How Billionaires Are Hijacking Our Democracy—And How We Can Resist Them

In her national bestseller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires of the Radical Right, journalist Jane Mayer illustrated how a network of wealthy people—led by multibillionaires Charles and David Koch—have taken over the Republican Party, Congress and many state legislatures.

Recently, the Koch donor network announced plans to spend up to $400 million in the midterm elections to maintain Republican majorities in Congress. Their goals? To lower their taxes, shrink government and transfer public functions to the private market. They want to deregulate business, including the elimination of civil rights protections, public health and environmental regulations, privatize government institutions like public schools and prisons and eliminate welfare programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and food assistance.

These programs are deeply popular with the American public—so how do these billionaires plan to achieve their goals? According Duke historian Nancy MacLean’s recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, they’re doing so by undermining democracy. I sat down with MacLean and asked her about the Koch network, what their plans mean for women and what we can do about it.

takomabibelot / Creative Commons

In your book you talk about how Charles Koch’s ideas and strategies are heavily influenced by the thinking of the economist James McGill Buchanan. Can you explain these ideas?

Buchanan, who taught at Virginia public institutions for many years, developed a set of ideas called public choice theory that offered a distinct explanation for how government developed over the twentieth century in response to collective popular pressure and a vision for how to reverse engineer that process. Charles Koch, in particular, and many of the individuals, think tanks and organizations he funds have weaponized Buchanan’s ideas to make our democracy less unresponsive to the majority of people. They seek to undermine collective power in a variety of ways, like undercutting labor unions as we saw in Wisconsin under Scott Walker and pushing voter suppression and radical gerrymandering to misrepresent the will of the remaining voters—so as to over-represent right-wing voters and to under-represent liberal and moderate voters. And then there’s just outright deception, like funding climate science denial and misinformation. So that’s why I call it a stealth plan because it’s a highly strategic and integrated strategy, but also one that issues from recognition that this is a permanent minority cause that will never be able to persuade the majority of people that the world it seeks is desirable and, therefore, they are rigging the rules as they go and not even providing the people they rely on for votes with full information such as that they want to privatize Social Security and Medicare.

And it’s massive. The Koch donor network includes groups like Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, The Club for Growth and DonorsTrust. These groups fund dozens of national organizations that are ostensibly separate but working together—like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society and the Independent Women’s Forum. They also underwrite something called the State Policy Network that brings together about 200 groups working at the state level to change policy and law. And there’s even an international umbrella group called the Atlas Network that includes some 450 organizations working in 90 countries, so this is an immense, very well thought out, highly strategic and integrated long game.

You argue that Buchanan began developing his ideas about how to undermine majority rule in the context of the Virginia school desegregation crisis in the late 1950s and early 1960s when northern economic libertarians allied with Southern segregationists to defy the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Can you explain the significance of this history to the current political moment?

In the wake of World War II, economic libertarians seeking to undermine the New Deal at home and social democracy abroad rallied to the side of the white-elite-dominated governments in the South whose answer to Brown v. Board of Education’s call to desegregate public schools was to provide tuition vouchers for private schools to white families who didn’t want their children to go to school with African American children. To avoid integration, officials in Prince Edward County Virginia actually shut down the public schools from 1959 to 1964, despite widespread popular opposition.

The economic libertarians weren’t primarily motivated by racism, but they were willing—and that was the stunning thing to me, willing—to exploit this white supremacist reaction to the Brown decision and the Civil Rights Movement to move their economic liberty agenda. And to me, in a way, that’s almost more morally culpable than outright racism because it was actually a really coldly calculated recognition that “Hey, we could use this moment. We can use this popular anger to move our agenda.” 

It’s important to realize how they strategically leveraged racism in this formative era because that’s precisely what we’re seeing now. Libertarians and corporate donors to the Koch agenda may not be primarily motivated by racism or by misogyny or by homophobia, but they are absolutely willing to leverage those prejudices to move their cause and to incite hatred against other people in order to achieve property supremacy.

Back in the 1950s, Southern white conservatives realized that their best allies in shielding white supremacy and employers’ prerogatives would be Northern economic libertarians. Today, Koch-funded Tea Party elected officials are disproportionately white Southerners—people who never gave up their longing for white supremacy, which was bound up with property supremacy. The Koch-led cause is pushing for a world that looks a lot like mid-1950s Virginia did.

Why do people like Koch and Buchanan want to undermine majority rule?

Really good question that I still struggle with. But I would say that the key architects of this cause, the economist James McGill Buchanan and the CEO Charles Koch, are deeply ideological figures who truly believe that their ideas are better for the rest of us than what we would choose for ourselves. And they just have a deep disdain for the broader public and for people’s use of collective power. They have an archly entrepreneurial vision of society and of the good life. They celebrate people who are corporate leaders or technology innovators, and scorn people who do not do the kind of work that is recognized and highly valued in the market. They look down on low wage workers of all kinds, and also fail to recognize the care work that women have done historically, that hasn’t been accorded a market value but that is absolutely essential to our society and our collective well-being and the reproduction of our families and our civilization. They just take that work for granted. Women have worked for generations to move some of that work into the public realm so that governments would assume some responsibility for assisting the citizenry. But these guys think nothing of pushing that labor back into the private realm and onto the shoulders of women and families who are already straining under the care crisis.

 

I can’t help but notice that the Koch network is overwhelmingly male and white. What is the impact on women of the neoliberal policies pushed by Koch and his allies?

It can be absolutely devastating. For example, the Flint water crisis. Charles Koch’s office personally recruited people to staff the Mackinac Center in Michigan that pushed for the emergency manager system for cities that were in deficit. Flint, Michigan had one of these unaccountable emergency managers who made the decision to save money by rerouting the city’s water supply to this polluted water supply that has caused such devastation—and even deaths.

The wider right led by the Koch cadre and the Republican officials that they helped put in office is taking dead aim at the things that make women’s lives livable. The public sector has been a huge source of women’s employment over the years. This cause is seeking to radically shrink the public sector in the near term and, in the end, they would like to see it all eliminated and privatized and turned into sources of corporate profit-making. So for women as employees in the workforce, it’s devastating. But also women will see services such as publicly-subsided daycare disappear, leaving it to individuals to figure out how to care for children. There’s no other sector of the population who will feel the impact of the Koch agenda as intensely as women will in their dual roles as caregivers and waged employees.

I think this is part of the reason why women have been so important in the resistance that we’re seeing now. Women have been straining in this system that’s been emerging for some time now. No group recognizes as well as women do that what we’re seeing now would create an utterly unsustainable society in terms of our family life, our economic life, our social life and our psychic life.

What is Trump’s relationship to the Kochs and their network?

In 2016 on the campaign trail, Charles Koch actually called Trump a monster, and so a lot of people have assumed Trump doesn’t have anything to do with the Kochs. But what I show in the book is that there’s just no way that Donald Trump could have been elected without the ideas propounded by James Buchanan and these right-wing think tanks that so undermine the credibility and authority of government and the reputation of individual public servants. So those ideas have been important, but also the Koch donor network had so radicalized the Republican Party by 2016 and so co-opted the entire group of original Republican front-running candidates that Donald Trump seemed to be the only candidate that committed Republicans could vote for who wasn’t going to make cuts to their Social Security and their Medicare, institute free-trade deals that would be devastating to manufacturing communities and push through tax cuts for the wealthy.

Donald Trump distinguished himself on the campaign trail as being different from those other Republicans, and he actually called the others “puppets” of the Kochs. I think there were a lot of Republican voters, who, along with all the prejudices that led many to vote for Trump, also understood that money was playing a really coercive role in politics. They were nervous about that; we heard many people saying that “Trump is his own man” or “he doesn’t have to accpet the agenda of other rich people because he has his own money.” That kind of thing helped him get into office.

But what we’ve seen since he’s been in office is that he’s been essentially surrounded by people who come from the Koch network. Vice President Mike Pence, who was head of Trump’s transition team, is deeply rooted in this network. Betsy DeVos in the Education Department is a long-time participant in this Koch network. Scott Pruitt, who’s the head of the EPA, is another. Even the CIA director, Mike Pompeo. A report by the government accountability group Public Citizen at the end of last year revealed that 44 Trump administration officials have close ties to the Koch brothers.

What is the relationship between Koch libertarians and evangelical Christians?

In the 1970s, Koch insisted on radical purity among his grantees on libertarian principles of minimal government so that meant the state should not punish consensual sex, including homosexuality and also prostitution. They supported drug legalization. They criticized imperial foreign policy and the criminalization of abortion. But what we’ve seen in the last 10 to 20 years, as this donor network has become much more serious about taking power and changing the way our society and our politics run, is they have made strategic alliances with the religious right that have enabled them to get the electoral power to move their agenda.

In my own state of North Carolina, they have consciously used homophobia and anti-trans prejudice to get their voters out to the polls. They’ve used nativism and fear of immigrants to drive people to the polls. And even though they are against government regulation, they have pushed for these burdensome regulations on abortion clinics to drive them out of operation. So they’re working very closely with the religious right now. And, in fact, the head of Americans for Prosperity, their main grassroots arm, comes out of the religious right and used to work with Ralph Reed, so he can really massage relationships with those folks. I’ve since learned from the Southern Poverty Law Center that Koch funding of religious right groups is quite extensive at this point.

How does the recent tax bill serve the Koch agenda?

The most obvious way is that it rewards the already wealthy with huge tax cuts. It is an example of the stealth agenda my book reveals because it will give lower- and middle-income people a tax cut in the near term, while charging them more down the road after they’ve stopped paying attention and when it’s too late. They’re also running up the deficit after years of complaining about the deficit. Most estimates say the tax bill will increase the deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. And then that will become the justification for radical cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This is part of the long-term project of this cause to privatize Social Security and Medicare, so instead of having social insurance, we would just have individual accounts for all our needs including retirement and healthcare. And, of course, these accounts would be invested with Wall Street so we’d have to depend on a deregulated financial sector that they also brought us and seek to further. This is really, really devastating stuff when you put it all together.

But the devious endgame of this tax bill, I anticipate, is that they will use the resulting deficit as the justification for calling a constitutional convention to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. This is something that has polled well because it sounds good to people until they realize that it would lead to the undermining of Social Security and Medicare and would hamstring government attempts to respond to a crisis like the 2008 financial crisis through unemployment compensation or boosting the economy. But the Koch network’s full vision is to radically change our government by passing their so-called Liberty Amendments that would include a nationwide voter ID law, which is really a modern-day poll tax. They also want to revoke the 17th Amendment so that state legislatures choose U.S. Senators rather than people directly electing them. The bottom line is that if states call a constitutional convention, any issue could be raised, including a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion or same-sex marriage.

We’ve never had a state-called constitutional convention before in the United States, but Article 5 of the Constitution allows two-thirds of the states—34—to call one. The Koch network now has authorizations from 28 states lined up; they only need six more—and there are six states in which the Republicans control both houses of the legislature that haven’t yet voted for a constitutional convention. So I think it’s quite possible that they will be using the tax bill to tip those remaining states quickly and get this constitutional convention. Now whatever the Convention passes would still have to go out to the states and be approved by three-quarters of the states, so there’s some reassurance in that. But even there, the right has been paying much more attention to accumulating power at the state level than the left. They now control 30 states thoroughly, compared to seven by the left. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for the defense of our democracy. What happens within the next few years will determine the future for generations.

In your book, you document how the Koch network has influenced higher education in the U.S. through academic scholarships and grants to faculty who support their political agenda. What is the scope of this work and how are they doing this?

The Koch donor network and their allied right-wing organizations are making a big bid now to transform higher education. Charles Koch has been investing significantly in George Mason University (a public university) as a base camp for this political project since 1997. He’s now the university’s biggest donor. He’s using a non-profit, public academic institution to move a political project, undermining academic integrity and the traditions of governance that we associate with honest higher education. But now, the Koch donor network is trying to implant centers on college campuses across the country. They have really escalated their spending on those in the last few years—they’re now investing in nearly 500 campuses. They’re also funding lots of internships and scholars to produce research to support their views.

Meanwhile, there’s an attack on progressive faculty, and also on programs like Women’s Studies and African American Studies. The Koch network funds a group called Campus Reform that targets progressive people that they think are vulnerable and tries to get them fired or intimidate them out of doing the kind of teaching that they would otherwise. They have a group called Turning Point USA that is attacking safe spaces on campuses and mocking people in quite callous and cruel terms. And they are pushing hard against affirmative action.

They are also now pumping dark money into student government in order to get right-wing candidates elected so they can control student government budgets to influence what speakers are invited and other student activities. And then they would also have a conduit to the corporate-dominated boards of trustees to transform the universities, undermine faculty governance and bring in more money for their programs. So, again, it’s a highly strategic effort and I really, really encourage people to look into it more.

I learned after the book went to print that there were already students and faculty organizing to expose the Koch presence on campuses. Young people have founded a group called UnKoch My Campus, with strong leadership by young women.

UnKoch My Campus has exposed that Koch has a multi-pronged strategy of paying professors to publish ideas, which are then transformed into policy recommendations at Koch-funded think tanks, which are then used by Koch’s advocacy groups to lobby elected officials, who are then supported by Koch dark money if they comply. What is UnKoch doing to resist this?

UnKoch My Campus is organizing on 20 campuses with students and faculty and sometimes concerned community members, alumni and good donors. They are suing George Mason under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act to have the donor agreement with the Kochs released and subjected to the light of day, so that people can know how this public institution is being used for a political project. They’re also working on a model donor agreement for other universities to stop the undue influence of corporations that are corrupting academic integrity.

We have seen massive resistance to Trump and the Koch agenda. Do you think this resistance will prevail?

I am optimistic for this reason: the vast majority of people of all descriptions do not want the world that the super-rich want to bring into being. And if the Kochs tell the truth about what it is they’re seeking, people will be repelled and try to stop them. That is exactly why they turned to this stealth strategy of gerrymandering, attempting to destroy collective organizations, suppressing voting and deconstructing the administrative state. They know they’ll lose if the majority will prevails. I take hope that this latent majority is a colossally powerful source of opposition to the Koch agenda if they are alerted to what’s going on and if they’re activated by all the varieties of talented organizers who are out there working to defend our democracy. I think that this is definitely reversible, but I also think the challenge of reversing it will require that we renew our democracy in a profound way.

From the organizations of all different kinds that I’ve been talking to about my book, activists in the trenches, it does seem like there are some core values that we all can agree upon—a world that respects the dignity of every human being, whatever our backgrounds and our orientations. It would have to be a world of fairness, with a fair economy in which everybody is allowed a chance and which doesn’t have the crazy levels of inequality that have produced the incentive for this Koch project. It would be a world that would address not only our ecological crisis, what’s happening to our plant, but also sustainability at the level of individuals and families, to resolve the kind of care crisis that has been plaguing women and families for so long. I find that we do actually have a lot of common values and common goals across different sectors and I would just hope that as people organize, we do so from a perspective of those values rather than warring ideologies and purisms that can sometimes lead to us tripping ourselves and becoming a circular firing line. And I think if we work within the frame of some of those common values and project those to others in that latent majority, we might actually be able to do it.

Nancy Maclean speaking on Democracy in Chains at Smith College on January 25.

Carrie Baker is Associate Professor and Director of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.

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