The influence of the Koch-led oligarchy

Jane Mayer, a superb investigative reporter for the New Yorker and author of the book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine about the influence of big money in the election process and how in different ways, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are channeling voters anger at this corruption.

I think what we’re seeing is a national outpouring of outrage and disgust that 400 or so of the richest people in America are trying to pick our next leader for us. Whatever your politics are, whether they’re left or right, people really don’t appreciate having a handful of the richest people in the country decide everything for us. The one thing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common is that both are railing about the corruption of the American political process, and both are saying, “I am not bought by anyone else.” And that message is really resonating with voters.

Of course, with Trump, his model is very different from Bernie Sanders’. Bernie Sanders is funded by tiny donations from not particularly wealthy people, whereas Donald Trump is a billionaire, running as a billionaire. And so, on the Republican side, you kind of have a choice between the billionaire who owns himself, and the candidates who are owned by the other billionaires. It’s a somewhat oligarchic choice.

That said, one thing I would really like to emphasize, and one of the points of my book, is that presidential politics is really only one arena for the Kochs and similar big-money conservative donors. Presidential politics is probably the hardest item to purchase in American politics: It’s the most visible, and private money has the least effect because there’s so much free publicity for presidential candidates.

Where the influence of money goes so much further, and what people who are interested in this need to take a look at, is the lower levels: the state and even local elections. There’s Koch money that’s been going into school board races, questions about funding mass transit in Tennessee, or funding a zoo in Ohio. They’re fighting the expansion of Medicaid in South Dakota and all over the country. Their organizations are flooding money into universities and colleges in order to try and recruit young people to their point of view and then train them as cadres to go into their political groups. It’s a comprehensive system to change America. So presidential politics certainly is the splashiest arena, but it’s not actually the place where they have the most influence.

This was a follow-up to an earlier interview about her book that “lays out how this relatively small group of very rich Americans has managed to make views that once seemed radical part of mainstream American thought and life.” The Citizens United case opened the door for this.

What’s happened is even more pernicious, in a way, than just unlimited spending. What’s happened is that “dark money” — that is, contributions from undisclosed donors — has exploded. Once individuals and companies and nonprofit corporations could spend as much as they wanted, a new form of spending exploded: spending by groups that claimed to be nonprofit, nonpolitical organizations. They’re called 501(c)(4)s, and they don’t disclose where their money is coming from. In 2006, only two percent of outside political spending came from these dark-money groups — which call themselves social-welfare groups. After 2010, it rose to 40 percent. Almost all of that money was spending on the right. So you’re getting a flood of undisclosed spending by right-wing billionaires and multimillionaires, basically. It’s creating distortions in American politics and American life.

I think that Charles Koch is a true believer in his own vision of what a perfect society would be. And he hasn’t really changed his view very much since the late Sixties, when the group he belonged to was described as Anarcho-Totalitarian by William F. Buckley. They were so far to the right that conservatives like Buckley viewed them as the fringe; they are so anti-government that they bordered on anarchy. I have papers and documents I describe in the book, in which Charles Koch talks about how he wants to fund and build a movement that will be radical, that will destroy the “statist paradigm,” as he calls it. He really believes it. Some of his ideas that seemed so crazy and fringe back in 1980, such as abolishing the IRS and the EPA, you’re hearing those same ideas now echoing among the Republican presidential candidates. So these ideas have really gained a lot of traction through the years, in part because of their funding. Do they really believe it? Yes, they truly believe it. And is it good for their bottom line? That too.

The Kochs even hired investigators to dig up dirt on Mayer and planted untrue stories about her in order to discredit her, something she says has never happened to her before. These people are awful.

As I have written before, the Koch brothers have been waging a public relations campaign trying to shed their image as the poster boys of all that is wrong with American politics and improve their image. As part of this effort, Charles Koch has now written an op-ed for the Washington Post where he tries to upend people’s ideas about him and says, among other things, that he decries corporate welfare and agrees with Bernie Sanders about wanting to get money out of politics and eliminate its influence so that the government does not get to pick winners and losers.

He says he wants a free society but when you read carefully, what he really means by a ‘free’ society is one in which the government’s role is minimal so that people like him and corporations are given a free hand. In his way of thinking, without the government, you and I would have the same freedom to influence the direction of society as he and his billionaire brother David. Yeah, right.

Pearls Before Swine

Pearls Before Swine


  1. V. Amarnath says

    Advocates of capitalism are very apt to appeal to the sacred principles of liberty, which are embodied in one maxim: The fortunate must not be restrained in the exercise of tyranny over the unfortunate.
    Bertrand Russell

  2. raven says

    When has a powerful elite ever voluntarily given up power? About never.

    What strikes me about the Koch’s and their fellow billionaires is how short sighted they are. They want power and money and there is no limit to their greed.
    Because that sound in the distance is the tumbrels starting up their engines. It’s known that as societies become more unequal they become more unstable. And as the French and Bolshevik revolutions showed, at some point the masses can and will just separate the elites’ heads from their bodies.

    The Koches may win a lot of battles with their gigabucks. And end up dead or fled when the other 322 million Americans have had enough of suffering.

  3. says

    how in different ways, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are channeling voters anger at this corruption.

    I’ve read Mayer’s book, found it solid, and recommend it. But I can’t agree with this sort of framing. It’s true that increasing inequality of income, wealth, and power has led to widespread anger. But the idea that this anger is diffuse or shapeless such that it naturally feeds Trump’s campaign but could be tapped by him or Sanders is psychologically naive.

    I’m writing a post about this, but I’ll just say that a substantial part of Trump’s appeal lies in his authoritarianism. That’s not transferable to Sanders or any other non-authoritarian candidate; nor, of course, should anyone try to play to it. Trump’s references to weak activists, great nations, low energy or losing candidates, disgusting (women’s) bodily functions, winning, vigorous health, etc., aren’t about and don’t appeal because of increasing inequality, except filtered through psychology.

    It’s also not, as some would suggest, a class issue. Authoritarianism cuts across these lines. Trump and the Koch brothers, all hugely privileged, aren’t (just) cynical manipulators. They’re authoritarians, due to their upbringing (Mayer’s description of the Kochs’ childhood is highly suggestive, and similar information exists in Trump’s case). And their supporters are far from limited to working class/white/male voters.

    Authoritarianism isn’t of course the only problem that needs to be addressed. But it can’t be ignored. Not just authoritarians but their rhetoric need to be confronted and stopped in their tracks.

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