For too many Americans, the levers of democracy are broken. Congress and the majority of states have failed to take meaningful action on the issues Americans consistently rate as their top concerns—the economy, employment, and wages.
This sad state of affairs has put “dissatisfaction with the government” at the top of the list of America’s problems for the second year in a row.
But this broken system is no accident. In fact, it may be the crowning achievement of a secretive network of uber-wealthy extremists who are the subject of an exceptional new book by Jane Mayer, the award-winning writer for The New Yorker.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a must-read for everyone concerned about the crisis of American democracy and the disconnect between what citizens want from their government and what government is delivering.
Mayer reveals fascinating new details about the kingpins of the anti-government gang, billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, whose family firm, Koch Industries, is the second largest privately held company in America and one of the biggest corporations in the world.
Father Fred Koch was a founding member of the John Birch Society, which hyped the threat of communism and fought the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. Son Charles, who now runs the company, once helped lead and raise funds for the Birchers, but split with the group over Vietnam.
In recounting the family history, Mayer digs up some killer quotes, which shed light on the brothers and their motivations. In the 1970s, Charles wrote in the Libertarian Review: “Ideas do not spread by themselves; they spread only through people. Which is why we need a movement.” And the movement he envisioned “must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.”
In 1980, this vision was set forth in detail when brother David ran for Vice President on the Libertarian Party ticket against Ronald Reagan. His platform called for abolishing government health-care programs Medicare and Medicaid, as well as Social Security, and all income and corporate taxes.
Also on the Koch chopping block were OSHA, the FDA, the SEC, the EPA, and the FBI. And David called for the abolition of campaign finance laws and any laws impeding employment, such as minimum wage and child labor laws.
The campaign’s goal, writes Mayer, was to undo “not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, but Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Era, too.” David Koch gave about $2 million to his cause, but his vision was supported by only 1 percent of the voters that year.
Since that time, the Koch brothers’ extreme views don’t appear to have changed much. They continue to decry the minimum wage as part of the “culture of dependency,” while the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) works to ban local minimum wage hikes.
Plus, the Koch war on government is in full swing, with the EPA in the direct line of fire.
In delving into the Kochs’ hostility to government, Mayer reveals fascinating new details about their upbringing, including their dictatorial dad and Charles’s creepy German nanny (who excitedly moved home after the Nazis took over).
But for all practical purposes, the answer to the brothers’ deep hostility to government may lie in the astounding list of environmental violations that Mayer rightly describes as “egregious” and “willful.”
Koch Industries’ refinery in Corpus Christi, Texas, was charged with releasing ninety-one metric tons of cancer-causing benzene into the air and falsifying emissions records. The company in 2001 pled guilty to one felony charge, paying $10 million in fines and $10 million for projects to improve the environment.
Pine Bend Refinery in Rosemont, Minnesota, paid a $6.9 million fine to the state and an $8 million fine to the feds after releasing pollutants into the environment. Government authorities accused Koch Industries of trying to cover up its offenses by surreptitiously dumping extra pollutants at night and on weekends.
Teenagers Danielle Smalley and Jason Stone died in a fiery blast in 1996 after the car they were in ignited gas leaking from a Koch pipeline that one expert compared to “Swiss cheese” at trial. A jury found Koch guilty of negligence and malice and awarded the victims’ families $296 million.
In his 2007 book, The Science of Success, Charles explained that “we were caught unprepared by the rapid increase in regulation,” adding that “while business was becoming increasingly regulated, we kept thinking and acting as if we lived in a pure market economy.” The comment makes it clear that Charles thinks the rules, not the behavior, are the problem. He and David would dedicate their fortunes to getting rid of those rules.
After these run-ins with the government, the Kochs decided they needed a new approach to politics.
Koch lieutenant Richard Fink mapped out a three-pronged strategy: “The first phase required an ‘investment’ in intellectuals whose ideas would serve as the ‘raw products.’ The second required an investment in think tanks that would turn the ideas into marketable policies. And the third phase required the subsidization of ‘citizens’ groups that would, along with ‘special interests,’ pressure elected officials to implement the policies,” writes Mayer.
“It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled, and switched on.”
Charles created the Koch network of millionaires and billionaires to shoulder some of the financial burden of this crusade, says Mayer, sponsoring the first Koch summit in 2003. “Of particular importance to the Kochs was drumming up support from other business leaders for their environmental fights,” one insider told Mayer.
The Koch production line turned on the money spigot to astonishing effect. In 2003, 75 percent of Republicans supported strict environmental regulations. How do you combat that level of support for the environment? You lie.
The Kochs gave $25 million in a three-year period to dozens of different organizations peddling climate change denial, outspending even ExxonMobil. Between 2003 and 2010, a broader rightwing network spent $558 million on climate change denial in the form of at least 5,299 grants to ninety-one different nonprofit organizations. It wasn’t just the Kochs; the Scaife family, the DeVos family, the Bradley Foundation, and North Carolina’s Art Pope lent a hand.
This funding helped convince the GOP rank-and-file for a time that climate change was a hoax. Mayer brilliantly dubs this phenomenon “weaponized philanthropy.”
The Koch network of donors really took off and expanded deeply into electoral politics when an upstart named Barack Obama won the White House. Obama’s election and the 2008 financial crisis were a shock to the system. If anything should have buried the Koch brand of “free market fundamentalism” in the dustbin of history, it should have been the Wall Street meltdown. But the Kochs fought back, supporting the “Party of No” in Congress and the nascent Tea Party as Obama pushed a stimulus package to stem catastrophic job loss.
In its 2010 Citizens United ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited undisclosed money directly into the political arena and expanded the number of front groups and astroturf organizations funded by the Koch network. Under the guise of “issue advocacy,” the Kochs use nonprofit “social welfare” organizations to attack candidates on an array of issues, many completely disconnected from their actual agenda.
The “new generation” of Koch front groups had a true coming-out party when the Kochs decided to join a full frontal assault against Obamacare.
Why did the Kochs care about reforms in the insurance industry? Because they wanted to change the way voters think about the role of government for years to come, the head of the Koch front group Americans for Prosperity admitted to The New York Times. If government could address a big problem and succeed, government would in fact be seen as a functional and useful thing to keep around.
To convince America that expanding health care to millions of insured people was a bad thing, more lies were needed, though. GOP pollster Frank Luntz compiled a twenty-eight-page confidential memo arguing that the only way to attack a popular health-care program was to label it “a government takeover.” This was such an outrageous claim for a program that relied on private insurance that it was dubbed the “Lie of the Year” by Politifact.
Rightwing donors bankrolled virtually every group fighting Obamacare. Americans for Prosperity sponsored some 300 “grassroots” rallies, while fellow Koch front groups 60 Plus Association and Generation Opportunity rolled out ads, and ALEC pushed bills to block the implementation and urged GOP governors to sue.
As Mayer writes, “While Obama’s health-care bill was useful in riling up Tea Party protesters, his environmental and energy policies were the real target of many of the millionaires and billionaires in the Koch circle.” Coal, oil, and gas billionaires “formed the nucleus of the Koch donor network,” whose goal was to forestall action to address climate change.
Americans for Prosperity lobbied lawmakers to support a “no climate tax” pledge to block any carbon tax or climate legislation that raises revenue for the government. ALEC, in turn, rolled out a series of damaging bills opposing the carbon tax, renewable portfolio standards, and subsidies for renewables (without saying a peep about massive subsidies for fossil fuel firms).
Today, ALEC is at the forefront of efforts to impede climate action with a series of bills directing states to obstruct Obama’s Clean Power Plan, projected to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants by one-third.
The Koch network, which pledged to spend almost $1 billion during the 2016 election cycle, has given away an astonishing $400 million in 2015, signifying an enormous expansion of its efforts. The details of this giving are not known and may not be knowable for years, if ever.
But the Koch Machine may have been too clever by half. Dissatisfaction with government and a strong suspicion that the economy is rigged for the benefit of the uber-rich has fueled the upstart campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. As of this writing, Trump, a candidate the Kochs cannot control, appears to be on his way to a coronation by the GOP.
Meanwhile, 82 percent of Americans believe that climate change is a “critical” or “important” threat to the vital interests of the United States in the next ten years. Government—indeed, big government—will be needed as never before.
If the Kochs win their war on democracy and a climate catastrophe ensues, Mayer’s book will long survive as a compendium of guilty men. ω
Mary Bottari is the deputy director of the Center for Media and Democracy.