A decidedly odd protest took place over the weekend in Rancho Mirage, where hundreds of environmentalists, union members and other liberal activists descended on a resort to demonstrate not against pollution or poor working conditions or government policies, but a pair of billionaires. The point of the rally was to decry the corrosive impact of money on American governance, but we're not sure that the marchers were quite clear on the concepts of democracy and free speech.
Inside the Rancho Las Palmas resort, Charles and David Koch, who have given millions of dollars to boost conservative political causes, were holding a retreat for conservative elected officials and donors. Many on the left see the Koch brothers as the center of a vast right-wing conspiracy to tailor government policy to suit their business interests. It's remarkable how similar this sounds to the theories of Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, who favors drawing up elaborate blackboard presentations on the web of progressive organizations funded by billionaire George Soros that he believes are destroying America. Call Sunday's protesters the anti-Beckians — same problem, different billionaires.
Money does indeed distort our political system, but few of those who complain about it acknowledge that political spending cuts both ways. Activists on Sunday were angry at the Koch brothers for spending $1 million on a failed campaign to overturn California's law to curb greenhouse gases, but they didn't seem bothered about the millions spent on the other side by California venture capitalists with investments in clean-energy startups. If you're going to raise a fuss about political spending, it would be more honest to cast a spotlight on it even when the money comes from people you agree with. What's more, campaign donations from individuals — rich as well as poor — are a critical component of political expression, and thus of free speech.
That doesn't mean there should be no limits on such spending, or that donations from undisclosed sources should be legal, or that there can't be laws designed to limit the political influence of corporations, unions and other interest groups. Many of Sunday's activists were reacting to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which asserted that corporations and unions have a right to fund independent broadcasts on behalf of political candidates. Yet the case won't have much impact on the Koch brothers, who were making individual political donations and founding pro-industry think tanks long before the ruling.
We're no fans of the Kochs and their promotion of poisonous, self-dealing politics. But we'll defend their right to promote it.