The Koch brothers’ massive money cache is worming deep into our country’s political terrain
10 min read
In a 1932 dissenting opinion, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted that one benefit of America’s federal structure is that “a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
I was a freshman in college when I first came across this animating and intriguing concept of the role states could play in pioneering policies and advancing the common good. Then, about 20 years later, I was lucky enough to get a chance to put the Brandeis proposition into practice. Elected Texas agriculture commissioner in 1982, I became head of a sizeable but almost dormant agency. Despite drifting along aimlessly for years, it still had broad authority and a significant budget, giving me the wherewithal to assemble a creative and energetic staff eager to work with grassroots people to develop new policy ideas for improving the situation of farmers, consumers, workers, the environment, rural communities, and others.
Sure enough, during my two terms, we succeeded in establishing a broad network of farmers markets, providing state certification and labeling for organic products, promulgating comprehensive pesticide protections, creating food marketing co-ops, encouraging farmers to grow high-value nonconventional crops (from apples to wine grapes), financing and developing locally owned ag processing facilities, opening the doors of corporate-controlled commerce so small farmers and food artisans could sell their products in supermarkets and even in international markets, and promoting both water conservation and the use of renewable energy sources. Brandeis’s “laboratory” of democracy realized!
But–oops–meet an unintended consequence of Brandeisian theory: Gov. Greg Alec. You probably don’t recognize the name, but you know his ilk, for he’s among a gaggle of small-minded, far-right extremists who’ve grabbed the levers of gubernatorial power and established notoriously regressive regimes in such far-flung states as Wisconsin, North Carolina, Kansas, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Arizona, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Texas. These governors share an uncanny uniformity in the policies they push and the political language they use–as if operating from a common game plan. Indeed, each one is robotically advancing the exact same duo of governmental goals:
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1) To increase the power and profits of the corporate interests that put up the campaign cash that keeps the governors in office by delivering subsidies, no-bid contracts, special tax breaks, regulatory benefits, etc.
2) To knock down working-class and poor people by such despotic actions as suppressing voter turnout, destroying unions, bash- ing immigrants, militarizing police forces, slashing education budgets, corporatizing government programs, cutting human services for the needy, holding down wages, using theocratic piety to invade women’s bodies and rights, and autocratically preempting the democratic authority of activist citizens and local governments.
So while state (and local) offices offer myriad opportunities to create progressive, democratic change, those laboratories of democracy are equally available to Dr. Frankenstein right-wingers who seek to engineer regressive, plutocratic changes. And in recent years the forces of corporate rule have been building a national political structure that–brick by brick–locks in plutocratic power. Key to this scheme is systematically investing in the takeover of such state posts as governorships, legislatures, judges, redistricting boards, and regulatory agencies. Meanwhile, liberal strategists, funders, and political operatives have largely avoided the gritty work of building democratic power through state campaigns. Instead, they have focused almost exclusively on the more glamorous, high-dollar races for president and Congress.
The right wing has recognized that while the media and both major parties are riveted on this year’s macabre contest for the White House, that’s hardly the only race that matters–and at least one progressive leader agrees: “Trump and Hillary are taking up all the oxygen,” says Nick Rathod, head of SiX (State Innovation Exchange), a policy consortium. “But, really,” he explains to all who’ll listen, “where policymaking is getting done is the states.” Having lost 913 state legislative seats since 2010, Democrats should be crying Mayday, for Republicans now control 68 of America’s 99 state legislative chambers–more than at any time in our history. This includes 23 “trifecta” states where the GOP controls the governor’s office and both legislative chambers. (In case the Democratic Party needs a Civics 101 refresher course, these state chambers will be redrawing–i.e., gerrymandering–congressional districts following the 2020 census. So perhaps the Democrats’ strategic geniuses should pay a bit more attention to state rep/senate races between now and then.)
An orgy of plutocratic whoopee
It’s not a cosmic coincidence that such a large flock of corporatists and right-wing ideologues now roosts in state offices and keeps pushing exactly the same anti-people rhetoric and tactics. There is no groundswell of public enthusiasm driving their extremist proposals. Nor is their lockstep embrace of identical corporation- enthroning proposals simply the result of small minds thinking alike. Rather, the force at work in the states is one we know and despise for its contamination of national politics: Big Money. Or, more specifically, the funding cabal of Koch-ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).
Which brings us back to “Gov. Greg Alec.” He’s actually Texas governor Greg Abbott, the strident right-winger who has never met a group of vulnerable people whose plight he wouldn’t mock and exploit for political gain. From using his public position to benefit the moneyed interests that helped him into office, to embracing the whole anti-people agenda (from voter suppression to denying health care to the poor), Abbott is a shameless champion of the corporate elite’s plutocratic ambitions. Like his far-right cohorts in other states, he’s not burdened with a heavy IQ or known as a creative policy thinker.
But, as baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams advised rookies, “If you don’t think too good, don’t think too much,” so Abbott and his allied guberists let ALEC do their thinking for them. ALEC is a corporate front that distributes ready-to-introduce bills drafted by corporate lobbyists, media talking points, sample speeches, pre-baked op-eds, cooked academic “studies,” and a list of astroturf front groups prepared to pose as “grassroots” support.
ALEC essentially functions as a full-service whorehouse, hooking up high-dollar corporate customers with governors, legislators, and other state officials who’re willing to carry whatever pieces of legislation the corporations desire. The secretive organization hosts an annual group gathering (this summer, held in Gov. Mike Spence’s Indiana), as well as regional link-ups, bringing in several hundred state lawmakers for private sessions with top executives and lobbyists of sponsoring corporations. In an orgy of plutocratic whoopee, ambitious, on-the-make legislators embrace sponsorship of “model bills” that the corporate honchos pull straight from their special-interest wish lists.
That’s why we often see practically identical bills suddenly introduced within days of each other in various state capitols. When ALEC hosts a rendezvous–poof!–like a wind gust hitting a dandelion, bills spread. It’s certainly convenient for corporations. Want to make it illegal for reporters or activists to expose brutal conditions inside factory farms? Want to make it easier for nursing homes to rip off patients? Want to make it against state law for local governments to ban fracking or to raise the minimum wage in their cities? No problem–sign up as a corporate sponsor of ALEC and you can present your own “education seminar” at the next conclave, letting you solicit promiscuous state officials from around the country. As unveiled by the excellent watchdogs at the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the top sponsors of ALEC’s annual meeting this July were Altria (the tobacco giant), American Water Corporation, AT&T, Burlington Northern, Bose, Comcast, Dow, Duke Energy, Exxon Mobil, Lilly, PhRMA, and UPS.
The Koch connection
Tug on any right-wing thread in America and you’ll most likely find that it’s tied to the multi-billionaire Koch boys, Charles and David. While the brothers are infamous for funneling hundreds of millions of campaign dollars to presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial politicos willing to embrace their self-serving agenda, few know of their equally self-serving push to bend whole state governments their way. In addition to the $14 million that their industrial conglomerate, Koch Industries, has pumped into state- level politicians, PACs, and ballot initiatives in the past two decades, the Kochs are dominant players in all things ALEC:
To keep watch on the front group, the Kochs placed their own lobbyist on ALEC’s corporate board.
At least five Koch-funded groups are sponsors of and active participants in ALEC, including: Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network (a coordinating body for Koch-minded think tanks in all 50 states), Heartland Institute, Mercatus Center, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation (also known as “Greg Abbott’s brain”).
"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower
In the past two decades, Koch-controlled nonprofit foundations funneled $23 million into ALEC and these sponsoring groups.
In the past 14 years, two secretive “dark money” funds–Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund–used by the brothers poured an additional $77 million into ALEC and the sponsoring groups.
This spring, the duo and several of their billionaire brethren announced that they would jointly put nearly a billion dollars into the 2016 national elections, with a big chunk to Koch-ize the White House. But then, Trump happened. Charlie and Dave don’t cotton to e Donald so they made quite a show of announcing in July that they would back no presidential candidate this fall.
But while pundits were gazing dreamily at the prospect of an election year without the ponderous weight of Koch cash skewing the presidential race, boodles of money from the brothers’ campaign cache were being wormed deep into our country’s political terrain, nurturing right-wing corporatists running to ll such down-ballot seats of power as state legislators, attorneys general, judges, and secretaries of state. Digging into only a few of the opaque political funds of the multi-tentacled Koch network, CMD has uncovered 58 Koch-funded candidates for state legislative seats in just five states (Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin). The actual number is much larger, for the bulk of the network’s donations go through “dark money” channels that hide the names of donors and recipients.
It’s easy to become mesmerized by The Spectacular Donald Show flailing in the center ring of 2016’s political circus, but it’s time for progressives to focus on the outer rings, where the Kochs, ALEC, and their corporate cohorts have laid siege to our state governments. More than a firefight here or an ambush there, they have launched a massive, coordinated maneuver to conquer the country-side. If you doubt that the strategy has gone local, consider this stunning fact: Even though the Kochs are not backing a presidential campaign and say that they’re concentrating on only a half dozen US Senate races this year, they have deployed 1,600 paid political staffers into 38 states to drive elections and policy campaigns.
The new founder
When you think of America’s great Constitutional originators, names like Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin come to mind. And, of course, Abbott.Yes, that same Abbott–Gov. Greg of Texas. In January, the multimillionaire protege of the Koch Plutocratic Kingdom and ALEC darling, revealed to a startled nation that he has penned not one but NINE (!) new amendments to the Constitution of the USA. Forget the Bill of Rights, Abbott is proposing a Bill of Sale, effectively transferring the title of our national government from The People to The Plutocrats. The upshot of his “tweaks” would be outlawing government actions that restrain corporate abuse of workers and consumers, while also preventing future Congresses from meeting crucial public needs such as health care, voter rights, and restoration of our national infrastructure.
One could call Abbott and his Founding Father pretentions ludicrous–which both are–but he’s not the force (much less the brain) behind this diabolical, ideological tampering with our Constitution and our people’s ideals of fairness and justice. Who wrote his Bill of Sale? ALEC–at the direction of the Kochs and their corporate cohorts. On September 19, 2010, ALEC’s board of directors approved a resolution from its Federal Relations Working Group calling for a Constitutional Convention to enact Abbott’s corporate humbuggery.
Convening an explosive convention, permitted under Article V of the Constitution, is a longtime dream of those elites seeking an American Kochistan, and ALEC is spearheading a hodgepodge of right-wing groups that–believe it or not–are alarmingly close to succeeding. An ALEC/Koch affiliate with the cumbersome acronym of BBATF (Balanced Budget Amendment Task Force) came out of the Tea Party maelstrom in 2010 and is now aggressively pushing governors and state legislatures to endorse such an Article V convention. At the convention, they would attempt to rewrite our nation’s fundamental governing document by adding a balanced budget amendment, along with Abbott’s other eight. Together these changes would enthrone the “moneyed corporations” that Jefferson and other founders abhorred as destroyers of America’s democratic possibilities.
It takes 34 states to convene an Article V convention. Conservative activists have already passed resolutions in 28 states to do exactly that. With only a half dozen more needed, the ALEC/Koch consortium is presently targeting 11 others, including six with trifecta Republican control of their state governments.
Absurd? Of course. Even the head of the right-wing Eagle Forum, Phyllis Schlafly, calls this push “a prescription for political chaos,” adding, “Alas, I don’t see any George Washingtons, James Madisons, Ben Franklins, or Alexander Hamiltons around who could do as good a job as the Founding Fathers, and I’m worried about the men who think they can.”
This is why we must pay attention: Donald Trump is not the only–or even the biggest–real and present danger to our democratic republic. As Arn Pearson, general counsel of CMD, warns: “There are a lot of different parts of the Koch machine pulling on this oar. From their think tanks up through their elected officials, they’re pushing on it. Hard.”You might think that since this is madness, surely it can’t really happen. But madness–spurred by plutocratic greed–is the new American political reality. Just being progressive won’t stop it. We have to get aggressively progressive to confront and defeat the Kochheads in our states.