Growing up in the 1950s, children made scrapbooks as school assignments about elections and the democratic process of voting—the process of citizens going to the polls to cast a secret ballot. Back when “I Like Ike” buttons were all the rage, the electoral process seemed almost sacred—streamlined, straight forward, and open to possibilities—a choice, as determined by citizens taking part in their civic duty.
Things have changed considerably since that time. One significant source of the change perverting the democratic process is the Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened the floodgates to unlimited, unregulated campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals. But the seeds of our current impasse, The Great Divide that pervades the country, were sowed long ago. Daniel Schulman’s book, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, lays out the long journey of these Kansas-bred brothers to their current perch atop both the second largest privately-held company, Koch Industries, Inc., and the crack-pot, ultra-far-right conservative movement.
Schulman’s book starts off dramatically, like a movie. The author vividly paints a picture of the family: four sons of a powerful dynamo—a self-made man of engineering and entrepreneurial talents, with his fortune deriving from a process called “cracking”—an essential part of delivering petroleum to the market. This man, Fred Koch, the father of the four brothers, lent his engineering skills to help develop the petroleum resources in the remote regions of the USSR, a contribution he lived to regret. The story quickly moves into strange terrain, taking on the deep paranoia that pervades the TV series “The Americans.” Everything in Fred Koch’s world is colored with the fear of the USSR as bogeyman hidden behind every fence post. Thus Fred is present at the first meeting of the John Birch Society and takes on the role of its Mr. Big, an architect of its development and play book. This is the world view he shared with his offspring—the vision they imbibed—the atmosphere they breathed. This, along with a fiercely competitive ethos, laid the groundwork for the subsequent developments amongst his four sons.
Based on copious archival research, interviews, secondary sources, and the reporting skills of a veteran journalist, Schulman weaves them all together to chronicle the lives and times of his subjects. The prose is accessible and filled with eminently quotable, delectable words from the Kochs. It’s an introduction to an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass/upside-down universe, except that instead of falling down a rabbit hole, we are inside the wonderful worlds of billionaires. Schulman delivers a “fair and balanced” account, letting the facts speak for themselves, which makes this account all the more powerful—damning and credible.
For decades, the Koch Brothers at the helm of their family business, Charles and David, shrouded themselves in anonymity. This changed as their creations, including the Tea Party, an outgrowth of their conservative, libertarian “philosophy,” took on greater resonance. In time, their role became widely known. For decades, they and their acolytes have been behind a toxic drumbeat. They bought the drums, wrote the chants, hired the drummers, and brought it all into the public arena for consumption by the citizenry.
Today, the Koch brothers are anonymous no more. Thanks to a brilliant bit of street theater by Greenpeace, the brothers were exposed for the first—but not the last—time. Even as their tentacles sink ever deeper into the fabric of our Republic, they seek to re-cast their image. Witness the TV ads “We are Koch” which laud their role as job creators, and David Koch, endowing his billions, on the arts, on medical facilities, and most recently, on the United Negro College Fund. To its credit, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) pulled its partnership from the UNCF after it accepted a gift of $25 million from David and Charles.
Not only did the UNCF take the money, Dr. Michael Lomax, the president of the UNCF, spoke at the annual Koch brothers annual summit, along with Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a scholar who has “dedicated himself to promoting the notion that the over-representation of African-Americans among America’s poor and in American prisons is the consequence not of our history or of the types of policies the Koch brothers promote, but rather is a consequence of genetic inferiority.” These are the word of Lee Saunders, AFSCME President, in his letter to Dr. Lomax. Saunders noted that these actions are “a profound betrayal of the ideals of the civil rights movement.” The helmeted/welding African-American woman and the diapered baby in the Koch Industries TV ad can’t erase the nefarious anti-union, anti-tax, anti-regulation, climate change denial role that the Koch brothers are playing in the body politic.
Citizen Koch, a new documentary film by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, highlights their influence, as well as the limits of individuals acting in opposition to these moneyed interests. On July 14th –Bastille Day in France – The New York Times lead editorial denounced the “ruinous tax cuts imposed in Kansas.” There, Governor Sam Brownback, one of the Koch brothers’ acolytes, has imposed “spectacularly ill-advised tax cuts in 2012 and 2013…which largely benefited the wealthy, [and] cost the state 8 percent of the revenue it needs for schools and other government services. … Moody’s cut the state’s debt rating in April for the first time in at least 13 years, citing the cuts and a lack of confidence in the state’s fiscal management.”
Over in Wisconsin, meanwhile, Governor Scott Walker is one of the more infamous manifestations of the Koch brothers and their brand of politics. A prank call recorded a conversation between the Governor and “David Koch” discussing their attack strategy on public sector unions, among other targets. What can we learn from all of this? The message is clear as a bell. We gain an understanding of how conservatives – a fringe minority back when Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was the standard-bearer for the Republican Party – became a movement by building a strong base for their vision of a union-free, tax-free, regulation-free America. The think tanks, publications, annual convocations, funding of academics and their research (along with the right to approve their hiring) and so much more are at the root of their success. It is up to all of us to educate ourselves—read the book—watch the movie—and then, don’t mourn, organize! The right is certainly organizing. It has been for decades. But it is important to remember these words: “If the workers took a notion, they could stop all speeding trains.” Or, in more contemporary terms: “We are the 99 percent.” Yes. “We are many, they are few.”
Jane LaTour is a New York City labor activist and journalist. She is the author of Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City and is working on an oral history about union dissidents and the limits of reform in organized labor.