical olive branch hardly means that the Kochs are suddenly going to stop focusing their vast major-party-influencing efforts on the GOP, any more than George Soros will abandon the Democrats. (I have written on the commonalities between the opposing billionaires here and here.) But it does demonstrate anew that the strenuous effort to demonize them as ultra-conservatives are as reductionist and absurd as calling the Hungarian-born Soros a socialist.
And as importantly, the generosity toward Sanders from one of his biggest targets illustrates something that the dwindling number of partisan dead-enders cannot accept during the tribalist din of a presidential campaign: that it is possible, even probable, for individual Americans to find individual candidates from opposing parties to be the best in the field on certain important issues and the worst in the field on others, and that such collections of disparate judgments can make comparative evaluations challenging. Bernie Sanders is great on pot, lousy on higher education. Ted Cruz is decent on ethanol, indecent on subjecting Supreme Court nominees to a public vote because of gay marriage. Even the thoroughly awful Donald Trump makes a good point now and then.
The point of Olympic Year politics is to make you forget all of this. The point of living, as ever, lies elsewhere.
* David Koch is on the Board of Trustees of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes Reason magazine and this website. Organizations connected with both brothers have donated money to the Foundation over the years.