In Democracy in Chains, Duke University historian Nancy MacLean warned us about the rising power of a right-wing network of donors, including the Koch brothers, especially David (who died last year) and Charles, who exploited the extraordinary permeability of US politics to money to promote their vision of radical right politics. Given last week’s coup attempt by right-wing militants, democracy advocates have redoubled their calls to make these right-wing political donors accountable.
“The libertarian cause…was never about freedom,” MacLean wrote back in 2017. “It was about the promotion of crippling divisions among the people so as to end any interference with what those who held vast power over others believed should be their prerogatives. Its leaders had no scruples about enlisting white supremacy to achieve capital supremacy.”
MacLean describes in her book how the Koch family, taking advantage of legal ways of hiding multimillionaire donations through PAC money—while solidifying their agendas through right-wing groups like Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Federalist Society—have for decades built a billionaire network that undermines democracy itself, promoting the private sector at all costs over the “welfare state.” In this vision, privatization and neoliberalism are seen as the key elements toward “free capitalism”—even if in reality the rules they promote systematically favor large businesses over small businesses, long before COVID-19 made this shift of wealth away from small business dramatically worse.
The vast network of billionaires that support this agenda has been dubbed the “Kochtopus,” and it has an evident lack of interest in preserving democracy. The Kochs’ vast power of secrecy and adaptability has even catered to progressives to make their mark.
It’s not just the Koch brothers, of course. Researchers from the Institute for Policy Studies, for instance, have identified 63 billionaire donors to the Trump Victory Fund political action committee, ten of whom donated over $1 million each.
Many are calling out right-wing politicians for aiding and abetting the coup attempt in the Capitol, but what about their donors? The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has outlined in great detail how the Kochs’ PAC machinery has invested over $15 million on the political careers of all 13 US senators who initially publicly indicated their desire to block the confirmation of the presidential election of Joe Biden in Congress. (After the coup attempt, some dropped their objections. Even so, seven voted to object to the results in Pennsylvania, and six in Arizona; in the US House, 121 Republicans voted against certifying the Arizona vote and 138 against the Pennsylvania vote.)
Although publicly Charles Koch congratulated Biden for his electoral victory, Koch Industries’ PAC has been the main corporate donor of at least seven of the most extreme right-wing House Representatives who continue to question the election. Among them, Representative-elect Lauren Boebert (R-CO), a QAnon supporter, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who visited Hitler’s vacation home in Bavaria as part of his “bucket list.”
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UnKoch My Campus, a nonprofit committed to preserving democracy in higher education, has also launched a petition calling US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to hold the Koch network directly accountable for bankrolling and promoting these politicians.
“For years the Koch network and its vast coffers have been connected with misinformation campaigns—whether it be climate or COVID-19 related, white supremacy, and much more,” reads their petition. Indeed, the Koch brother’s payouts for climate change denialism have been traced back to 1991.
DeSmog, a research organization founded in 2006 to fight global warming misinformation campaigns, has collected a wealth of links between Koch networks and COVID denial, which fuels directly into conspiracy theories and right-wing extremism.
Jane Mayer wrote extensively about the Kochs for The New Yorker and later explained in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right how, driven by a “free-market orthodoxy” and personal financial interests, the Koch brothers sought to create a “rival center of power to the Republican establishment.” Misinformation and support for “fringe” groups like the Tea Party has been key to their success. Promoting democracy was never at the top of the agenda.
As MacLean reminds us, the primary project has been “protecting capitalism from government,” which includes shielding it from democratic accountability.
These right-wing billionaire networks seem unstoppable, but pro-democracy groups like the Brennan Center for Justice are directing people to support the For the People Act (HR 1), legislation with sweeping democracy reforms that seeks to strengthen voting rights, election security, and government transparency and curtail but also to contain the influence of secret money organizations like Koch Industries. The recent wins of Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia, giving Democrats a narrow majority in the US Senate makes passage of legislation like HR 1 in the new Congress more feasible, but it will require widespread advocacy in civil society to make it so.—Sofia Jarrin