Here are just two of the many fun quotes in Jane Meyer’s New Yorker article about David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers who founded Americans For Prosperity, support a network of conservative think tanks dedicated to libertarian causes, and have been instrumental in creating and sustaining the Tea Party movement:
They’re smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.
The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.
The first is from a previous advisor to the Kochs and one of the many sources in Meyer’s story that go unnamed. The second is from Bruce Bartlett, formerly of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a think tank the Kochs funded. If you lack the time or patience to read Meyer’s mind-blowing but also 10,000-word story on these men—whose combined income is exceeded in America only by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet—you should know two things. One, the Fifth Avenue apartment mentioned in the opening section now belongs to one of my former clients, and I used to tutor there twice a week. Two, you can get the gist of Meyer’s article by reading Frank Rich’s column from Sunday.
Charles and David Koch own the vast majority of Koch Industries, the nation’s second largest privately held corporation after Cargill. With annual earnings estimated at $100 billion, Koch industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, plus oil refineries in Alaska, Texas and Minnesota and 4,000 miles of pipeline. This spring, the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst named Koch Industries one of ten biggest air polluters in the United States.
In other words, they have some political concerns—particularly when it comes to federal regulation of industry, corporate and personal taxes and, less intuitively, social welfare. Besides advocating the elimination of Social Security and the public schools, the Koch brothers have outspent Exxon Mobil in lobbying and donations to groups that deny climate change. They also founded the aforementioned Americans for Prosperity, which in turn spawned FreedomWorks, which in turn organized the first Tax Day Tea Party in 2009.
It is ironic, therefore, that one of the Tea Party’s main complaints is that shadowy corporate interests exercise too much influence on American politics. The abiding question about this grassroots movement of ordinary Americans oppressed by taxes has always been why they spontaneously coalesced right after Barack Obama took office, even though their taxes were exactly the same as they were under the Bush administration. The influence of the Koch billionaires and their network of PACs and lobbyists goes a long way toward explaining that, as well as why the nation’s largest populist movement in decades is against social services and for deregulation of industry.
Obviously, the supporters of the Tea Party are not sheep. They’re motivated by real concerns like the collapsed economy and soaring deficits, and by bullshit concerns like immigration and whether our black President is secretly Muslim. The notion that they would suddenly energize themselves politically because evil plutocrat brothers told them so is the stuff of conspiracy theories. Still, the incontrovertible facts remain that A) FreedomWorks received $12 million from Koch Family Foundations, B) the brothers and Koch Industries gave $250 million to various causes and institutions between 1998 and 2008 and C) libertarian politics never had much traction with the American public before.
Do the Koch brothers control the Tea Party movement? No—not any more than they control the array of think tanks, foundations and websites they fund, and from which the movement draws its ideological fire. The question of how much libertarianism—which happens to be the best political philosophy imaginable for billionaires and large corporations—is influenced by the billionaires and large corporations who pay for it is unanswerable. David and Charles Koch subscribe to a particular viewpoint, and they support the people who do. It’s just that they have 30 thousand million dollars with which to do it.
The Koch brothers are not unique in American history. They come from a long line of industrial families who have sought to dismantle the modern federal government for personal gain, going back to the DuPonts and their crusade against Franklin Roosevelt’s “socialist” policies like the SEC and child labor laws. Back then, the founders of the American Liberty League called FDR a traitor to his class. The phrase rings ironically today, as thousands of ordinary Americans line up to demand the government give them less, so that the Koch brothers can accumulate a little more.