The Future Is Here. And It's Weird.


The Koch Network Replaced the Republican Party

“The genius of their plan was to put together a federated political machine.”

Michael Tomasky8.23.19 7:20 PM ET

I certainly don’t have much good to say about David Koch, but I thought it would perhaps be more useful, on this occasion of his death, to explain precisely what he and brother Charles have done, because even with all that’s been written about them, it’s not as well understood as it ought to be. 

It comes down to two things: One, they moved the Republican Party very hard to the right on economic questions; two, they did it at all levels of government.

Jane Mayer did typically great work on the Kochs in her book Dark Money, which everyone knows about. She traced the family’s personal history and the sources of their intense free-market views, and places the Kochs in the context of other rich right-wing political financiers, before she went into a brilliantly detailed dissection of their political spending. Her book also reveals how, after she wrote a piece in The New Yorker about the Kochs’ campaign against combating climate change in 2010, they hired six operatives to try to dig up dirt on her (including a plagiarism smear, but it wasn’t true and didn’t stick). 

Another source of essential information on the Kochs is Theda Skocpol of Harvard, who led a team of researchers including Alex Hertel-Fernandez and Jason Sclar that did extensive research on the Kochtopus. This work is more academic and less well known, but you should be aware of it, too, because it goes into exhaustive detail on work and organizational structure of Koch organization, notably Americans for Prosperity (AFP). I spoke with Skocpol shortly after David Kochs’ death was made public Friday morning.

The Kochs’ impact, she told me, isn’t only about their direct political donations. Although of course those are a very big deal—while the Kochs have been backing various libertarian causes and efforts since the 1970s, it was only in 2006 that they started donating directly to candidates for office.

The other thing that matters, she said, “is how the money is used. The genius of their plan was to put together a federated political machine.”

The key word there is federated, by which she means that the Koch network has influenced not just Washington but all kinds of actions in state capitals. “The Koch Network has never been totally obsessed with presidential politics,” says Skocpol (SCOTCH-poll). “They have understood that the core of political power in the United States lies in states and in congressional districts.”

I think we tend to know about this while it’s in the news, but then we forget. But it’s important to remember, because this is where the Kochs have arguably done even more damage than in Washington. All the union-busting by Republican governors like Scott Walker in Wisconsin? Koch inspired, and to some considerable extent financed through AFP. That group also spent more money blocking the Medicaid expansion into states under Obamacare than any other single group.

Obamacare was pretty unpopular back then, so at least the Kochs could perhaps have argued that they were in the majority. But in fact, there were Republican governors in several red states who wanted to expand Medicare. In their 2016 paper “The Koch Network and Republican Party Extremism,” Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez note that GOP governors in four red states, along with hospital associations and business groups, favored Medicare expansion. But it didn’t happen and still hasn’t, even though in one of the four, Utah, voters passed a referendum favoring expansion. They also show that public support for allowing public-employee unions to bargain collectively was high in most of the states where union curbs were enacted.

This is the Koch legacy, in three simple stages. Stage one, pour billions of dollars behind supporting hard-core right-wing positions that don’t have anywhere near majority support. Stage two, use the power your money gives you to force Republican office holders to embrace those positions, or face challengers who will. Stage three, make sure they vote that way and thwart the public will. This is basically all the Republican Party does these days. It’s not all the Kochs’ fault. It’s Fox News’ fault, and Rush Limbaugh’s, and others. But Koch money has been as central as any other factor.

Did you see Moscow Mitch’s defense of the filibuster in the Times Friday? If the filibuster “frustrates the whims of those on the far left, it is their half-baked proposals and not the centuries-old wisdom that need retooling.”

This is a complete lie and the total opposite of reality. Democratic proposals enjoy broad popularity, sometimes enormous popularity. Big majorities support a minimum wage increase. Big majorities don’t want to repeal Obamacare and think the government should do more to provide health care. People overwhelmingly support citizenship for Dreamers. Most are worried about climate change and want the government to do something about it and are even willing to pay a little to contribute.

I could go on almost forever. I’m hard-pressed to think of a domestic policy priority on which the Democratic position, or some Democratic position, whether it’s Joe Biden’s or Elizabeth Warren’s, doesn’t have majority support. The Kochs’ big pet issue, destroying Social Security and Medicaid, sure isn’t popular. People want more of both programs.

But we have one political party that is dug in on opposing majority opinion and representing instead the opinions of some extremist billionaires. David Koch did some nice things in his life; I can’t quarrel with a hundred million to the ballet. But cultural generosity in Manhattan can’t begin to make up for the damage he’s helped do in Washington and beyond.