Some months ago I posted an account of the evidence for a Koch funded conspiracy against American democracy, rooted in my having grown up in Wichita, their home, having known Charles Koch personally, and my youthful involvement with the radical right. Recent events have led to new information, so I am republishing this piece, with some new information on our current situation added. Other adjustments are added as they seem appropriate. After Trump’s election I modified my comments on the Electoral College.
The Republican Party is now the enemy of our country’s institutions as much as the old Communist Party ever was, and it is as devoted to acquiring total power.
Many have observed a strange psychology of projection on the part of the radical American right. What they are often doing themselves they accuse liberals, progressives or others of doing. Voting fraud seems far more often found on the right than anywhere else. The moral claims they make about themselves in almost every instance are far better exemplified by their political opponents. For example, divorce rates are lowest in Massachusetts which allows gay marriage, and highest in states that have constitutionally banned it. What we see seems to be a mixture of psychological pathology and an attempt to make critical thinking by other Americans as well as themselves almost impossible. I believe it is no accident. Critical thinking is what many in positions of authority do not want. Division is better. It blinds people as to what is happening around them.
What is happening?
We are seeing is the coming together of two dangerous political streams in our country. First, a way of thinking that consciously shapes and mirrors its actions on the belief that their political opponents are conspirators seeking the destruction of the country. Second, their realization that changing demographics has removed their chance of winning power through legitimate democratic means. These two currents come together in a frightening way.
I believe this story or some close equivalent is broadly accurate and matters deeply to everyone in the country. I am following one thread in this narrative from its origins to where it merges with others to become the greatest danger to America of our time. It is an important thread, and one little known. Due to accidents of time and place I have some insight on it.
I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, home of the Koch family. In the 8th grade my mother became concerned I was becoming too “liberal” because I was upset upon hearing John Birch Society members were opponents of democracy. Upon asking my mom I learned some were friends of my family. She then began taking me to many right wing talks to learn what she believed to be the truth. I grew into a teen-aged conservative, one who organized a Young Americans for Freedom chapter in high school and another my first year of college.
I also was a frequent guest at John Birch Society meetings in Wichita, often attended by Fred Koch, Sr., one of its founders. Fred was the father of Charles and David Koch. I never met David, but Charles bought me, a much younger high school student, my first serious scholarly books on classical liberal thought. In doing so he launched me on what ultimately became my scholarly career. My personal gratitude to him for this is life-long. But that is another story. This one is different, darker, and affects every American.
During my youthful sojourn on the radical right I had read and heard many discussions of how the Communists were infiltrating and taking over America. They were accomplishing this through a step by step plan involving numerous front organizations pretending to be other than what they really were. These fronts included people in media, education, law and politics all pursuing hidden agendas, and taking advantage of the blindness of liberals who could not see what was happening around them.
Robert Welch, the Birch Society’s primary founder, explicitly sought to use the same methods as a part of their battle for America’s “freedom.” When the cause is just, manipulation, deceit, and even dishonesty might be needed to achieve victory. This is the first major point in my argument: many on America’s right have long explicitly endorsed using the tactics they believed the Communists were using against us.
Creating a genuine counter culture
My second point begins with the fact that Charles Koch was a member of the John Birch Society. I have no idea whether David was. And in Charles’ case I always had the impression his membership was more in the name of family loyalty than from any deep belief we were on the verge of a Communist take-over. He did not appear to take the Communist Conspiracy stuff very seriously, and, unlike most all in the right-wing, opposed the Vietnam War. But he did take very seriously the argument that big government would inevitably lead to the loss of essential freedoms until eventually we would be in about the same position as the unfortunate subjects of Communist tyranny.
At this time Charles was far more a libertarian than a traditional right-winger. He had read many of the leading free market thinkers of the day and was concerned that the intellectual case for free markets and very limited government needed to receive a wide hearing in the country. At the time this was not the case.
He, and I imagine his brother David, also realized free market advocates at that time had few employment opportunities in academia, and that the media tended to be very sympathetic to FDR’s New Deal, which he opposed. They and other sympathetic wealthy donors began to fund free market “think tanks.” When they began there were two think tanks: the liberal Brookings Institution and conservative Hoover Institute. The innovation of the Kochs and their supporters was to create many think tanks to establish an alternative institutional support for intellectual and scholarly traditions mostly frozen out of academia. Through them hopefully both academia and the media could be influenced, and so the intellectual climate of the country changed.
The problem Charles and David sought to address was genuine. It was hard for conservative, classical liberal, and libertarian scholars to get decent academic positions, and sometimes to get any positions at all.
In my view the reason for this problem was not because universities were controlled by Communists, but because when academic issues are contested, most academics seek to support their side as much as possible. They are usually more careerists than scholars. In the social sciences eliminating flawed theories is harder than in the physical sciences because definitive experiments are impossible to run and the data is more ambiguous. Alternative schools of thought contend and there are rarely definitive tests between them to unambiguously weed out poor theories. Milton Friedman, hardly a Red, opposed F. A. Hayek getting a position in the Economics Dept at the University of Chicago, one of the few centers of the time for free market economic thought. Both he and Hayek later became Nobel Laureates. Competence was not the issue. Ego and ambition, not communism, was the primary barrier to minority viewpoints ever getting academic positions.
The Institute for Humane Studies was founded in 1961, later to be joined by many others such as the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and many others both national and local. Think tanks sprouted around the country, some leaning strongly libertarian, some oriented towards more authoritarian kinds of conservatism, but all united in seeking to establish an alternative intellectual world to “liberalism.” Their function was to produce intellectual soldiers and ammunition in what their funders called a “war of ideas.” Intellectual life was subordinated to a political agenda.
The darker side of success
Over time their efforts began to have an impact on national policy discussions. When combined with the increasing prestige of the “Chicago School” of economics, academic positions also began to loosen up.
Many of these think tanks continually asked professors they believed receptive to send them the names of promising students. These students would be invited to various conferences and summer institutes and offered internships. The connections made here assisted favored students in getting entry-level jobs upon graduation; jobs leading to positions where they could hopefully influence the broader public.
At one level this process was entirely innocent. They did change America’s intellectual discourse from favoring what I will call “big government managerial liberalism” towards favoring increasingly free market oriented alternatives. This transition did not happen all by itself. Managerial liberalism’s disastrous performance during the stagflation of the late Nixon and Carter years also helped mightily in shifting America’s intellectual center of gravity by discrediting the heretofore dominant outlook in the eyes of many. The free market ‘small government’ alternative was ready and waiting in the wings. Academia had never been controlled by Communists, and as establishment liberalism was discredited many on the market oriented right increasingly received academic positions.
But very crucially, these think tanks were ideological organizations, not academic ones. They saw academic discourse as a “war of ideas” not as science, or as cooperative competition between different schools of thought seeking to understand reality wherever it might lead. Instead ideas were weapons in a “war” for intellectual and social domination. Some even used the terminology once employed by communists: “cadres” for loyal members and “fellow travelers” for those who, while not totally committed, could be useful.
Consequently in my experience think tank sponsored conferences and gatherings almost never enabled younger scholars to present independent research. Rather they were dominated by “safe” older figures presenting papers and dominating panels. Observers evaluated the participants and the audience and rewarded those who performed well with additional invitations, stipends, and opportunities for networking. Those of us who sympathized with these values but wanted to challenge and explore at the margins were largely denied a voice and in time even a presence at these gatherings. But again, that is another story. What matters here is that the intellectual winnowing taking place was more to find and refine intellectual orthodoxy than to encourage creative thought within a classical liberal, conservative, or libertarian paradigm.
There is a fatal tension in this process. Science and academia are about discovery. Theories rise and die based on their persuasive power evaluated by scientific and academic standards. It is not a perfect process, nothing human is, but neither is it a sham. War on the other hand, whether physical or in the realm of ideas, is about your side winning. And winning a war is ultimately about power. Ideas are not tools for understanding, they are weapons for winning.
The Kochs did not only fund these types of organizations. They also pursued a political strategy through funding the Libertarian Party. David Koch even ran for president on the Libertarian ticket. While the Libertarian Party never amounted to much – and never could so long as plurality voting elected the winners – it did put the Kochs in the midst of people who put winning power ahead of winning arguments as essential to change. Ideas were simply one weapon in an arsenal, and sometimes others were more useful.
The Libertarian Party’s poor performance apparently convinced the Kochs and their allies an explicitly libertarian ticket could not win. Allies were needed, allies that were not libertarians. At the same time the Republican Party had implemented for its own reasons a “Southern Strategy” to win away Southern Democrats and so form a strong majority able to overcome the New Deal coalition initially put together by FDR. The Republican strategy proved successful in the short run and the network of think tanks that had arisen proved useful in supporting their critiques of liberal Democrats.
There was a confluence of interests arising between ambitious Republican politicians; “states righters” who did not disapprove of big government on principle, but hated “big government” they did not control; and the anti “big government” free market and libertarian groups supported for so long by the Kochs and their wealthy sympathizers. “Free market” rhetoric meshed easily with the Republican Party’s attempt to reframe politics in a mixture of moral absolutism and preference for markets over government, for “makers” over “moochers.” Both libertarians of the Koch variety and the Republican Party hated the institutions established by the New Deal and hoped to eliminate them if ever they took power.
Initially it seemed as if they might succeed. The new model Republican Party included older culturally Republican regions such as the Northeast along with newer additions such as the NeoConfederate South, and collectively they formed an electoral powerhouse. But there were two problems.
The first problem was that in time New Englanders realized the Republicans they now voted for were not the Republicans they had traditionally supported. The label was the same but the contents were different. As this change became clear they increasingly shifted to the Democrats as earlier the South had shifted to the Republicans.
The second problem was that cultural and demographic shifts were eroding the power of conservative religion and of a traditionally white Protestant majority that constituted the twin electoral backbones of the Republican majority. Barack Obama’s initial election benefited from these shifts but his first win could still be blamed as a reaction to the disaster of the Bush presidency. After the 2012 election , when a Black Obama won easy re-election even with high unemployment, these shifts and their long-term bad news for the Republicans were impossible to ignore.
Ironically for the Kochs, these cultural shifts also indicated a population becoming in some respects more “libertarian.” This was happening at a time when their allies, as typified by the Kansas Republicans, were becoming much less so. Unless Charles Koch has changed drastically from when I knew him in the 60s and 70s, the Koch brothers and those like them do not share the culturally conservative and authoritarian values of their key allies against the Democrats. Neither the Kochs nor those like them appear to have a strong antipathy to gays, abortion rights, Mexican immigration, or scientific education. But they have largely cast their political fate with those who do, and have no objection to using government to enforce their will. I believe the full and fatal significance of this development was hidden from them by the libertarian belief the most important freedom is that of “the market.”
The once and possibly still in some ways libertarian Kochs and their associates were strongly connected to allies who were not afraid of using governmental power to control citizens’ lives whenever they could dominate them. These very different groups were united by a deep hostility to liberalism and to all American constitutional precedents that had checked Southern attempts to nullify Northern legislation or enabled modest measures to bring the era of robber barons under popular oversight. Those precedents supported “big government” and “regulation.”
In addition, through their efforts, and the efforts of those like them, an alternative set of institutions had now arisen within the country, institutions with an explicitly ideological agenda and which viewed their opponents through the lens of war rather than of electoral politics. The similarities with the old image of how the Communist Party operated are enormous.
From FOX News to CATO and from think tanks embedded within major universities to the Federalist Society enabling reliable apparatchiks to become judges, something remarkably like the old John Birch vision of embedded Communists has arisen, but of embedded right wingers hostile to the institutions established by the New Deal. What they shared with the Communists was another trait we now see coming to a head: hostility to democracy when the people consistently elect the wrong kind of person. A traditional democratic movement would shape and reshape its positions to be more in keeping with public opinion. The ideological purveyors of the war of ideas apparently decided instead to reshape democratic institutions to make sure “wrong votes” did not matter. In this they were enthusiastically supported by the most authoritarian members of the NeoConfederate and theocratic right.
From this perspective the challenge facing America’s right wing is how to win power when you have less than a majority, and your fraction of the whole is likely to decline over time. The answer is to game the system: destroy democracy in the name of preserving it.
Plot? The logic of seeking power? Or both?
We now see a consistent pattern to what the more radical elements within the Republican Party are attempting where they hold power and also where they do not. This pattern has accelerated drastically during and after the 2012 election. It also forms a coherent pattern.
The Republicans are
1. Seeking to destroy the electoral college in order to make it a consistent tool for electing Republican presidents even when rejected by a substantial majority of the American people. While certainly flawed, the Electoral College is usually supportive of the American peoples’ choices. When it fails to live up to this standard it has done so in ways that favor neither party in particular. In a sense we can call the electoral college “fairly flawed.” It does not truly privilege one party over the other.
Today the Republicans in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and some other states where they currently control the government, and so can gerrymander elections to the House, are seeking to divvy up electoral votes based not on how the people of a state vote, but on who takes a gerrymandered district. They seek these measures only in states that vote Democratic in presidential elections. They make no similar efforts in states like Texas, where a majority reliably votes Republican along with a large Democratic minority. It is a double standard with profound constitutional implications. It strikes at the very heart of our system of government.
[Update 22/12/2016: Trump’s election changed the right wing’s thinking about the Electoral College, and mine as well. I suspect making the changes I described are no longer a high priority for Republicans in state legislatures, though with a strong Democratic candidate next time that could change. But the Electoral College’s one serious weakness has now given us a minority favored candidate of a certain kind twice, it is no longer remotely neutral. It artificially enhances the votes of citizens in largely rural states. Given the cultural distinctions between rural and urban voters I discussed in depth in my book Faultlines, this provides a built-in edge to the part most at odds with urban liberal values. And these voters are most easily manipulated by right wing media because they are more isolated from the vital diversity that makes the cities as creative as they are.]
2. Gerrymandered House districts guarantee a majority of House seats to a minority of citizens. The House of Representatives was supposed to represent the people at large with the Senate representing the states. Over one million more people voted for Democratic members of the House than for Republicans, yet Republicans have so shaped the districts that they enjoy a large majority.
On the one hand gerrymandering is almost as old as our country. One of the first such districts, designed under the direction of Governor Gerry of Massachusetts, resembled a salamander, hence the name “Gerrymander.” But when the parties are as far removed ideologically as they are today, and computers make manipulation of voting boundaries ever easier, the political and social costs of gerrymandered congressional districts to the country as a whole has become substantial. As we see regarding debt ceilings and government shutdowns, they give a unrepresentative minority veto power over American government and the American people. Madison and other founders explicitly warned this power would destroy our country and did all they could to prevent its arising while simultaneously safeguarding against majority tyranny.
3. Under the name of “voting reform” groups of citizens where majorities are most likely to vote for the other party are increasingly actively inhibited from voting. ALEC, which supposedly focuses on economic legislation, has been an important force in pushing for making voting more difficult. The Kochs are significant supporters of ALEC. The current attack on the Voting Rights Act is an example. The case was brought by people who also are receiving Koch money through the DONORS Trust. If this suppression can be accomplished on a large enough scale, from a right wing perspective this hopefully will also give them control over the Senate. Republican efforts to destroy America’s voting rights laws are indicative of how seriously they are seeking this outcome.
In addition, hopefully a shrunken electorate will solidify and prolong Republican control over states where they might otherwise lose due to generational and ethnic changes.
4. These efforts are reinforced by Republican justices on the Supreme Court who demonstrate consistently greater sensitivity to corporations than to citizens, and least of all to citizens likely to vote Democratic. Anton Scalia’s claim that voting rights legislation was unfair because it privileged Black voters when the legislation was only adopted because of over a century of suppression of Black voters indicates the depth of political degeneracy that now characterizes a majority of justices. Their elevation of partisanship over the rule of law was made clear when they issued an opinion in 2000 giving Bush the election and stated their reasoning did not constitute a precedent for future elections.
With long-term partisan and corrupt majorities in the Supreme Court the constitution can be made to mean whatever a right wing majority wants it to mean. The constitution will have been subverted as thoroughly as the courts, along with the executive and legislative branches of government.
5. The New York Times reports that Koch fingerprints are all over the shut down of our government over Obamacare. This tactic is telling because it is a blatant effort to substitute minority extortion in place of democratic government. What they lost at the polls they are attempting to impose, along with other demands, by threatening to make the country ungovernable if they do not get their way. Their demands are even more extreme over extending the debt limit, although at this point the Koch connection is not quite as clear. But in spirit and content is is the same as what they are seeking. Think about the Weimar Republic if you want to find a similar example in history. It ended very badly.
These steps are not imaginary and do not depend on a sudden appearance of Black helicopters or of UN troops or One World Government. They are happening in plain sight. A media too controlled by corporations benefiting from right wing power, its news programs starved of resources and demoted to profit centers, and too intimidated and compromised to do its job, is mostly failing in its constitutionally mandated task of providing oversight. What we are watching is a kind of slow-motion coup attempting to give the right wing permanent control of the House, Presidency, and Supreme Court.
To the degree the radical right fails in these efforts, they hope they will have enough power to make the country ungovernable. Their strategy appears to be that in time voters will turn to them to create order and reduce the chaos they have deliberately caused. This is because we have only two parties to choose from and if the Democrats get blamed for failures caused by Republicans, the voters will then elect the Republicans who caused the problems.
That the Kochs and other major contributors to right wing causes meet in secret gatherings from which everyone else is excluded seems to me evidence that this pattern, or something close to it, arises from a deliberate plan. What, after all, are they hiding? David Koch called himself a Republican not long ago, yet there is nothing libertarian about the Republican Party. The Kochs seems as committed to promoting genuine freedom as the old Communist Party was concerned with creating genuine power for workers.
Hillary Clinton received a lot of criticism during the effort to impeach her husband when she said she felt he was the victim of a “right wing plot.” If I am at all on target here she was right.
I believe the Koch brothers began their contributions to this looming threat out of the best of motives. But they did so within a particular mind-set which over time melded with other political currents to create our present extreme peril. Their access to truly enormous wealth gives them something the old Communist Party never had – millions upon millions of dollars to fund their projects, and with other would-be oligarchs equally willing to spend for power. Further, there are a lot more right wing Americans than there ever were Communist Americans.
Madison warned us
At our founding James Madison wrote that all previous democracies had ultimately been destroyed by “factions.” He defined factions as any group of any size that would put its interests ahead of the public. Madison wrote the “majority principle” protected against minority factions and the very large size of a democratic republic, made possible through the principle of elected representatives, created such diversity that majority factions were also unlikely to form. Except for the slave-holding South, he has been proven largely correct in this regard.
But not any more. Today we are seeing a disciplined minority faction abuse the elements of government it controls to subvert the logic of our constitutional system while simultaneously making it ungovernable by anyone but themselves. The logic of their actions leads to dictatorship, civil war, or at best, secession of some states from association with others and the break up of our nation.
What makes democracies peaceful is that winners and losers abide by rules both agree are fair. That way the winners are legitimate in the eyes of the losers, who feel they will have a chance to win next time around. Even if they do not win completely, they can influence policy. Compromise is a good. This is a crucial element in what makes democracies remarkably peaceful compared to other forms of government. Most everyone feels they or at least their side, will have a fair chance to influence public affairs.
The radical Republicans of the extreme right are destroying this basis for political legitimacy, replacing it with reliance on power alone. As they do so the basis for social peace is dissolving around us. We are not being destroyed from without, for no power is strong enough to accomplish that. We are being destroyed from within and I believe grasping the apparently conspiratorial thinking of some key financiers of the radical right, not just the Kochs, but with the Kochs as the pioneers, is key to understanding how it is happening..
Because of the importance of this argument, if it holds up, I am adding new material from time to time.
8 thoughts on “The Kochs’ role in the conspiracy against American democracy”
In some cases; the losers not abiding by the rules democratically agreed upon ironically isn’t destructive of democracy. When people violate drug laws or laws against certain consensual sexual practices; life still goes on relatively normally and peacefully. In spite of the fact that majorities may have approved of these laws. If anyone is the destroyer of peace in those scenarios; it’s the people who use government force against pot smokers and prostitutes.
I am not talking about simple law breaking. I am talking about refusing to allow the democratic process to work out. Civil disobedience is a tricky area- Thoreau emphasized that the person who disobeys should then go to jail and do so very publicly- emphasizing that the purpose of the disobedience is to persuade other citizens to change their minds. Martin Luther King agreed. Neither challenged the legitimacy of the democratic process, only the wisdom and justice of some decisions it generated.
Neither practiced extortion, as the Republicans do. Nor were they private law breakers like pot smokers and prostitutes (and I support legalization of both, but what they do is not equivalent to civil disobedience.)
The writers over at NakedCapitalism.Com do a great job of dsrnoetcucting the Metaphysical Cult of Libertarianism; Satyajit Das, Ha-Joon Chang, Yves Smith, Steve Keen, Phlip Pilkington, Matt Stoller, etc. So do some other academics (economists, historians and financial analysts) like Dean Baker, Joseph Stiglitz, Simon Johnson, Kevin Phillips, etc.Face it, many Libertarian ideas appeal to the groups that have had it the best for decades (if not centuries) though sheer luck of birth educated, white males.The fact that Libertarian ideas appeal to younger, educated, white males is a partially a function of the fact that race and gender dominance is less guaranteed now than ever. So, in a globally integrated world, with scarcity (of everything) more apparent everyday, no wonder economic cultism is appealing to groups that are finally feeling the heat of increased competition through leveling.Without U.S. government protection of jobs (labor), through immigration laws, many Americans would lose their jobs IN AMERICA not just overseas via outsourcing. In other words, if labor movement was as free and easy (unregulated) today as capital movement is (through integrated, worldwide financialization), Libertarians wouldn’t argue as vehemently for getting government off their backs or out of their lives. They simply wouldn’t have time to bitch, because they’d be looking for jobs.
Gus, always good to read you. Thoughtful and incisive –
Here is a very sobering and important discussion of where the systematic destruction of American political norms, mostly by the right wing, is taking us. http://weeklysift.com/2013/10/07/countdown-to-augustus/
You say somewhere in this piece that a democratic movement adopts itself to shifting public opinion. I can’t find it, but I am 99 percent sure it’s in here. I’ve been skimming, but it’s long. I think that libertarianism and even left-libertarianism that isn’t of a communist or collectivist variety has trouble doing this. I struggle with it in my own thought. I consider myself a left-wing individualist minded anarchist or libertarian, and I sometimes have an uneasy relation with democratic outcomes. Not to the point of trying to win elections and engineer government shutdowns, but I’ve been resistant to viewing the Republicans as “traitors” or in the dark terms portrayed in this piece. That’s due to the uneasy relation with the healthcare bill outcome more than any love for the Republicans. I don’t buy their anarchist or libertarian credibility as I explained in an email to you anyhow. Not even anarcho-capitalist cred. Pure Rothbardanism demands more intellectual coherence and integrity than I suspect they possess or at least an attempt at it, but I digress there. Libertarianism is such a pure and ideological creed. Much like Marxism; it has a totalistic and systematic vision to offer. Insofar as someone strives to be a coherent advocate of it; they can feel isolated or at odds with the vast majority of people. It offers a kind of leave me the fuck alone sensibility that can feed into an elitism unless you consciously avoid it. On some level; I kind of retreat into that rather than want to participate in democratic processes to advance my ideas. Libertarianism gives you a chance to be self-righteous about aggression and how dare you tax or draft me rage can become easy to come by with cynicism about political success. I often say on depressive days that I don’t care what the government does or can tolerate it short of being drafted or marched off into a concentration camp. At that point; my libertarianism is about asserting a feeling of right to live in ideological purity rather than convincing people democratically to join me. Herbert Spencer’s famous dictim of the right to ignore the state becomes more important than democratic appeal or sociality. I am an introvert, so I spend a lot of time alone anyhow.
My argument is democracies are discovery systems in the same systemic sense that markets are. Therefore they change, and not every change is wise just as not every economic success leaves the world better off. But the process as a whole is better than any alternative. The challenge in both cases is developing institutions in better harmony with human values and that can make use of these processes. Like the Mondragon model in markets or possibly the cooperative model I developed in my book.
Looking at any totalizing ideology as providing all solutions seems to me a version of the socialist confidence in central planning or the Russian revolutionaries’ belief they could remake society. They are by their very nature too simple to handle the task. Here I am 100% a Hayekian.