Billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch spent hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to wrest government from the “rent seekers” who were “feeding at the public trough”
and create an “ownership society,” as Nancy MacClean put it in her book, “Democracy in Chains.” Greed motivated them, as documented by New Yorker investigative reporter Jane Mayer in her 2016 book “Dark Money:
The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”
Koch Industries, a $110 billion conglomerate operating in 60 countries with more than 120,000 employees, was the source of obscenely vast sums that financed advocacy groups. The brothers were motivated by lessons learned from the father, Fred, whose ideas were no doubt formed during his business dealings with Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. He wrote in 1960, “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” and helped found the radical rightwing John Birch Society.
The brothers’ early target was the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Brown” ruling desegregating public schools and they later saw Barack Obama’s election as president as their biggest challenge at the time. They pumped $100 million into “a war against Obama,”
Mayer wrote in a 2010 New Yorker column.
In her book, Mayer wrote that the Kochs and other right-wing donors “were providing vast quantities of ‘dark money’… to groups whose missions, if successful, would hobble unions, limit voting, deregulate corporations, shift taxes to the less well-off and even deny climate change.” They tried the electoral route, with David as running mate for Libertarian Edward E. Clarke’s failed 1980 presidential bid. Unable to win at the ballot box because the “rent seekers” are the majority, they tried to “reverse-engineer” the system, as Tim Shuttle put it on Patheos.com in 2016.
Charles found common ground with libertarian James Buchanan, who was running a program at the University of Virginia – moved later to George Mason University – geared, according to MacLean, “to train a new generation of thinkers to push back against ‘Brown’
and the changes in constitutional thought and federal policy that had enabled it… The project was no longer simply about training intellectuals for a battle of ideas; it was training operatives to staff the far-flung and purportedly separate, yet intricately connected, institutions funded by the Koch brothers and their now large network of fellow wealthy donors.”
Those deceptively named groups include Americans for Prosperity, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Club for Growth, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Freedom Works, Heritage Foundation, Reason Foundation, State Policy Network, and Tax Foundation. Specific groups catered to Latinos (Libre), veterans (Concerned Veterans for America), younger voters (Generation Opportunity) and older voters (60 Plus Association). Together, they had 1,200 full-time employees in 107 offices, Warren Cassell Jr. reported in Investopedia in June 2018.
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), McLean wrote, is geared to “producing hundreds of ‘model laws’ each year for Republican legislators to bring home to enact in their states – and nearly 30 percent going through. Alongside laws to devastate labor unions were others that would rewrite tax codes, undo environmental protections, privatize many public resources and require police to take action against undocumented immigrants.”
The Guardian reported that Americans for Prosperity “recognized that to make lasting change in U.S, politics, the Koch network would need to permanently weaken the organizations that support liberal candidates – and, above all, the labor movement.” The subsequent campaign included funding speakers, talking points, press releases, transportation and other logistical support to “turn corporate self-interest into a movement among people on the streets.”
Lately, the Kochs are rejecting partisanship. James Davis, a senior adviser, wrote in a CNN column, “For several years, like many others, we accepted that to be effective in politics partisan engagement was the only real way to achieve policy reform. But not anymore.
The reality is partisan partisanship too often gets in the way of achieving what’s possible.” Also, both brothers have donated generously to charity. Charles has given more than $1 billion to organizations dealing with poverty and to community and educational groups, including a controversial $25 million donation to the United Negro College Fund in 2014 for a UNCF/Koch Scholars Program. Brentin Muck, writing in Grist in June 2014, suggested a sinister motive: “to make opposition to regulating greenhouse gas emissions popular among voters.” David gave $395 million to medical causes.
But such generosity and new-found bipartisanship will never undo the harm caused by the “Kochtopus,” as their network is sometimes called. The Kochs’ policies did not get Donald Trump elected president because they never supported him. But they so poisoned American politics as to make it possible and also enable the election of Mitch McConnell and other cowardly Trump enablers.
Their efforts led to rampant gerrymandering that gave Republican control of a majority of Legislatures and governorships, fostered denial of global warming among many Americans, installed scores of young conservatives in lifetime federal judgeships, entrenched a Supreme Court dominated by rightwing ideologues, introduced taxation policies favoring the wealthy, crippled workers’ rights and boosted charter schools to the detriment of public education.
That is the legacy of David Koch, who died last week of cancer.