Are we all too focused on the Koch brothers? That’s the argument of a feature in the current issue of Newsweek by veteran political reporter Matt Cooper. Cooper claims Charles and David Koch’s influence is overstated by Democrats, who raise money by fearmongering about the brothers’ nefarious plots, and by the media, which loves any pair of eccentric billionaires.
“With the Democrats possibly losing control of the Senate, Harry Reid, their leader in that chamber, has gone after the Kochs with what seems like unprecedented language against private citizens,” Cooper complains, noting that Reid called the Kochs “un-American” for “trying to buy America.” Here is Cooper’s argument in a nutshell:
Professionals in both parties have a vested interest in building up the already substantial impact of the Kochs. Republicans see them as loyal Americans coming to the rescue, while Democrats get a higher return on their solicitations simply by invoking the Koch name. Neither side has an incentive to say, “Yes, Koch money is a big deal, but it’s not determinative.” And neither side has an incentive to say the obvious: “Even if you believe that it’s crazy to allow that much private money in politics, the Kochs are playing by the rules.” It’s like cockfighting: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. The Koch geyser of money may be unusual but “un-American”? Oh, please.
As a writer for one outlet that talks about the Kochs frequently, let me explain why we do so: The Kochs threaten to destroy American democracy, regardless of their views. And, as it happens, their extreme and self-interested positions are taking over the Republican Party.
Cooper makes two arguments: One, that the Kochs are really not all that powerful, and two, that they are just libertarian-leaning philanthropists, not far-right loons trying to buy a favorable political climate for their lawbreaking, polluting company.
This is wrong on both counts. On the first: Cooper notes that the Kochs marshalling of more than $400 million in the last election cycle did not put Mitt Romney in the White House. That’s true, but if the Republicans had nominated a stronger candidate, the Koch money might have put him or her over the top. And Republicans in Congress and at the state level might have done even worse without Koch backing in 2012. Going forward, we don’t know how much the Kochs will spend. Perhaps they will conclude that buying the presidency simply requires a larger investment. They can afford it, as they are worth $80 billion. Suppose they and other Republican fossil-fuel plutocrats spend $4 billion instead of $400 million in 2016?
Cooper seems to argue that if you try to buy an election and fail, then you’ve done no harm. But that misses the point. Either you think it’s OK for billionaires to buy elections, or you don’t. Saying it’s OK because they probably will fail at it — except for when they succeed, like Mike Bloomberg in New York — doesn’t make sense.
Cooper does give the Kochs credit for one thing: turning the GOP against climate action, via Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Koch-backed anti-regulation organization. “A few years ago, cap-and-trade curbs on greenhouse gas emissions was embraced by the GOP presidential nominee, John McCain,” writes Cooper. “There’s no way that’ll happen in 2016, in part thanks to the AFP.” Well, climate change is currently the worst catastrophe affecting humankind. Preventing one of the two major parties in the most powerful nation on earth from accepting its reality, and thereby preventing national and international action to fight the problem, is no small matter. It is, indeed, the whole ballgame. (Consider the effect of substituting another apocalypse into Cooper’s sentences, to fully appreciate the absurdity: “A few years ago, avoiding a nuclear war with Russia was embraced by the GOP presidential nominee, John McCain. There’s no way that’ll happen in 2016, in part thanks to the AFP.”)
On the second count, just how evil the Kochs are, Cooper is much too generous. He notes their libertarian personal beliefs — e.g., “David Koch told reporters in 2012 he disagreed with Mitt Romney’s opposition to legalizing gay marriage” — as if that matters. It doesn’t. David Koch backs candidates with intolerant, big-government social positions because they share his commitment to eliminating the social safety net and rolling back labor, environment, and public health regulations. Koch’s personal view of gay marriage matters as little as his patronage of the arts or academia — supposedly mitigating factors that Cooper also emphasizes. Sorry, but giving money to Lincoln Center and MIT, two institutions patronized overwhelmingly by the wealthy, does not diminish the harm the Kochs unleash on society as a whole.
“Explaining why, say, David, who donated millions to cancer research and the dinosaur wing at the American Museum of Natural history, is a monster is a tough sell,” writes Cooper. Well, I’m not much of a salesman, but I think I can close this deal. Even the brothers’ seemingly nonpartisan giving to laudable educational causes is tainted by their right-wing agenda. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History sows confusion about climate science and depicts climate change as a natural, harmless phenomenon.
And even when the Kochs don’t get their candidates elected, their ideas still become more accepted. As Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently noted, David Koch’s far-right policies have moved from the periphery to the mainstream of the GOP over the last three decades:
In 1980, Libertarian vice-presidential candidate David Koch ran on a platform that called for abolishing the minimum wage. Thirty-four years ago, that was an extreme view of a fringe party that had the support of 1 percent of the American people. Today, not only does virtually every Republican in Congress oppose raising the $7.25 an hour minimum wage, many of them, including Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and John McCain, are on record for abolishing the concept of the federal minimum wage. …
In 1980, the platform of David Koch’s Libertarian Party called for “the repeal of the fraudulent, virtually bankrupt, and increasingly oppressive Social Security system.” Thirty-four years ago, that was an extreme view of a fringe party that had the support of 1 percent of the American people. Today, the mainstream view of the Republican Party is that “entitlement reform” is absolutely necessary. For some, this means major cuts in Social Security. For others who believe Social Security is unconstitutional or a Ponzi scheme this means the privatization of Social Security or abolishing this program completely for those who are under 60 years of age.
Just this week, every Republican in the Senate but one voted to block a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage.
Most disingenuous is Cooper’s argument that the Kochs cannot be blamed for merely playing by the rules of unlimited campaign spending. Tom Steyer cannot be blamed for that. The Kochs can, since they have worked to elect Republicans who oppose campaign finance regulation and have appointed the Supreme Court justices who have ruled such regulations unconstitutional.
Cooper takes exception to calling the Kochs’ efforts to buy America “un-American.” Fine, let’s call it what it is: anti-democratic. We shouldn’t have to discuss just how “unusual” the Kochs are, because they shouldn’t matter more than any other two citizens. We shouldn’t have to wonder whether their billions can buy elections. The American government exists to govern in the interest of the majority. For example, it should regulate greenhouse gas emissions to prevent harm to everyone from fossil fuels that only benefit a handful of wealthy people like the Kochs. If, instead, the Kochs can buy off politicians to side with them over the public, we are headed for catastrophe.