Are We Finally Learning Who the Koch Brothers Really Are?

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May 23 2014 9:34 AM

Meet the Kochs

The muckraking movies, the books, and the biographies: Are we finally learning who the Koch brothers really are?

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The Kochs’ actual motivations are both shadowy and almost poetically simple. Schulman’s book, which is carefully researched and exquisitely told, traces the family’s ideology and fortune to patriarch Fred C. Koch. It’s true, as Greenwald’s film reports, that the elder Koch got rich off a $5 million contract building oil-cracking stills in the Soviet Union. He never pretended otherwise. He returned and became an ally of the John Birch Society, writing A Business Man Looks at Communism and becoming obsessed with the red threat. “What I saw there convinced me of the utterly evil nature of communism,” Koch wrote in a 1964 letter to the Washington Post.

Koch, as seen by Schulman, becomes comically Manichean. “When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925,” Koch once wrote, “you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.” It might be important to note that he wrote that the month after the signing of the Munich Pact.

Koch’s sons, who build the business into an empire, were more idealistic yet less naive. “What I find interesting is how misunderstood their politics actually are,” said Schulman in an interview. People seem to think they’re traditional Republicans, but their ideology is libertarian. Charles Koch back in the late 1970s was slamming the business community for seeking corporate welfare, while at the same time advocating against welfare for the poor. He thought it was the worst kind of hypocrisy. It’s interesting to see him and David be embraced by Republicans—I think the Democrats did a lot to legitimatize the Kochs in the eyes of Republicans who had been wary of them.”

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Indeed, the Kochs spent decades working outside of traditional party politics. David Koch ran for vice president as a Libertarian Party candidate for the same reason Charles Koch considered the Republican Party dead-ended. The Kochs went on to seed think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center, the Reason Foundation. (Disclosure, I worked at Reason magazine, published by the foundation, from 2006 through 2008.) They also funded activist groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy, but did relatively little to aid Republicans. (CSE eventually split into Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity.)

The reason, teased out by Schulman, seems to be that they did not consider what they did to be traditional rent seeking. Yes, Koch organizations lobbied hard against the Clinton-era BTU tax that was going to cost the industry. Yes, the industry was better off in the low-regulation Reagan era than in the Clinton years, when it kept getting ensnarled in investigations. But for years, the brothers seemed content to spend on think tanks and lobbying.

Schulman points out that the Kochs’ policy conferences, now heavily protected affairs from which muckrakers fight to obtain secret documents, started out as snoozers. The first, a 2003 confab in Chicago, attracted just 17 people. They only picked up when Richard Fink, the Kochs’ in-company political guru, “began to spice up the tedious conferences with conservative celebrities and high-profile Republican lawmakers.” The Republican Party’s base had moved right, as had its political class—in no small part because of the influence of the research funded by the Kochs. The people hired by the Kochs to understand politics urged the brothers further and further into the arena.

It worked, in part, because the brothers were so unspecific in their goals. In his 1980 acceptance speech at the Libertarian convention, Koch called the party the “best hope for human freedom since the American Revolution.” Thirty-one years later, having helped install a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, he told ThinkProgress reporter Lee Fang that it was “probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776.” The Libertarian Party’s agenda was, as Democrats have rediscovered, far more radical and specific than anything modern Republicans were willing to say.  But once the brothers’ ideology became populist, and once it had allies in mainstream politics, they had minimized the threat of profit-killing reform and regulation.

Getting to that point took decades. Start counting from Fred Koch’s trip to Russia, and it took nearly 90 years—start counting from the brothers’ first stabs into politics, and it took nearly 40. For almost all of that time, their goals and their story were obscure. They’ll never be obscure again.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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