Know Your Enemy: The Koch Brothers
I often rail against the “power-elite”—wealthy individuals and corporations who use their massive amounts of power to influence politics, usually to the effect of funneling money from the lower and middle-classes to the wealthiest of the wealthy. I usually think of them as some kind of abstract, faceless entity—which is just how they like it. But today I can be more specific. I can show you the face of The Enemy:
America, meet Charles and David Koch. They were recently featured in a New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, and in a segment on the Rachel Maddow show in which Mayer was interviewed. For anyone with the time to spare and the desire to know exactly who is destroying America and how, I’d strongly urge you to read the article, watch the clip, and tell everyone you know about Koch Industries—especially Tea Party conservatives.
For those with less of an attention-span, here is the basic story. It began with Fred Koch, who in 1927 invented a more efficient process for turning oil into gasoline. Seen as a threat by other American oil companies, he was shut out of the industry, and spent the 1930s building oil refineries in the Soviet Union where he witnessed the brutality of the Stalin regime. Upon his return to America he fell in with arch-conservative groups like the John Birch Society, and eventually passed on his fiercely anti-socialist ideology to his sons:
David Koch recalled that his father also indoctrinated the boys politically. “He was constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government,” he told Brian Doherty, an editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, and the author of “Radicals for Capitalism,” a 2007 history of the libertarian movement. “It’s something I grew up with—a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.”
After his death in 1967, his sons renamed his business Koch Industries and used their oil wealth to promote libertarian ideals. So far, nothing too sinister.
Nor was there anything sinister about David Koch running for Vice President in the 1980 election on the Libertarian ticket. His party only got 1% of the vote, but that’s democracy. If people reject your ideas, you don’t win political power.
Unless you set out to directly instill your ideas into the public.
The Kochs came to regard elected politicians as merely “actors playing out a script.” A longtime confidant of the Kochs told Doherty that the brothers wanted to “supply the themes and words for the scripts.” In order to alter the direction of America, they had to “influence the areas where policy ideas percolate from: academia and think tanks.”
After the 1980 election, Charles and David Koch receded from the public arena. But they poured more than a hundred million dollars into dozens of seemingly independent organizations. Tax records indicate that in 2008 the three main Koch family foundations gave money to thirty-four political and policy organizations, three of which they founded, and several of which they direct. The Kochs and their company have given additional millions to political campaigns, advocacy groups, and lobbyists.
The Kochs have given hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations that criticize environmental regulation and advocate for lower taxes on industry. They’ve poured millions into disputing the science behind climate change, and just to hedge their bets have pushed the idea that even if the earth is warming up, it’s actually a good thing: “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because far greater land area will be available to produce food” David Koch once argued.
Of course conservatives can point to people like George Soros, who spends millions promoting liberal causes, and say that the Koch Brothers are doing the same thing—merely using the capital they’ve earned through their financial success to promote ideas they believe in. The counter-argument is that Soros gives money to causes that actually go against his own financial interests, while the Koch Brothers put their money behind groups that do work which positively effects their bottom line. They “earn” their fortune by spending it on groups that help them increase their fortune, usually by lying and distorting the facts.
But it actually goes much deeper than that:
The Kochs have gone well beyond their immediate self-interest, however, funding organizations that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction. Among the institutions that they have subsidized are the Institute for Justice, which files lawsuits opposing state and federal regulations; the Institute for Humane Studies, which underwrites libertarian academics; and the Bill of Rights Institute, which promotes a conservative slant on the Constitution. Many of the organizations funded by the Kochs employ specialists who write position papers that are subsequently quoted by politicians and pundits. David Koch has acknowledged that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told Doherty. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”
Koch Industries is the group behind Americans For Prosperity, one of the leading organizations behind last years’ Tea Party protests in which thousands of Americans were bussed from district to district and told to interrupt town hall meetings on Health Care reform. Tricked into believing that the bill was some kind of nefarious government plot to euthanize senior citizens, frightened conservatives held rallies in which they hung effigies of Democratic lawmakers, held up banners depicting corpses from Dachau, and relentlessly compared Obama to Hitler.
These protests are now widely believed to be the pivotal moment at which the Obama presidency began its slow downward spiral. When asked about the Republican Party’s efforts to kill the health care bill, conservative Grover Norquist replied:
The Republican leadership in Congress, he said, “couldn’t have done it without August, when people went out on the streets. It discouraged deal-makers”—Republicans who might otherwise have worked constructively with Obama. Moreover, the appearance of growing public opposition to Obama affected corporate donors on K Street. “K Street is a three-billion-dollar weathervane,” Norquist said. “When Obama was strong, the Chamber of Commerce said, ‘We can work with the Obama Administration.’ But that changed when thousands of people went into the street and ‘terrorized’ congressmen. August is what changed it. Now that Obama is weak, people are getting tough.”
The Koch brothers’ war on Obama seems to be succeeding. By staying out of the limelight, they’ve managed to avoid major scrutiny of their front groups like Americans For Prosperity, Patients United Now, and a whole host of other organizations with grassroots-sounding names. The tactic is as simple as it is brilliant—pour lots of money into groups that appear to be grassroots and thus create the perception that there is a massive resistance to the president’s agenda. But don’t let anyone onto the fact that the objections to the president’s agenda were falsehoods cooked up by your own think-tanks and spoon-fed to the American people.
“To bring about social change,” Charles Koch once told a reporter, requires “a strategy” that is “vertically and horizontally integrated,” spanning “from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organizations to lobbying to litigation to political action.”
So now you know the Enemy, or at least a couple of their faces. The question is how you can fight it. Well, you can wait for Obama to do it for you. After all, they’re deliberately targeting him and his agenda so you’d think he’d fight back strong. After all, he did say at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser in Austin that:
the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Citizens United case—which struck down laws prohibiting direct corporate spending on campaigns—had made it even easier for big companies to hide behind “groups with harmless-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity.” Obama said, “They don’t have to say who, exactly, Americans for Prosperity are. You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation”—or even, he added, “a big oil company.”
But apparently that didn’t get the message across. For some reason Obama doesn’t want to name names and call any of his enemies out for what they’re doing. He must be one of the most passive-aggressive presidents of all time. Maybe he’s afraid they’ll spend even more of their money to defeat him, as if they weren’t already going after him with everything they’ve got.
So I wouldn’t count on Obama or any of the weak and spineless Democrats to fight this battle for us. All we can do is take the time to learn who these people are and to let everyone else know as well.
Once we know, we can follow the money back to its source. Unfortunately most of it comes from oil, but there are plenty of other products that are brought to you by the fine people at Koch Industries, including:
• Brawny paper towels
• Dixie cups
• Georgie-Pacific lumber
• Stainmaster carpet
I for one don’t plan on buying Brawny paper towels or Dixie cups any time soon. I hardly think that’ll take down Koch Industries and be the end of the Tea Party Movement, but it’s an easy way to make a statement. These people hide from the limelight precisely because they don’t want their products associated with radical libertarian ideology and the destruction of the Obama presidency.
And even we do manage to take down Koch Industries, there are plenty of multi-billionaires who will quite happily continue their work of destroying the environment and funneling all the world’s wealth and resources into as few hands as possible. I may have an idea for how we can begin to tackle that problem, but it needs a bit more work. Stay tuned…