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What’s happening to America? I mean the big America we thought we were building. Since 1776, We the People of this bountiful land have not only worked to meet our individual needs and achieve personal goals, but we’ve also worked collectively to build something that’s much bigger than any one of us, more important than any particular group, and more enduring than any single generation–namely, a “little-d” democratic society committed to the Common Good.
And, yes, we’re still a long way from achieving that ideal, but by fits and starts our nation has made real progress, thanks to 242 years of gutsy grassroots movements. Today, though, we need to face up to a shocking reality: There has been a coup against our national pursuit of the Common Good!
Few people are aware of it, for the coup has not been conducted as a single, bold, commando-style frontal assault. Rather, since the middle of the last century the perpetrators have mounted a sneaky, slow motion coup of attrition, moving methodically from one political venue to another, donning multiple organizational guises to strike down a law here, reverse a public policy there, demonize “others,” and ambush progressive groups all along the way. Consequently, over decades, the essential American idea that “we’re all in this together” has been steadily losing out to a diametrically opposed idea: “Each of us is on our own.”
This bleak outlook is even recognized as a formal political doctrine: selfish individualism. Basically an ethic of greed, this “philosophy” is being advanced by a plutocratic elite that insists that the role of government is not to promote our common interests and do the will of the majority, but to protect the property and accumulated wealth of moneyed individuals from the rest of us. They are anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-union, anti-majority radicals who militantly declare: “I got mine, good luck getting yours and don’t even think of touching any of mine.”
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This is not some conspiracy theory, but a flat out, unambiguous, capital-lettered CONSPIRACY–one with identifiable schemers who have been plotting, funding, and coordinating this coup on democracy itself. Its chief instigators are the multibillionaire Koch boys, Charles and David, who’ve been consistently financing and implementing this ongoing assault since the 1960s. They’ve recruited a cabal of other über-rich, inordinately powerful, right-wing families such as the Mercers, DeVoses, and Adelsons–plus undisclosed multinational corporations serving as silent partners.
These “property supremacists” (as Duke University historian Nancy MacLean aptly characterizes them in her powerful new expose, Democracy in Chains) have created and continuously expanded a complex web of front groups, lawyers, campaign operatives, propagandists, academics, media outlets, and others to monkeywrench the democratic system. This secretive, opaque clique now directs a political operation that’s more extensive and more tightly organized than either of the major political parties.
For years, the Koch network has been deploying this ever-growing force into governors’ offices, legislative chambers, city halls, court-rooms, classrooms, chambers of commerce, tea party chapters, editorial boards, global trade tribunals, and nearly every other policy-shaping forum. Gradually, through thousands of incremental, seemingly unconnected, and often unreported actions these nouveau economic royalists have siphoned away The People’s economic and political power and bulked up their minority control over the majority. From gutting yet another labor union’s collective bargain-ing rights to extending the “right” of corporations and the wealthy to purchase our elections, they are actively subjugating the Common Good for their own enrichment.
Hijacking our narrative
As they schemed to carry away our country’s democratic frame-work, piece by piece, the conspirators realized early on that they needed a cloak of legitimacy to drape over their naked thievery. So they’ve also been trying to snatch from us something else that has enormous, intangible value: our national story.
The true American narrative is an epic panorama tracing the struggles, victories, and setbacks of those common people who embody the virtuous heart and enduring strength of our nation’s grand democratic experiment. It’s a remarkable history of rebellious commoners coming together again and again to battle such repressive forces as royalty, Wall Street, robber barons, Jim Crow, multiple waves of bigotry, and arrogant corporate abuse. Each chapter reveals a people determined to defend and extend the right to be self-governing, united in a group spirit of can-do ambition and a collective belief in equality, fairness, and justice for all.
That’s a great story! Unless you’re intent on usurping the self-governing authority of those very commoners–as the Koch Confederacy has been from its beginning. Thus, the Kochs have been aggressive inventors, funders, and pushers of a contrarian American narrative that has now been fully embraced and parroted by the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Paul Ryan, tea party proselytizers, and doctrinaire right-wing talk show yakkers. Unsurprisingly, this rewrite of America’s story is an over-the-top biopic in the image of–guess who?–the billionaire conspirators themselves:
Scene 1 A lionization of laissez-faire, “self-made,” financially triumphant individuals as America’s heroic defenders of “liberty.” These studly giants of industry and finance are hailed as our country’s amazing wealth creators and prosperity producers, so supernaturally superior to the rest of us that they should naturally control our nation’s political, economic, and social policies (including sweeping, self-serving schemes such as shriveling the public sector and making capital accumulation the overriding objective of the economy).
Scene 2 A depiction of the masses–particularly common workers and poor people–as irresponsible, selfish moochers, either unable or unwilling to be producers. Disdainfully portrayed as always looking for handouts from government and corporate chieftains, America’s commoners are cast as nuisances who must be restrained by law from using their numerical majority to interfere in any way with the “liberty” of the nation’s wealth creators. Beware the tyrannical grabbiness of the mooching majority!
Scene 3 Repeat Scenes 1 and 2. Again and again.
THERE’S HISTORY– the stuff that actually happened, such as the ideas behind American democracy (Liberty, Equality, and Justice for All) that were translated into a living, breathing (and imperfect) system of laws and norms. And then there are the stories we tell ourselves about that history. Properly applied (and faithful to the complex, contradictory, and often troubling history of our country), they’re a big squeeze of the cultural glue that helps hold Americans together across our many differences: E Pluribus Unum–from many, one. But those binding narratives are also contested ground, with plutocrats like the Koch brothers spending millions to push self-serving interpretations of those fundamental ideas. The Kochs’ story about “liberty,” for instance, prioritizes their “freedom” to spend fortunes influencing elections and pushing policies over the needs and interests of the workaday majority.
In Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean documents how the Kochs and their allies have drawn from an old well of plutocratic thought in a brazen and alarmingly successful attempt to highjack our American story. Read MacLean’s book, spread the word, and together, let’s write a better ending.
The Koch Klan’s plot to strip away people’s democratic rights and simultaneously jack up the governing power of avaricious elites is so contrary to our real history and so foreign to people’s ingrained values that it would have been hooted down had it been submitted openly and honestly to the public. Of course, the Kochs understand that, so they disguise that fundamental distortion–which is why the great majority of Americans are still unaware of the enormity and villainy of what’s been done to them by the property supremacists and their political enablers. It’s important to note that the Koch coup has been pieced together with the full complicity of practically all GOP officials, and it’s also been condoned or actively abetted by corporate Democrats.
And now comes Trump, showing just what a “populist” he is by putting a kakistocracy of Wall Street hucksters, corporate plunderers and laissez-faire tyrants in charge of our government. He and the little Trumpateers running Congress have already taken health insurance coverage from millions, saddled our people with the most plutocratic tax system in US history, and taken a bludgeon to people’s protections from corporate greed and malice.
The upshot is that the once-quiet coup is no longer gradual or subtle. In the past decade, Big Money has been openly jerry-rigging every part of America’s political economy to shift money and power from us to them, attempting a permanent remake of the economic and political system through (1) dismantling the legal and policy framework that makes our middle class possible (such as the laws that underpin labor rights, Social Security, our public schools, etc.) and (2) eroding our nation’s governing principle of majority rule, displacing it with the de facto minority rule of elites over all other classes. These are the essential structures that sustain our society’s democratic possibilities–and they are under attack. If you’ve wondered why our incomparably rich nation remains plagued with gross, socially cancerous inequality, there it is.
Who’s behind this? The Koch brothers, of course, but they didn’t actually concoct the core “intellectual” concept rationalizing their plutocratic ploy. It was lifted directly from this figure from the 19th century: John C. Calhoun.
A Yale-educated, slave-owning heir to a South Carolina plantation fortune, Calhoun parlayed his privileged background into multiple political offices between 1810 and 1850, including US senator and vice president. Trying to put a gloss of respectability on the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery, he conjured up the “makers versus takers” social dichotomy that the narcissistic super-rich are so fond of spouting today. Calhoun theorized that since the wealthy few were the owners of nearly all productive properties (including slaves), they were the “tax producers.” Therefore, they have a moral claim to be the overlords of the democratic majority: the “tax consumers.”
Indeed, Calhoun proclaimed that the owner class was entitled to veto laws passed by majority vote in order to prevent the masses from taking collective action to tax, regulate, or otherwise tamper with owners and their property. Calhoun explained that a “government based on the naked principle that the majority ought to govern” would not hesitate to violate the “liberty” of the wealthy minority by interfering with its property rights.
Educating Americans about taxes, Koch-style
OVER AND ABOVE ALL THE SQUILLIONS they’ve pumped into their narrative-shifting network over the years–funding not only political campaigns, but think tanks, local organizing, legal challenges, direct lobbying, and more–one arm of the Koch Conspiracy (officially, and blandly, named “The Seminar Network”) last year spent over $20 million on a four-phase plan promoting the abominable, and unpopular, screw-the-workers tax bill rammed through Congress in December. Their tactics ranged from planting questions at town hall meetings, stage-managing a grassroots army in 36 states to demand lower corporate taxes, and “paid and earned media campaigns” to push wavering congress critters behind a bill.
Now Koch network officials say they will spend another $20 million attempting to perfume the resulting stinker for a skeptical public, or in Koch-speak, “educating Americans about its benefits.”
That kind of “education” clearly pays off–at least for the Kochs and their friends. Americans for Tax Fairness estimates that Charles Koch and David Koch and combined Koch Industries could save between $1 billion and $1.4 billion combined in income taxes every year from the new law.
Or, as Donald Trump boasted to his wealthy buddies when he swaggered into Mar-a-Lago after signing the bill: “You all just got a lot richer.”
As MacLean found in her research into the South Carolinian’s unique thinking, there’s a chilling creep-factor just under the surface of those who, like the Kochs today, assert that governments have no right to put limits on what individuals and businesses are free to do. “For Calhoun,” she writes, “freedom above all concerned the free use and enjoyment of one’s productive property without any impingement by others.”
For instance, his human property. In a letter about his slave Alick, who had threatened to run away, Calhoun asserted his prerogative as owner:
“For I wish you to have him lodged in Jail for one week, to be fed on bread and water and to employ some one for me to give him 30 lashes well laid on, at the end of the time.”
Ever the Southern gentleman, he added, ” I hope you will pardon the trouble.”
When we hear Trump or the Kochsters call on their die-hard followers to “take America back,” they ultimately mean all the way back to the aristocratic privileges and plantation ethic of old John C.
Defend the Common Good!
We are in dangerous territory. The insidious creep of Kochism is already overpowering the majority’s wishes and well being, allowing a minuscule minority of people secluded in corporate suites and gilded estates to control our economic, social, and environmental destinies. Every day, we can witness corporate-purchased officials in Washington and state capitols doing what the people don’t want done and ignoring what we do want accomplished. They feel free to act with impunity to serve the plutocratic interests funding their elections. And we also see that–in a country where the top 1 percent of households by wealth owns nearly 38 percent of stocks (80 percent of us own just 8 percent)–moneyed investors and imperious CEOs feel no compunction about grabbing ever more of America’s riches, even as they routinely stiff workers, rip off their own customers, lobby for more special tax breaks, and demand that lawmakers balance budgets with cuts to Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, and other programs the people need and overwhelmingly support.
This onslaught can’t be met by merely resisting Trump (through that certainly must be done). His egomaniacal freak show of government-by-tantrum is just one unexpected byproduct of the Koch-fueled long march toward Oligarchy USA. Even if Trump is ousted, their much more destructive, strategic march is set to continue without pause. Trump cares about his own glorification, but the Koch Conspiracy seeks to literally destroy the democratic idea of America –the essential idea that ours is a pluralistic society united by the principle that we’re all in this together.
Let me be blunt: We progressives have not grasped the immensity of the attack being waged on that idea by a coterie of narrow-minded economic royalists. Nor have we realized how close they’ve already come in their execrable, hush-hush attempt to impose– permanently–their oligarchy of selfishness over the American ideal of government of, by, and for the people.
This rank power grab will not be defeated with piecemeal defenses of this group or that program. So we at the Lowdown have a suggestion: It’s time for progressive activists of all kinds to team up and go on the offensive with a united, long-term campaign to (1) expose the entirety of the Koch Klan’s network, (2) confront its devious schemes to usurp our democratic rights, and (3) rally broad public support to restore The Common Good as our society’s overarching narrative and primary governing principle. Some excellent groups and journalists have been on this track for a while–see the Do Something box–but the threat of oligarchy is so real and imminent that we all need to throw in with them and do our bit by making oligarchy v. democracy a regular component of our work and message.
One way we can help is by constantly countering their false narrative and pointing out their Orwellian perversion of language, such as:
We are “self-made.” No, you’re not. No one succeeds alone. We’ve all been given boosts by teachers, co-workers, previous generations that fought against fascism and for our Bill of Rights, and a public infrastructure that provides a richness to American life we now mostly take for granted: tap water, highways, an educated workforce, the internet, police protection, etc.
Corporations are “people” money equals “free speech.” Golly, wrong again. In fact, though both claims are biologically impossible, they’ve been given “legal life” by corporate-serving judicial activists installed on federal and state courts in order to undermine real people’s political, economic, and social power.
Half of Americans are “moochers” who pay no taxes. That’s not just wrong but despicably condescending. While lower-middle-class and poor people are paid so little that they owe no federal income tax, they typically pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes than do millionaires and billionaires. Low-income people are especially hard hit by multiple sales, payroll, property, gasoline, and other taxes and fees.
While John C. Calhoun merely proposed that the property rights of the wealthiest few should trump the political rights of the great majority, the Koch network has actually been installing the operational components of his vision into our nation’s governing rules. As MacLean writes, they are extinguishing “the political we.”
To confront and help defeat this anti-American stealth scheme by the radical rich minority, the next issue of the Lowdown will provide details on the myriad of groups that are involved in exposing and countering the Koch-directed conspiracy.