How The Koch Brothers Broke Democracy & Stuck Taxpayers With The Bill

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This is a story of how a small group of wealthy white men can hijack an entire nation, destroy its founding principles, and force those most affected by their deeds to pay for the damage. The background for this piece is Jane Mayer’s extraordinary book Dark Money, which came out earlier this year. The subtitle says it all: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right.

If you follow the link above, you can read the entire book in PDF form but be warned — the subject matter deals with such sleaze, so much self dealing, and so many crooked dealings in the halls of power, you will need a strong stomach not to feel sick to your stomach as you read it.

The principle characters in Mayer’s book are Charles and David Koch. Taken together, they are the richest people on the face of the Earth. They are also the sons of Fred Koch, who made his fortune supplying gasoline and diesel fuel to Josef Stalin and later Adolf Hitler. In December, 1958, the elder Koch became one of the founders of the John Birch Society, a radical right wing organization that has metastasized over the decades into dozens of right wing propaganda organizations, think tanks, and so-called “institutes.”

Weaponized Philanthropy

You may never have heard of Charles and David Koch, but they have touched the lives of every American. Many of the coded phrases that have infected political discourse over the past 50 years are attributable to them — “trickle down economics,” “welfare Cadillac,” “shrink the size of government until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub,” “Citizens United,” “the death tax,” “death panels,” “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” “the Federalist Society,” and the “Tea Party” are phrases familiar to us all that trace their lineage to the Kochs.

Trickle Down EconomicsHow did this happen? According to Mayer, the Kochs were making little headway with their ultra right wing ideas until they figured out how to turn the tax code to their advantage. For generations, wealthy people were encouraged to donate to charities like hospitals, the Red Cross, and humanitarian causes because they could deduct their contributions from their taxable income.

What the Kochs did was take the charitable deduction process and stand it on its head.  They created their own “charities,” then funded them lavishly with money that qualified for tax deductions. Non-profits with patriotic sounding names like the Heartland Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans For Prosperity, and the Cato Institute have become powerful lobbying groups supported by non-taxable contributions.

Their methodology is always the same. Hire well-paid “researchers” who are smart enough to produce reports that support the positions espoused by the Koch Brothers and keep their mouths shut. Those reports, studies, and white papers are disseminated throughout the highest levels of government to elected officials who owe their seats to campaign contributions from the Koch Brothers. It’s a nice little sweetheart deal that was called racketeering when the Mafia did it, but is considered perfectly appropriate today.

Out Of Sight And Underground

Writing in The Guardian this week, columnist George Monbiot prefaced a story about how the Kochs have exported their ultra right wing agenda to the UK with this summary.

“Dark money is among the greatest current threats to democracy. It means money spent below the public radar, that seeks to change political outcomes. It enables very rich people and corporations to influence politics without showing their hands.

“Among the world’s biggest political spenders are Charles and David Koch, co-owners of Koch Industries, a vast private conglomerate of oil pipelines and refineries, chemicals, timber and paper companies, commodity trading firms and cattle ranches. If their two fortunes were rolled into one, Charles David Koch, with $120bn, would be the richest man on Earth.

“In a rare public statement, in an essay published in 1978, Charles Koch explained his objective. ‘Our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.’ As Jane Mayer records in her book Dark Money, the Kochs’ ideology — lower taxes and looser regulations — and their business interests ‘dovetailed so seamlessly it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.’

“Over the years, she notes, ‘the company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance’. Koch Industries paid massive fines for oil spills, illegal benzene emissions and ammonia pollution. In 1999, a jury found that Koch Industries had knowingly used a corroded pipeline to carry butane, which caused an explosion in which two people died. Company Town, a film released last year, tells the story of local people’s long fight against pollution from a huge paper mill owned by the Koch brothers.

“The Kochs’ chief political lieutenant, Richard Fink, developed what he called a three-stage model of social change. Universities would produce ‘the intellectual raw materials.’ Think tanks would transform them into ‘a more practical or usable form.’ Then ‘citizen activist’ groups would ‘press for the implementation of policy change.’

To these ends the Kochs set up bodies in all three categories themselves, such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Cato Institute and the “citizens’ group” Americans for Prosperity. But for the most part they funded existing organisations that met their criteria. They have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into a network of academic departments, think tanks, journals. and movements. And they appear to have been remarkably successful.

“As researchers at Harvard and Columbia universities have found, Americans for Prosperity alone now rivals the Republican party in terms of size, staffing and organisational capacity (emphasis added). It has pulled ‘the Republican party to the far right on economic, tax and regulatory issues’. It was crucial to the success of the Tea Party movement, the ousting of Democrats from Congress, and the staffing of Trump’s transition team. The Koch network has helped secure massive tax cuts, the smashing of trade unions, and the dismantling of environmental legislation.

“But their hands, for the most part, remain invisible. A Republican consultant who has worked for Charles and David Koch told Mayer that ‘to call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground.'”

Funding The End Of Democracy

Koch-inspired and funded groups have led the campaign to gerrymander voting districts in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and North Carolina. The current maps were drawn by ultra right wing partisans using artificial intelligence. The intent was to make it impossible for Democrats to gain a majority of seats in the legislatures of those states no matter how many people voted for them.

The strategy has been phenomenally successful. In the election last month, Republican Scott Walker was given his walking papers by the voters, but even though Democrats got 54% of the votes cast, they were able to win only 36 of the 99 seats in the state assembly thanks to the anti-democratic bias created by gerrymandering.

Writing in The Guardian, law professor Lawrence Douglas says, “Pundits have described these actions as Republicans playing ‘hardball,’ though the description obscures a noxious reality: Republicans aren’t playing ball at all — they are rejecting the basic rules of the game. The notion that elections count only when our side wins is nothing short of a repudiation of democracy. Republicans, on both the national and state level, are essentially staging minor coups.”

Democracy Is Socialism

We hear a lot of talk from conservatives reactionaries these days about socialism. Most of them have no idea they are spouting Koch Brothers-inspired dogma that has been injected into the national conversation at the highest levels and become part of the political landscape. But democracy itself is socialism. It is a contract between the people of a nation that says the government will be elected by the will of the majority. Any policy that interferes with that core principle is undemocratic and an affront to America’s heritage.

Asked in Philadelphia “What sort of government have you given us?” Benjamin Franklin reportedly said, “A republic — if you can keep it.” Largely through the unrelenting efforts of the Kock Brothers — efforts that have been generously subsidized by American taxpayers — the prospect of America ceasing to be a republic is becoming more real every day.

Republic is another way of saying a representative democracy. Since all 330 million Americans cannot assemble in one place for a national conversation, they elect people to represent their interests. But the Kochs have broken the link between the people and their representatives.

Today, most government officials are looking out for the interests of the Kochs and their super rich colleagues, not those of the people who elected them. The only way to make America great again is to restore the democratic system of government the Founding Fathers envisioned.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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