Koch Kookery, Kon and Pro: A Roundup


We are now in the second, more illuminating meta-round of coverage of the recent staggeringly successful spasm of Kochhate launched by the New Yorker's expose on these wealthy, politically active industrial tycoon brothers Charles and David Koch (who give money to the foundation that owns this website, among many other causes).

At the center is Matthew Continetti's well-reported and thoughtful Weekly Standard story, which delivers a calm, sensible, detailed, and accurate picture of these guys' actual role in destroying/saving the country.

Continetti efficiently and thoroughly makes some important points about our public Koch crisis. That, for example, the David Koch prank phone call to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proves exactly the opposite of what proggy Kochhaters think it did–that is, that Walker had clearly never before in his life spoken to his alleged puppetmaster-on-the-cheap Koch, who allegedly bought him for less than half a percent of campaign contributions.

Also, that it's an extremely tendentious, not to say ignorant, interpretation of the facts and motivations behind the rise of the Tea Party movement to attribute it primarily to the paid-for machinations of Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity; that portraying the Kochs as pure trust fund babies who only have what their Bircher daddy Fred gave them shows little knowledge of the multipronged industrial giant the brothers made of the relatively small company they inherited; that their policy giving is tiny compared to their total charitable giving, unusual if they are conscious and deliberate puppet masters of American politics; and that it's simply absurd to claim that their long and peculiar history of ideological giving has some direct link to lining their own pockets:

[it was said that] the Kochs' talk about free markets was merely cover for economic self-interest. But if that were true, why doesn't every major corporation full-throatedly support limited government? Are we really to believe that Koch Industries is the only self-interested corporation in America? The reality, of course, is that an easier way to advance corporate self-interest is the one taken by most giant companies: securing monopolies, bailouts, tariffs, subsidies—the opposite of free enterprise. "It'd be much safer economically to sit on the sidelines or curry favor with the Obama administration," said Richard Fink.

It was impossible for the liberal activists to acknowledge that libertarians might actually operate from conviction. Charles and David believed in low taxes, less spending, and limited regulation not because those policies helped them but because they helped everybody. "If I wanted to enhance my riches," said David, "why do I give away almost all my money?"

Continetti is also good at contexualizing the real nature of Koch companies' environmental crimes (not so severe as far as enormous industrial processing concerns go) and OK on their libertarian intellectual background, although a long article on this that fails to mention the names Robert LeFevre (the eccentric pacifist anarchist educator who was the brothers first extended entree to libertarian thinking at his Freedom School in Colorado in the mid-'60s) or Murray Rothbard (the anarchist libertarian economist and philosopher who was central to the Koch libertarian project in the late 1970s before a contentious break) isn't telling the whole story–not that any mere magazine feature could. (For more context on the Kochs as libertarian financiers, see my book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.)

Continetti does start to sound almost like the people he's jousting against when he describes the supposed highly coordinated sinister proggy machine of hate and death that has taken on the Kochs; and he quotes David Koch getting a bit Glenn Beck-y with exaggerated assessments of exactly how much of a commie bastard President Obama is.

Glenn Greenwald at Salon found the Koch brothers' expressions of dismay over the way they've been demonized recently in the Continetti story to be laughable and offensive, an opinion I don't share, but can see that it's probably hard for anyone to feel so sorry for such successful men. Greenwald is good on data showing that David Koch's belief that Obama is a unique representative of Marxist egalitarianism forcing his will on America isn't well-founded.

In other reaction to the piece, Will Wilkinson, who frames himself a proudly former ideological ally and beneficiary of Koch money, in The Economist has some interesting thoughts on how and why progressives can't–and shouldn't–position themselves firmly against the sort of attempts to shift political and social opinions through ideological giving the Kochs represent, since they rely on it so much themselves.

Politico has a lengthy new piece on the Kochbeat up as well, which frames the Continetti piece as part of a sophisticated P.R. blowback from the Kochs. It also details the extent to which the anti-Koch campaign is a concerted effort, not to say conspiracy:

Back in Washington last month, representatives from Common Cause, Greenpeace, Public Citizen and Think Progress huddled with researchers from the Service Employees International Union at SEIU headquarters to figure out how to make the most of the sudden focus on the Kochs. And meeting participants have continued to trade research about the Kochs and strategize via a Koch-related email listserv and a rolling series of conference calls. 

Politico also has some details on the big money behind the groups behind the Kochhate:

Since 1999, Common Cause, the Ruckus Society and the Center for American Progress have received a combined $7.2 million from foundations controlled by or linked to Soros, according to an analysis of grant information provided to POLITICO by Common Cause and data from the Internal Revenue Service provided by the Capital Research Center.

The data also show that those foundations have given another $4.6 million to Public Citizen, Brave New Foundation (a non-profit affiliated with Brave New Films) and a few other liberal groups that have been critical of the Kochs, including the Alliance for JusticePeople for the American Way, and Public Campaign. Additionally, some of those groups are beneficiaries of a liberal donor network that meets in secret twice a year – very much like the Koch donor network – though it's impossible to know how much the groups received from those donors.

As I've written before, to call public furor thus started "astroturf" or phony misses the point; people can try to make an idea catch fire, but it only does so if it genuinely meets the emotional or political needs of a mass; and the need to pretend that the only reason anyone is against public unions, taxes, and spending is that evil oil billionaires are paying them or manipulating them is mighty strong out in the rank and file as well as among progressive leadership, in government or the foundations.