“Our Political System Is Morphing”: The Problem With The Koch Brothers Isn’t Their Politics. It’s Their Copycats
Did you see the “Creepy Carnival” from the Koch brothers on the Washington Mall the other day? Sponsored by the youth-outreach tentacle of the brothers’ operation, it featured Pennywise the Clown doppelgangers dunking millennials into “High-Risk Pools” – though, surely, they missed an opportunity to nail some old people to death panels. (There was no word about the presence of funhouse mirrors to artificially shrink the outsize influence of the Kochs on our national agenda.)
These two men have commanded center stage in the dark-money circus since the US supreme court started the political money free-for-all four and a half years ago. The Kochs have become the focus of electoral campaigns themselves.
But however effective they may be as conservative bogeymen, the real problem with the Kochs is not that they are ultra-conservative. The problem is that they are a leading indicator that our political system is morphing from elections based on ideology to elections based on the preferences of individual donors.
Big “fundraisers” like the Kochs don’t care so much about candidates or parties. They care about policies, and that tendency to narrowly target their dollars naturally pushes candidates to tailor their platforms to issues more than coherent ideologies. Jjust look at Sheldon Adelson and Israel, or Tom Steyer and green energy, or Paul Singer and gay rights – or the Koch brothers themselves, whose political manipulations have always been based in a fervent economic libertarianism more than purely Republican politics.
The negative focus on mega-donors on both sides of the aisle is having one effect: it’s turning Americans firmly against the current electoral financing system. According to Gallup, fully 50% of the country would support a federally funded campaign finance system with no private contributions whatsoever; 79% would vote for a law limiting contributions in some way.
As a result, the movement for a small-donor revolution in campaign finance is slowly clawing its way into the mainstream. The leading general in that revolution, Lawrence Lessig – who launched Mayday Pac to blow up big money in politics by raising big money – just surpassed his initial fundraising goal of $5m by raking in $7.6m in small donations. (Ironically, a few mega-donors will be kicking in another $5m in matching funds.)
But Lessig’s Kickstarter-esque project is itself the kind of single-issue project that has, to date, been the purview of fundraising behemoths: he plans to give the money only to candidates who hew to his vision of campaign finance reform. Like them, it lays the groundwork for the decentralization of parties, whether or not Lessig’s own goals are achieved.
As it stands, the number of Americans who identify with a particular political party do so now with unprecedented intensity, and the number of Americans who don’t identify with either party has grown as well. Sheer frustration could move some – or perhaps many – independents who currently favor a particular party to a more radicalized center.
Disillusioned with actual politicians, apolitical activists could make the candidates the least important part of a ballot by donating to and campaigning for policies, rather than politicians. And that is what issue-oriented Super Pacs, like Lessig’s and others, are counting on: small donors, and voters interested in issues over ideology – or, at least issues-as-ideology.
The idea of non-partisan issue activism is an old one, but what’s changed is the degree of overall partisanship and our expectations of infinite, individualized choice today. When we’ve got Uber in our hands and Spotify playlists inside our headphones, it seems reasonable to expect technology could do the same for democracy.
Anil Dash, a tech activist and entrepreneur, envisions a kind of Amazon for activism – a literal marketplace of ideas, wherein a donor with a little money and a few major passions could shop for candidates that fit an issue checklist. They could even target those who appear particularly “flexible”, based on a database matching their voting history to donors, or particularly in need of cash to keep the campaign going. These, of course, are tactics that big money donors have long used to sway the opinions of politicians. The question is whether the aggregation of enough small donors could be equally effective.
But do today’s policy crises even lend themselves to the micro-targeted solutions that app-enabled voters could select? Do we wind up with solutions to climate change, or just pockets of pollution? And what issues disappear entirely when pressures from both special interest big donors and special interest small donors push parties to the breaking point?
As it is, just the system is broken – or bent, leaning heavily in the direction of that easy mega-donor money. The undoing of campaign finance reform has made more and more obvious to more and more people; Larry Lessig’s project to leverage that disgust will spotlight the ugliness just in time for 2016. Perhaps it will drive at least some conversations, if not solutions.
By: Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian, July 28, 2014
When Louis Brandeis wrote in 1932 that a “single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” he was suggesting that state innovations might advance reform on the federal level. The progressive Supreme Court justice surely wasn’t imagining anything quite like Brownbackistan.
Under Governor Sam Brownback, however, the old Brandeis metaphor is especially apt for Kansas, where a highly publicized “experiment” in extreme tax cutting has just blown up the entire laboratory. As Kansans peer through the still-smoking ruins, they evidently don’t much like what they see.
What makes the Brownback blowup feel so familiar is that the same experiment was mounted more than three decades ago, on the federal level, under the rubric of Reaganomics – by some of the same people. It crashed miserably then, too. But the Republican right has a special knack for dressing up old mischief as fresh policy. To put this one over, Brownback has enjoyed heavy support from the Koch brothers — chief financial backers of the ultra-right Tea Party — whose industrial empire is headquartered in Kansas.
The statewide tax cut that Brownback pushed through the legislature in 2012 certainly benefited the most wealthy Kansans – people just like the Kochs – while inflicting higher taxes on middle income and working-class families through sales and property tax increases. Proceeding with expert advice of Arthur Laffer, author of the “supply-side” theory underlying the Reagan tax cuts, the gung-ho governor promised that these regressive changes would promote rapid economic growth. He predicted that his plan would produce 23,000 new jobs and over $2 billion in new disposable income for Kansans. Their tax payments were supposed to offset the loss of nearly 8 percent of state revenues.
But the results have yet to justify the hype. Today, the fruits of Brownback’s experiment include a state budget deficit of nearly $340 million this year; a decision by Moody’s to lower the rating on Kansas bonds; a growing gap in education funding at every level, from kindergarten through college; a ruinous reduction in state and local workforces across the state; and a future that promises even larger deficits and service cutbacks to come.
Advocates of the Brownback cuts – who are much more likely to be found in New York and Washington think tanks than in Kansas itself – insist that with patience, the governor’s vindication will come. Noting that the tax cuts took effect less than two years ago, they say that with time will come the jobs and revenues that Kansans expected. But over the past several months, as most states have added jobs, their state has fallen behind.
The Kansas City Star, leading newspaper in the state, recently analyzed federal employment data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and published an editorial comparing Kansas with other states in seasonally adjusted, non-farm total job growth. The bottom line was not encouraging. From January 2011 through June 30, 2014, job growth for Kansas at 3.5 percent was lower than its four neighbors, other Midwestern states, and even “extremely high income tax” New York, not to mention the national average of 6.1 percent. “Kansas has had one of the nation’s poorest rates of employment growth during Brownback’s time in office,” noted the Star editorial, “including since the first tax cuts took effect in 2013.” Moreover, the state actually had fewer jobs at the end of June than it did seven months ago.
As a creature of the Koch machine, Brownback naturally blames this embarrassing data on Barack Obama, the devilish socialist in Washington. But polls show that whatever Kansans may think of the president, they aren’t so easily bamboozled by such arguments anymore. Their opinion of the governor is declining almost as quickly as the state’s revenues — and in some polls he is trailing the lesser-known Democrat, Paul Davis, who bravely challenged him this year. Even some prominent Republicans recently declared they would rather elect Davis than continue the destruction that Brownback is inflicting on their state.
Nationally, the Republican Party still promotes Brownback as an innovator with expertise in growing the economy. The Koch brothers will deluge their home state in dark money and Tea Party propaganda before they let him fall. But if the voters boot him in November, this latest experiment in extremism will be ranked as an explosive failure.
By: Joe Conason, Editor-in-Chief, The National Memo, July 25, 2014
“Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations”: The Right’s Pathetically Low Curve; How It Got A Pass On Race And Poverty
Rep. Paul Ryan, budget-slasher, releases a paternalistic poverty plan that has one good idea. Sen. Rand Paul, Civil Rights Act skeptic, speaks to the African-American National Urban League. The Koch brothers, backers of voter suppression efforts and union busting, give $25 million to the United Negro College Fund.
And each winds up hailed, even by some liberals, as taking a big step for the Republican Party when it comes to questions of race and poverty. Why do people settle for so little when it comes to the right trying to signal a change in its damaging approach to both?
Ryan’s one good idea is expanding the earned income tax credit, originally a Republican policy that Republicans turned against because Democrats embraced it too. The EITC is one big reason for the “47 percent” of people who pay no taxes that Ryan’s running mate railed against. Now Ryan says he wants to expand it, and some other programs – which doesn’t square with his infamous budget proposals of recent years.
So MSNBC’s Chuck Todd politely asked Ryan to reconcile his poverty plan with his budget plan – which cuts $5 trillion over 10 years, and takes 69 percent of the cuts from low- and moderate-income families – and he couldn’t do it.
“Does this mean you would change your budget proposal to reflect your new poverty plan?” Todd asked.
“No,” Ryan answered. “I didn’t want to get into a debate over the funding levels of the status quo. I want to talk about how to reform the status quo.”
Todd tried again. “So we should ignore your budget proposal for these programs?”
“No, Chuck, what I’m trying to tell you is, let’s not focus on dollars and cents for these programs,” Ryan replied, a little peevishly. “Let’s focus on reforming these programs so they work more effectively.”
Paul Ryan: a profile in equivocation.
Then there’s Rand Paul, continuing his “outreach” to African-Americans with his visit to the Urban League annual convention. Paul actually deserves credit for trying to tackle issues of criminal justice reform with Sen. Cory Booker. But in his Friday speech he also seemed to decry voter suppression laws, insisting his goal is to “help more people vote,” in the words of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
“We have to be together to defend the rights of all minorities,” Paul said.
But Paul flip-flops on this issue every chance he gets. “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer,” he said last year, after the Supreme Court curtailed the Voting Rights Act. But a few months later, he seemed to have second thoughts.
“Everybody’s gone completely crazy on this voter-ID thing,” Paul the New York Times. “I think it’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.”
That was big news. But then, confronted by his friends at Fox, he lurched into reverse. Paul assured Sean Hannity he was fully on board with the Republican voter ID strategy. “No, I agree there’s nothing wrong with it. To see Eric Holder you’ve got to show your driver’s license to get in the building. So I don’t really object to having some rules for how we vote. I show my driver’s license every time I vote in Kentucky … and I don’t feel like it is a great burden. So it’s funny that it got reported that way.”
“It’s funny it got reported that way,” when that’s what Paul said. Maybe that’s where Paul Ryan learned how to equivocate.
Then there are the Koch brothers. I said everything I needed to in this story. I’m sympathetic to the UNCF wanting more scholarship funding. But “Koch scholars”? A no-strings gift would be one thing, but scholarships Koch foundation appointees help award, based on a student’s affinity for “entrepreneurship” and the free market is something else entirely.
Liberals who applaud UNCF taking the money, and decry AFSCME’s parting ways with the group, insist it’s possible to separate the principle of education for black children from the Kochs’ funding of efforts to break unions in the public sector – which disproportionately employ their parents – and suppress their voting rights.
But it’s true that all of these moves are preferable to outright race baiting and demonizing black people and the poor, so liberals give them extra credit. Applauding minimal GOP gestures toward decency reflects the soft bigotry of low expectations once again.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, July 25, 2014
It’s a number that gives Democrats chills: $125 million. That’s the widely reported number reflecting how much the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity intends to spend on this year’s midterm elections. In practical terms, it means Democrats will effectively be running against two rivals: Republicans and the Republicans’ outside allies.
Reid Wilson reports today, however, that the scope of the AFP operation isn’t done expanding.
Americans for Prosperity, the on-the-ground wing of the network of conservative organizations spearheaded by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, will open new state chapters in South Dakota and Alaska in coming weeks, the group’s president said. In an interview, Tim Phillips said that would bring to 35 the number of states where AFP has permanent offices. […]
Phillips said early reports that his organization will dish out $125 million on the midterm elections understates the actual amount they will spend.
If you’re starting to see AFP as something resembling an actual political party, there’s a good reason – the lines have blurred. The Koch-funded group has hundreds of field operatives, just like a party. It’s opening field offices in dozens of states, just like a party. It’s focusing on GOTV operations, just like a party.
And, of course, it’s investing millions in anti-Democratic attack ads, just like a party.
But unlike other national far-right forces, the Kochs’ group (just like a party) also intends to help “influence the makeup of state legislatures.” Tim Phillips told the Washington Post, ”A lot of times a local property tax battle will bring a whole new group of people out. It’s easier to get movement on the state level.”
All of this, incidentally, doesn’t include the AFP’s “action fund.”
Remember this one?
During a closed-door gathering of major donors in Southern California on Monday, the political operation spearheaded by the Koch brothers unveiled a significant new weapon in its rapidly expanding arsenal – a super PAC called Freedom Partners Action Fund.
The new group aims to spend more than $15 million in the 2014 midterm campaigns – part of a much larger spending effort expected to total $290 million, sources told POLITICO.
As we talked about at the time, the “action fund” will allow the Koch brothers and their donor allies to be more explicit in their backing of like-minded Republicans, while devoting more of their campaign dollars to actual campaign activities.
This isn’t to say the beneficiaries of the Kochs’ support always win; the results from the 2012 cycle clearly show otherwise. But we’re nevertheless looking a formidable political force that Democrats and the left will simply never be able to keep up with financially.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, July 18, 2014
Some women and men spend their lives rebelling against their father or mother, but others follow in their footsteps or yearn for their approval. Some become friends.
A few spend millions to make their parents’ vision a reality.
Charles and David Koch are among those few.
Raw ideas that were once at the fringes have been carved into ‘mainstream’ policy through their wealth and will.
According to the lore, a lawsuit against his company by big oil companies forced their dad, Fred Koch, into helping Stalin build refineries, fueling his anti-communist/anti-government views.
The truth is less tidy.
A company called Universal Oil Products sued Fred Koch’s company for patent infringement in 1929.
Four years earlier, in 1925, the 25-year old Koch formed the Winkler-Koch Engineering Company, with Lewis Winkler. After studying at Rice and MIT, the Texan-born Koch joined Winkler and another man in launching the company in Wichita.
Before that, Winkler had worked as the chief engineer at Universal Oil Products, a firm that held patents on the fuel processing methods developed by Jesse Dubbs. Before joining up with Koch, Winkler had helped Dubbs’ son Carbon install one of the first thermal “cracking” stills that used the pressure and heat process that Koch’s firm would later deploy with slight modification, according to the expert testimony of the chairman of MIT’s chemical engineering department, as noted in Dan Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita.” Ultimately, though, after a bribery scandal involving an appellate judge the verdict against the Koch firm would be overturned and Universal Oil Products’ successor firms would pay the company damages.
But back in 1929 – before the sudden stock market crash and nearly three years before the patent case went to trial — Koch’s firm signed contracts to build cracking stills in the U.S.S.R.
The communist regime didn’t recognize intellectual property rights, but it did pay well.
America had broken diplomatic ties with Russia nearly twelve years earlier, after the bloody Bolshevik revolution. Koch’s firm was not the only U.S. company doing business there. Henry Ford inked a deal, too.
Koch spent a few months in the Soviet Union to help fulfill the terms of the $5 million contract. He claimed the experience made him deeply anti-communist, but that didn’t stop him from cashing in on Stalin’s rubles.
Five million in revenue in today’s dollars would put an American small business — like Koch’s firm was back then — in the top 1%, after the stock market crashed.
The average American’s net income in 1930 was $4,887 and one penny, according to the IRS. That was back when five cents could buy a Rocky Ford cigar and 500 bucks could buy a basic Model A Ford. The average gross revenue of companies that year was about $177,000. Koch’s soviet contract was worth millions more than that.
Flush with riches, in 1932 Koch was playing polo at the Kansas City Country Club when he met Mary Robinson whom he wooed and married, according to Fortune magazine. Four sons soon followed. Over the years, they imbibed many doses of their adamant father’s rightwing political and economic diatribes.
Koch expressed deep antipathy toward the New Deal policies that helped pull the country out of the Great Depression.
He was not alone. By 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy began accusing workers at the State Department, veterans, playwrights, actors, and others of being communist sympathizers dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. government. McCarthy even accused President Harry S. Truman and Democrats of being in league with communists.
The Progressive repeatedly wrote against McCarthyism and published a special issue in April 1954 entitled “McCarthy: A Documented Record,” helping to expose him for the fraud he was. A month later journalist Edward R. Murrow criticized McCarthy on national TV, noting “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.”
His fellow Senators censured McCarthy later that year.
Disgraced, by 1957 he was dead.
But McCarthy’s paranoid worldview was not.
In 1958, Robert Welch invited Fred Koch and a handful of other businessmen to his home to create the John Birch Society, as Schulman noted.
At that secret meeting, Welch practically channeled McCarthy on communism:
“This octopus is so large that its tentacles now reach into all the legislative halls, all of the union labor meetings, a majority of religious gatherings, and most of the schools of the whole world.”
Koch quickly signed up for the national council of the new John Birch Society.
That year, according to archives, Koch worked with fellow Kansan Robert Love, of the Love Box Company, to help amend the Kansas Constitution to limit the rights of workers and unions, making it a so-called right to work state.
In 1960, Koch published a pamphlet based on his speeches called “A Businessman Looks at Communism.” The booklet, which was reprinted in 1961, ranted and raved that the National Education Association was a communist group and public-school books were filled with “communist propaganda,” paranoia that extended to all unions, and the “pro-communist” Supreme Court. Fred Koch also claimed that African Americans would engage in a “vicious race war,” echoing the words of white supremacists–including Birchers–who opposed desegregating public schools.
Koch also claimed that President Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the U.S. and allied forces in World War II, was soft on communism.
Such red-baiting might be ancient history if fifty years later Fred’s son David were not calling President Obama a “scary” “hard-core socialist” and spending millions on groups trying to defeat him.
Koch’s fanaticism echoed claims of his Bircher buddy Welch, who had written: “Could Eisenhower really be simply a smart politician, entirely without principles and hungry for glory, who is only the tool of the Communists? The answer is yes . . . it is difficult to avoid raising the question of deliberate treason.”
Treason? (That charge has a familiar hollow ring, as rightwing pundits and Tea Party pals fling it at President Obama and Birchers also flung it a President Kennedy, before he was assassinated.)
Eisenhower’s face is now engraved on every American dime.
After the CIA’s invasion of Cuba spectacularly foundered, David Koch and his twin brother, William, led a “May Day” party at their MIT frat house that hanged Fidel Castro in effigy. A riot broke out and thirty people were arrested, as noted by Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism. (There’s no record the Koch boys were among those booked.)
That was the year that Charles had moved home to Kansas to be groomed to take over the family firm, after finishing engineering degrees at MIT and a short gig designing cigarette filters.
Charles was not only his dad’s choice to succeed him at the company.
He was also the heir to his extreme anti-government politics. By the time Charles stepped in as CEO in 1966, he’d been steeped in Fred’s Bircher outlook and enthralled with the Austrian economics books lining his dad’s library walls, providing an academic rationale for the free market fundamentalism he’s peddled with millions of dollars ever since.
That year, his father Fred helped form and fund another Birch front group, the “1776 Committee,” to try to recruit Eza Taft Benson, one of the leaders of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, to run for president as an independent, along with U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, the racist segregationist politician from South Carolina, to run for vice president. (This fact was discovered in the national archive review of the Center for Media and Democracy, but also discovered by other researchers like Ernie Lazar.)
Both Benson and Thurmond had routinely echoed Bircher attacks on the civil rights movement. The effort was ultimately rebuffed, although it underscores how central to the John Birch Society was its animus toward government efforts to challenge racial segregation and anti-discrimination laws.
Month after month in publications to its members and promoted in its bookstores, attacking the civil rights movement and lauding its opponents were the Birchers’ top domestic agenda items throughout the 1960s. Challenging the United Nations and opposing communism abroad were its foreign policy focal points.
Although years later Fred’s wife Mary claimed to the press that Fred had abandoned the John Birch Society as too extreme, archived letters show that Fred Koch continued to support it and its mission until he met his end, although his failing health made it harder for him to keep up the pace of its executive committee. His family also asked that memorials (donations) be given in his name to only a handful of organizations, including the John Birch Society bookstore in Wichita.
Archived documents also show that Charles continued his role in the John BIrch Society into the year after his father’s death.
Decades later, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Charles and his brother David have fueled operations that attack progressive policies and those who defend them as “communists,” “collectivists,” or “socialists.”
Such smears are not new, but with the Kochs’ doubling of their personal fortune during the Obama administration while most Americans’ wages have stagnated, such claims seem like grand misdirection. The volume of the revival of these attacks has grown dramatically, and will soon grow louder still, fueled by Koch cash and U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have unleashed billionaires to spend unlimited funds influencing American elections.
By: Lisa Graves, The Center for Media and Democracy, July 10, 2014