Politics today has started to feel a lot like the children's playground at recess. Out there, it's the small handful of bullies with the loudest mouths who stand out, steal people's lunch money and run roughshod over everyone else. Despite being few in number, they effectively create an environment of intimidation that leaves the other kids feeling powerless.
Billionaires like the Koch Brothers aren't very different from the schoolyard bullies. They thrive on creating an environment that makes people afraid to challenge them, causing the average American voter to be apathetic at best, and highly cynical and disengaged from the entire political process at worst. These bullies believe that if they spend enough money, they can muddy the waters and convince voters to support agendas that are often in direct conflict with the voter's own self-interests. The bullies have a simple credo: convince others they are powerless, and you rule the playground. And so far, this strategy has usually worked.
So, you may ask, what could be the antidote to the destructive influence of the Koch Brothers and their fellow billionaire bullies? My answer is simple: The leaders of the large and ever increasingly powerful nonprofit sector. Think about it, the most credible "brands" in the United States today belong to organizations that have missions that aspire to solve larger social problems -- cure cancer, end heart disease, stop AIDS, reverse climate change and feed the hungry. The Koch Brothers have billions of dollars, but the nonprofit sector has billions of hearts. I'm betting that hearts beat bucks, but that requires an urgently needed strategy and the courage of nonprofit leaders across the spectrum.
Below I will outline the three easy steps for the nonprofit community to take to defeat the Koch Brothers:
How to Defeat the Koch Brothers in Three Easy Steps
• Speak up
• Go above politics
• Advocate, advocate, advocate
Speak Up: For those of you who are skeptical that such a strategy could work, I would say you already know how to reach the kitchen tables of voters across the country. In ways more powerful and more effective than the Koch Brothers' negative ads, what you have to say to Americans about the importance of elections matters perhaps now more than ever. Voters are tuning out politicians and political parties, but America's largest and most well-respected nonprofits influence opinions on very personal levels, which is where it counts. You need to present the information in more powerful ways, essentially by taking your smart policies and fighting for them using brute political strength. Most families care a lot more about breakthrough research for Alzheimer's disease than they do about repealing Obamacare; they care more about protecting their families from harmful chemicals than they do about streamlining regulations for chemical companies; and they care more about renewable energy than they do about the profits of big oil companies who want to build a pipeline across the heart of our country.
Go Above Politics: The nonprofit sector should commit itself to an unprecedented strategy of informing the American voter about issues that matter. Take the issues people care about, tell voters they hold the power and show them that mission driven solutions can't win if the Koch brothers and their band of politicos win. It's us or them -- they've made that choice clear. The urgency of your message matters right now. What I'm suggesting will cause many of you in the nonprofit sector to recoil out of fear about your tax status, but any good lawyer will tell you that you have ample capacity to educate citizens on policy matters. However, I'd push you to go a step beyond and consider creating 501(c)(4) arms to add more tools to your advocacy tool box. There is a silent majority who is neither being spoken to nor being heard over the schoolyard bullies. This is the antidote to the Koch brothers.
Advocate, Advocate, Advocate: The billionaire bullies have spent millions of dollars convincing the public that repealing laws and crippling government is the only solution, and yet they offer no real ideas on how to address our nation's biggest challenges: The poverty that continues to plague many of our communities, especially communities of color, the decline in our education systems and the lack of availability of affordable housing. And when it looks like they may not get their way, they flood the airwaves demanding deep, unprincipled budget cuts and force their henchmen in Congress to threaten a shut-down of the world economy. With the Supreme Court's recent campaign finance ruling, this situation is about to become even worse. The 5-4 ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission means that billionaire bullies now have no limits on their overall campaign contributions.
There's no question money is an important component to the success of these bullies, but it doesn't have to be. Money is only effective if it's allowed to be spent in a vacuum, unchallenged by other voices. We've seen these battles before, and we've seen the good guys win. In everything from anti-tobacco campaigns, to clean water and air initiatives, to affordable healthcare under Obamacare, it's been those who are able to effectively capture the hearts and minds of the masses that prevail. As long as people raise their voices collectively to advocate for the policies they want, the Koch brothers will lose.
The passage of the recent budget deal has led many to breathe a sigh of relief, but we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. The elections this year give us a unique and powerful opportunity to use the bully pulpit of nonprofit brands to give voice to the silent majority. The consequences of not doing so will be devastating. Like the kids at recess, we are most powerful when we band together to stand up to the bullies' antics. Together, we can get our lunch money back.
Tom Sheridan is founder of The Sheridan Group, where he and his team work to "help the good do better" by crafting effective strategies for socially-responsible public policy initiatives.