[This article will also appear in the Macalester Review.]
The demagoguery of politics illustrates an interesting principle; it is easier to ‘otherize’, or alienate, your opponents than to understand them. Such is the case with the Koch brothers, a pair of libertarian corporate moguls who fund a variety of think tanks and activist outfits with their preponderant wealth.
Jane Meyer’s piece (“Covert Operations”) from The New Yorker fits this mold. Her essential thesis? Two men, Charles and David Koch, are employing limitless financial resources to attack the political establishment from all corners on a quest to fill their corporate pockets.
From the very beginning of the piece we see the process of otherization at work. The first photo in the article exhibits the most sinister portrayal of David Koch, a man slowly dying of prostate cancer, the world has ever seen. Continuing with this theme, she shifts to a ‘chilly’ hotel in Austin, Texas, where astro-turfing minions conspire.
I had to raise an eyebrow here. Has Meyer ever lived in Texas? After more summer vacations to Austin than I can count, I can forthrightly attest that the heat is sweltering. But I digress.
The author goes on to delineate the network of organizations the pair funds- the ‘Kochtopus’. Over the span of three decades they have funded and participated in the founding of the Americans for Prosperity, CATO Institute, Reason Foundation, Federalist Society, Institute for Humane Studies, and the Mercatus Center. All focus on different (but often over-lapping) aspects of libertarianism.
Jane Meyer is at her best when she sticks to facts. One of the strongest portions of her article deals with some of the less savory actions of Koch Industries. For example, she describes how one Senate committee accused Koch Oil of “a widespread and sophisticated scheme to steal crude oil from Indians and others through fraudulent mismeasuring” and launched an investigation the matter (after a flood of Koch Industries lobbyists descended upon the committee, no charges were filed).
Similarly, the company was forced to settle when accused of responsibility for three hundred oil spills and the release of the carcinogen benzene into the environment. She also accurately points out that, “their companies have benefitted from nearly a hundred million dollars in government contracts since 2000.”
All of these provide an excellent perspective to the mindset of the Koch brothers in the business world. Nevertheless, Meyer begins to err when she claims their libertarian views “dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests.”
For example, in one instance she argues that the Mercatus Center’s advocacy for deregulation of all types was a clear example of the Koch brothers funneling money to an institution solely to advance its business interests. However, libertarians hold that regulation can act as monopolizing forces for companies like Koch Industries. Thomas O’Malley, a major player in the petroleum industry, asks “Why in the world would you fight clean fuels? ... The more stringent you make specifications, those become barriers to entry. ... Strong companies would have an advantage.”
Similarly, Meyer makes a fuss about the brothers’ admiration of Nobel laureate of FA Hayek. However, she fails to grasp what Hayek actually supported. For example, the 2005 energy bill that gave large companies like Koch Industries tax breaks and subsidies would be an example of government-encouraged monopoly; Hayek explicitly rejects this concept in several books. In addition, his work Law, Legislation and Liberty describes a certain role for general environmental rules set by the government in a libertarian society. In essence, Hayek would likely not endorse the business methods of his admirers.
In fact, many of the groups which the Koch brothers support would actually disapprove of their actions. The Reason Foundation, which vociferously attacked the Koch-supported President Bush, is a strident opponent of corporate welfare. In addition, the Institute for Humane Studies often hosts Timothy Carney, who generally discusses “the evils of corporate welfare and bailouts, and the destructive influence of the Big Business lobby in Washington,” at events the Koch brothers attend.
Furthermore, it seems that the brothers’ donations to political candidates seem to contradict their ideology. In New York, David Koch has donated large amounts to Democrat Andrew Cuomo’s gubernatorial campaign. Similarly, Koch Industries funnels significant funding to Kansas Republicans Todd Tiahrt and Sam Brownback, two beacons of social conservatism. In fact, the company’s PAC donated the maximum sum to Trey Grayson in the Republican Senate primary in Kentucky, despite the presence of libertarian standard-bearer Rand Paul in the race.
It seems that there are two political sides to the Koch brothers. One the one hand, they lobby Washington for special business privileges and environmental exemptions by donating to candidates who control the gears of power. On the other hand, the corporate executives donate millions of dollars to those institutions which can shift public discourse towards their ideal political system. Rather than viewing this as a symbiotic relationship, the two goals are almost mutually exclusive.
But is the corporate money itself immoral, regardless of intentions? In this regard, the critics of the Koch brothers have less ground to stand on. Let’s face it: smart people who publish academic studies cannot feed themselves without money. Even Meyer must acknowledge this point, as Tim Carney points out that she, “cites the blogs ThinkProgress and ClimateProgress, the Web site Media Matters and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy without ever mentioning they are funded by billionaire financier George Soros.” Soros, of course, is the liberal billionaire who donated over $100 million to MoveOn.org in the hopes of ousting President George W Bush in 2004. Iconoclastic liberaltarian David Weigel explains, “The reality is that think tanks and public interest magazines are funded by rich people.” The same would apply to activist outfits like Americans for Prosperity, the much-maligned brainchild of David Koch.
One final point must be made. If the Koch clan really intends to monopolize and control the Tea Party movement, they have done a pretty shoddy job. Kenneth Vogel writes in Politico, “the handful of tea party groups that have raised substantial amounts … through pre-existing connections to wealthy donors, are viewed suspiciously within the movement.
Local groups have been left to literally pass hats seeking donations at their meetings or rely on their organizers’ bank accounts…”
As somebody who has attended Tea Party protests in the past, I can attest that the individual local rally has zero connection to some shadowy financier. The Koch brothers may, in a very indirect fashion, provide some activism training and organizations capacity to small pockets of an angry conservative electorate. However, the efforts of national groups at micro-managing or co-opting Tea Party supporters is like throwing a rock into a river and hoping it will stop flowing.
After bailouts and record deficits under President Bush and stimulus spending and healthcare reform under President Obama, the conservative electorate of the country is angry at some alien ‘establishment. This has generated surprising amounts of activism from those on the right. When I attended the Republican Party of Texas state convention this year, they announced that over half of those present were attending for the first time. The electorate is angry, but it is seeking a way to engage.
Nevertheless, it is inconvenient for those on the left to simply ascribe their electoral troubles to anti-establishment furor (a weapon first utilized in 2008 by President Obama). Conservatives otherized Barack Obama on talk radio, speculating on his faith and shady associates to alienate him from the majority. Now, we see the left undertaking a similar experiment- the otherization of the Tea Party. David and Charles Koch just happen to be the convenient others to lambaste.
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