“Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King … Charles Koch?”: Why the Koch Brothers Are Heroes In Their Own Minds
When Charles E. Wilson appeared before a Senate committee in January 1953 as President Eisenhower’s nominee to become Secretary of Defense, he was asked whether his large holdings of stock in General Motors, where he had been president and chief executive, might cause some conflict of interest. “I cannot conceive of one,” he replied, “because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa. The difference did not exist. Our company is too big. It goes with the welfare of the country.” While Wilson is often misquoted as saying that what’s good for GM is good for America, a quote often used as a symbol of corporate arrogance, his intent seemed at least somewhat more benign. But however you interpret it, Wilson was almost certainly sincere in believing that when you get right down to it, the country and its largest corporation, as GM was then, rise and fall together.
Koch Industries is not quite as big as General Motors was then, at least not relative to the rest of the economy. But the two men who control it, Charles and David Koch, seem just as sure that what’s good for them is good for America. They probably wouldn’t put it that way, and maybe they don’t even think about it that way. All they know is that the things they believe are right and true, which in at least one way makes them no different from you or me.
This weekend, the Kochs, who plan to spend nearly a billion dollars of their money and their friends’ money to elect a Republican president in 2016, held a confab where they could gather to discuss their plans to move America in a direction they find more amenable. When Charles addressed the plutocrats, he told them to give themselves a hearty pat on the back:
Charles Koch on Sunday compared the efforts of his political network to the fight for civil rights and other ‘freedom movements,’ urging his fellow conservative donors to follow the lead of figures such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.
‘History demonstrates that when the American people get motivated by an issue of justice that they believe is just, extraordinary things can be accomplished,’ Koch told 450 wealthy conservatives assembled in the ballroom of a lavish oceanfront resort [in Dana Point, California].
‘Look at the American revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement,’ he said. “All of these struck a moral chord with the American people. They all sought to overcome an injustice. And we, too, are seeking to right injustices that are holding our country back.”
Other reports note that Charles talked a good bit about the disadvantaged and downtrodden, and how they will be the true beneficiaries of the expansion of liberty that is the Kochs’ fondest dream.
You can call that ridiculous, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But while Democrats see the Kochs as cartoon villains, twirling their moustaches as they contemplate a future with low top-end marginal tax rates, I assure you that they believe themselves to have only the purest motives for their political action.
Ask any liberal activist why it’s a threat to democracy when the Kochs spend millions to elect their favored candidates, but less so when liberal billionaires do the same thing, and you’ll get two answers. The first is that “We can’t unilaterally disarm,” which is also what you hear from candidates who support campaign finance reforms but would like to get money from super PACs. It’s reasonable enough, if not particularly high-minded. The second answer, and perhaps the more common one, is that when the Kochs advocate for things like low taxes for the wealthy and loose regulation on corporations, they’re being self-interested, while a liberal billionaire who takes the opposite position is acting altruistically.
It’s an answer that is simultaneously true, at least to a degree, and unsatisfying. First of all, there are times when the Kochs advocate on issues that don’t have anything to do with their bottom line. And if they succeed in helping a Republican get elected president, only a portion of what that president does will affect them directly, even if they wind up being pleased with almost all of it.
Secondly, it runs the risk of devolving into a caricature that doesn’t help us understand the Kochs. Right now, Charles is probably asking himself why anyone would make a fuss about his speech. After all, he believes that the liberty embodied in unfettered capitalism is a source of prosperity and human flourishing. How could anyone think otherwise?
Of course, there’s a difference between telling yourself, “We’re advocating for the right things,” and telling yourself, “This thing we’re doing is as noble as anything anyone in our nation’s history has done.” But perhaps grandiosity isn’t surprising in a man whose fortune is estimated to be over $40 billion.
We all justify our actions and rationalize our decisions, and no one thinks they’re the villain of their own story. We all believe we’re good people, that we have a strong moral sense, and that the world would be a better place if it were ordered in the way we’d like. If would be shocking if the Kochs thought differently about themselves.
My point isn’t that we should automatically forgive people for their outrageous claims of moral rightness, any more than we ought to excuse outlandish claims of suffering and oppression (see War on Christmas, The). But it’s useful to appreciate that when someone like Charles Koch looks in the mirror and says, “You know, I really am a lot like Martin Luther King,” he may be utterly wrong in a hundred ways, but it isn’t a surprise that he feels that way. It’s human nature.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, August 2, 2015
If you’re a Republican, you surely thank the heavens for the Koch brothers, billionaires willing to spend vast sums to help Republicans get elected. But could the Kochs actually pose a serious threat to the Republican Party itself?
That’s the question raised by a fascinating new report from Jon Ward of Yahoo News on a brewing conflict between the Kochs and the Republican National Committee over voter files. While this looks like a somewhat arcane dispute over data and software, it actually gets to the heart of a transition now going on in American politics — one Republicans initiated, perhaps without quite understanding it, and one that now threatens to make their party wither on the vine.
For years, Republicans have been fighting to empower people like the Kochs and increase their political power, and now the Kochs may end up swallowing the Republican Party itself.
This current dispute is about whether Republican candidates for office will use the RNC’s voter file to target their campaign activities, or whether they’ll use a system created by the Kochs’ political operation. According to Ward, the RNC sees the Koch’s system as a real threat, and things are getting ugly:
Since then, relations between the two sides have soured, turning into what one Republican operative described as “all-out war.” Interviews with more than three dozen people, including top decision-makers in both camps, have revealed that the Kochs’ i360 platform for managing voter contacts — which is viewed by many as a superior, easier-to-use interface than what’s on offer from the RNC — is becoming increasingly popular among Republican campaigns.
The RNC is now openly arguing, however, that the Kochs’ political operation is trying to control the Republican Party’s master voter file, and to gain influence over — some even say control of — the GOP.
“I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how,” said Katie Walsh, the RNC’s chief of staff.
There’s a pretty rich irony in hearing an RNC spokesperson complain about the influence of unaccountable rich people on politics. That’s because the power the Kochs (and other mega-donors) are building is a direct consequence of everything Republicans have advocated for years. They’re the ones who filed lawsuits to try to weaken campaign finance laws. They’re the ones who celebrated when those lawsuits succeeded. They’re the ones who rush to exploit every new loophole so the most amount of money can be spent with the least amount of accountability. They’re the ones who say that money equals speech, and liberty demands that the wealthy be able to spend all they want on campaigns.
But it’s possible that party leaders may not have predicted just how serious and involved the Kochs would become in their political activities.
This reminds me of something you’ve probably seen in a half-dozen movies about the mafia. A struggling business owner comes to the don and begs for a loan — he knows his business will succeed, he just needs some help getting through a rough patch. The don agrees, and the business owner is happy to have the don’s nephew come work for him while he puts the loan to good use. Then more of the don’s people keep coming, and before he knows it, the place is full of made guys. Eventually he complains to the don’s lieutenant. “This is my business!” he says. “You don’t seem to understand,” replies the lieutenant. “You work for us now.” (No, I’m not drawing a moral equivalence between the Koch brothers and mobsters.)
The model followed by most billionaires in the Kochs’ position is basically to just throw money at existing operatives and institutions to fund a bunch of TV ads, which is what they did when they first started. But as time has gone on, the Kochs have gotten smarter and smarter. They’ve invested in building a grassroots network through Americans for Prosperity, which is labor-intensive and time-consuming, but can ultimately yield results that advertising can’t. They’ve successfully created this data operation, which is supposedly superior to the RNC’s. They are obviously not content to just make big donations and let other people decide how the money gets spent.
Some other mega-donors are trying to do something similar, but none of them, on the right or the left, is doing it with the scale and success that the Kochs are. And if they want, they can go much bigger. The Kochs’ combined wealth is over $80 billion; so far they’ve barely dipped into the ocean of their resources.
We shouldn’t overstate things — the Republican Party is a long way from beginning to wither away. The RNC still raises plenty of money, its local affiliates still make up the default avenue through which rank-and-file conservatives all over the country can participate in politics, and it still has the ability to do things like sanction presidential primary debates and thus set their rules (though if the Kochs decided to hold their own series of debates, I’m pretty sure the candidates would come). But there is a dangerous future on the horizon, one in which the party still carries symbolic value, but not much practical influence.
It’s too early to tell whether that will occur, or whether it would be good or bad for conservatives in the long run if it did occur. On one hand, the party argues, quite reasonably, that while someone like the Kochs might lose interest and pack up shop one day, the party will always be there trying to elect Republicans, so it makes sense for them to be the locus of organizing, spending, and coordination. On the other hand, Republicans succeeded in creating something like a free market in political organization, where any new entrant with the means can come in and try to win market share.
In other words, the party fought to give the Kochs as much influence in politics as they were willing and able to take, and the Kochs took them up on it with so much enthusiasm that they now threaten to supplant the party. Maybe a party that lauds the wealthy for their smarts and entrepreneurial spirit should have seen that coming.
By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, June 11, 2015
The more Charles and David Koch provided the resources for a massive political operation, the more it seemed as if the far-right billionaires were creating a political party of their own. The Kochs had an army of field organizers, blanketed the airwaves with political ads, and even had their own voter lists.
All of this, of course, raises important questions about the role of money in the political process, and just how much influence wealthy interests can wield in a democratic system. But as Yahoo News reports today, for the Republican National Committee, the Koch brothers’ power is raising very different kinds of questions.
The Yahoo News report notes, for example, that in the 2014 election cycle, the RNC and the Kochs’ operation struck a deal to share voter data, though the arrangement evaporated once the season came and went. Now, however, the two sides are sharply at odds, creating what one Republican operative described as “all-out war.”
Interviews with more than three dozen people, including top decision-makers in both camps, have revealed that the Kochs’ i360 platform for managing voter contacts – which is viewed by many as a superior, easier-to-use interface than what’s on offer from the RNC – is becoming increasingly popular among Republican campaigns.
The RNC is now openly arguing, however, that the Kochs’ political operation is trying to control the Republican Party’s master voter file, and to gain influence over – some even say control of – the GOP.
Katie Walsh, the RNC’s chief of staff, told Yahoo News, “I think it’s very dangerous and wrong to allow a group of very strong, well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone to have control over who gets access to the data when, why and how.”
I can appreciate why fights over data may seem like the ultimate in inside-baseball, but this is a fight worth paying close attention to.
Remember, for many modern campaigns, this data is the foundation for any successful endeavor. The more reliable and comprehensive the data, and the easier it is to use, the more effective the targeting, messaging, advertising, and grassroots organizing of any major campaign.
In this case, as one might expect, the Republican National Committee controls the Republican voter file, but the Kochs’ operation seems to have discovered that it really doesn’t need the Republican National Committee – the Kochs have their own platform to manage the data, and their own relationships with campaigns that want to make use of the data.
If that’s the case, some of you may be wondering why the Republican National Committee is needed at all – and you wouldn’t be the only one. From the Yahoo piece:
The core issue, from Priebus’ point of view, is one of loyalty and allegiance. The RNC is a permanent entity, committed to the Republican Party without question. The Koch network is too independent from the party to be trusted with possession of the GOP’s most valuable core assets. If the Kochs – whose political history is steeped more in libertarianism than it is in any loyalty to the Republican Party – decided next week to use their database to benefit only their massive multinational corporation, they could do so. […]
The Kochs’ political arm, Freedom Partners, which oversees i360, views the issue as one of capability. Koch aides – several of whom used to work at the RNC – want to win elections, and in their view the RNC has inherent challenges to helping the party win. Party committee fundraising is severely limited by federal election law, while building, maintaining and enriching a database is expensive.
The other angle to keep in mind is just how striking it is to see Republican officials discover their heretofore non-existent concerns about outside money and the political process. The RNC’s Katie Walsh didn’t even rely on anonymity – she straight up told Yahoo News, on the record, that she believes it’s “dangerous” to extend too much power to “well-financed individuals who have no accountability to anyone.”
Ya don’t say. We might want to think twice before turning over parts of the democratic process to unaccountable, wealthy players with their own agenda? I’ve heard similar concerns for many years, but I don’t recall them ever coming from RNC officials.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 11, 2015
“Koch Brothers’ Humiliating Secret”: Why Even Their Billions Can’t Save The GOP From Self-Destruction
Faced with the nightmare of up to 20-something GOP presidential candidates in 2016, Fox News last week announced its bid for sanity: It would limit its debate to the top 10 candidates in national polls. Now David Koch tells Larry Kudlow that he and brother Charles are likely to distribute some of the $900 million they’ve socked away for 2016 to “several” contenders, not just one Republican candidate.
Paul Waldman reads this as an attempt to cull the GOP field, and so do I. The Kochs can spread the wealth, at least among Republicans, because the entire 2016 roster supports their tax-slashing, regulation-gutting, climate-change accelerating policies. Their real interest is having a limited debate among the “grown-ups” of the party and sending a strong candidate off to face the Democratic nominee, most likely Hillary Clinton.
Charles Koch said something similar last month to USA Today, specifically mentioning Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. ”Those are the ones we have talked to the most and who seem to be the possible leaders,” Koch said.
At the time, Charles’s comments were widely interpreted as cleaning up an earlier mess made by brother David, when he told New York GOP donors that the Kochs would only get involved “when the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination.” That was taken as a sign they backed the man who turned Wisconsin into an arm of Koch Industries.
When Charles Koch came out days later and said the brothers would in fact back “several” GOP candidates, I took it as evidence that they recognized that Walker had stumbled early and often in his first forays into national politics, and he shouldn’t be their only bet.
Now I think it’s a sign of many things, none of them good for the GOP.
First, even though the Democrats’ 2014 effort to raise awareness of the Kochs’ control of the GOP was widely perceived as a failure, it succeeded in making the Kochs edgy about their public image. They don’t want anybody IDed as the Kochs’ man.
It’s also a signal they don’t see anyone who’s a slam-dunk winner: Walker and Jeb Bush have matched each other for missteps all year, and the Kochs can’t afford to back a loser.
But it’s also a sign that for all their influence with the GOP field, the Kochs can’t force a change in the top candidates’ political platform. Despite their claims that they’re still libertarian on abortion rights and marriage equality, and despite evidence they support comprehensive immigration reform, the brothers don’t even pretend to be searching for a candidate who’s moderate on any of those things.
Even the great and powerful Kochs can’t force GOP moderation on those issues — and they don’t really care that much, because their political commitments are all about their bottom line, anyway.
While the Kochs look for a way to prop up “the possible leaders” of the GOP field, Fox will try to stage-manage the clown show. Fox’s decision to use national polls, rather than polling in key primary-state races, has the benefit of wider inclusion. Biographic and demographic curiosities like neurosurgeon Ben Carson and businesswoman Carly Fiorina, two “non-politicians” who don’t have a prayer of running serious, nationwide campaigns, will likely make the cut.
Thus the Fox debate stage will likely feature two Latinos (Cruz and Rubio), plus an African American and a woman, vying to lead a party in which white men make up the majority of voters.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Friday that the Kochs’ efforts were eclipsing Karl Rove and his American Crossroads empire, which failed spectacularly in the 2012 cycle. Rove is suffering for his ties to the last, spectacularly unsuccessful GOP president, George W. Bush – but he doesn’t particularly get along with Bush’s brother. Not to worry: Crossroads seems to be carving out a role in attacking Hillary Clinton.
But Rove, too, was supposed to be seeking the great GOP moderate after Tea Party extremists hijacked his party and made it unelectable in presidential races. Neither Rove nor the Kochs seem able to steer the field away from demographically destructive policies on gay rights or immigration. Money can’t buy moderation on social issues, at least not yet, so the GOP’s best hopes involve trashing the Democratic nominee in 2016.
By: Joan Walsh, Editor at Large, Salon, May 26, 2015