The Kochtopus

It’s time for a lengthy look at what’s happening to our country.

According to the New Yorker, The Koch brothers, David and Charles,

are lifelong libertarians and have quietly given more than a hundred million dollars to right-wing causes… The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation.

Also,

In Washington, [David] Koch is best known as part of a family that has repeatedly funded stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular.

Okay. So, tell us more. Who are the Koch brothers? 

With his brother Charles, who is seventy-four, David Koch owns virtually all of Koch Industries, a conglomerate, headquartered in Wichita, Kansas, whose annual revenues are estimated to be a hundred billion dollars. The company has grown spectacularly since their father, Fred, died, in 1967, and the brothers took charge. The Kochs operate oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, and control some four thousand miles of pipeline. Koch Industries owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products. Forbes ranks it as the second-largest private company in the country, after Cargill, and its consistent profitability has made David and Charles Koch—who, years ago, bought out two other brothers—among the richest men in America. Their combined fortune of thirty-five billion dollars is exceeded only by those of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

And,

…Charles Lewis, the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group, said, “The Kochs are on a whole different level. There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

Okay.  So, what does it mean that two rich brothers, whose father was an enthusiastic supporter of the conspiratorial John Birch Society, are libertarians and have “small-government” views?

These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

Part of the Kochtopus is an organization called Americans for Prosperity, an allegedly “grassroots” Tea Partyish organization, which David Koch started in 2004.  Now, the group describes itself this way:

AFP is an organization of grassroots leaders who engage citizens in the name of limited government and free markets on the local, state and federal levels. The grassroots activists of AFP advocate for public policies that champion the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint.

Also,

The heart and soul of AFP and AFP Foundation are our citizen activists. They organize events, write letters to the editor, and petition their lawmakers to uphold freedom and prosperity.  Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation have more than 1,500,000 activists, in all 50 states, and 31 state chapters and affiliates. More than 80,000 Americans in all 50 states have made a financial contribution to AFP or AFP Foundation.

There’s no mention of David Koch on the AFP website, but there is on the AFP Foundation site:

David Koch is the executive vice president and a member of the board of directors for Koch Industries, Inc., based in Wichita, Kansas. He helped found Americans For Prosperity, and also serves on the board of directors for the Reason Foundation and the CATO Institute. David was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president of the United States in 1980.

So, is Americans for Prosperity a grassroots organization?  I’ll let David Axelrod explain it, from the New Yorker article:

What they don’t say is that, in part, this is a grassroots citizens’ movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires.

I think that’s a fair statement, although “bunch” might be stretching it in these tough economic times.

But even though AFP, started with Koch money, is obviously part of the Tea Party movement, do the Kochs consider themselves teapartiers?

In April, 2009, Melissa Cohlmia, a company spokesperson, denied that the Kochs had direct links to the Tea Party, saying that Americans for Prosperity is “an independent organization and Koch companies do not in any way direct their activities.” Later, she issued a statement: “No funding has been provided by Koch companies, the Koch foundations, or Charles Koch or David Koch specifically to support the tea parties.” David Koch told New York, “I’ve never been to a tea-party event. No one representing the tea party has ever even approached me.”

The New Yorker does a good job of refuting that notion, including this:

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and a historian, who once worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis, a Dallas-based think tank that the Kochs fund, said, “The problem with the whole libertarian movement is that it’s been all chiefs and no Indians. There haven’t been any actual people, like voters, who give a crap about it. So the problem for the Kochs has been trying to create a movement.” With the emergence of the Tea Party, he said, “everyone suddenly sees that for the first time there are Indians out there—people who can provide real ideological power.” The Kochs, he said, are “trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.”

And this:

A Republican campaign consultant who has done research on behalf of Charles and David Koch said of the Tea Party, “The Koch brothers gave the money that founded it. It’s like they put the seeds in the ground. Then the rainstorm comes, and the frogs come out of the mud—and they’re our candidates!”

And this:

The Republican campaign consultant said of the family’s political activities, “To call them under the radar is an understatement. They are underground!” Another former Koch adviser said, “They’re smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.” Rob Stein, a Democratic political strategist who has studied the conservative movement’s finances, said that the Kochs are “at the epicenter of the anti-Obama movement. But it’s not just about Obama. They would have done the same to Hillary Clinton. They did the same with Bill Clinton. They are out to destroy progressivism.”

Interestingly, the Koch’s John Bircher father, Fred Koch, had some beliefs that don’t sound all that different from some of the stuff that comes from tea partiers today:

In a self-published broadside, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat and Republican Parties.” He wrote admiringly of Benito Mussolini’s suppression of Communists in Italy, and disparagingly of the American civil-rights movement. “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” he warned. Welfare was a secret plot to attract rural blacks to cities, where they would foment “a vicious race war.” In a 1963 speech that prefigures the Tea Party’s talk of a secret socialist plot, Koch predicted that Communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the President is a Communist, unknown to the rest of us.”

And according to the New Yorker, “David Koch recalled that his father also indoctrinated the boys politically“:

“He was constantly speaking to us children about what was wrong with government,” he told Brian Doherty, an editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, and the author of “Radicals for Capitalism,” a 2007 history of the libertarian movement. “It’s something I grew up with—a fundamental point of view that big government was bad, and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good.”

During the 1980 presidential campaign in which David Koch ran as the Libertarian Party vice-presidential candidate, those anti-government views were prevalent. The New Yorker explained that the party platform,

called for the abolition of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., as well as of federal regulatory agencies, such as the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Energy. The Party wanted to end Social Security, minimum-wage laws, gun control, and all personal and corporate income taxes; it proposed the legalization of prostitution, recreational drugs, and suicide. Government should be reduced to only one function: the protection of individual rights. William F. Buckley, Jr., a more traditional conservative, called the movement “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.”

Needless to say, those views weren’t all that popular in 1980.  The Libertarians received 1% of the vote (almost 12% in Alaska).

But those views and ideas live on in the Koch-funded Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation—where popular right-wing radio and television hosts get a lot of their talking points and whose scholars regularly appear on the Republican “News” Channel and other networks.

The Kochs also started another think tank in Arlington, Virginia, at George Mason University, the Mercatus Center, which Democratic strategist Rob Stein calls, “ground zero for deregulation policy in Washington.”  The Wall Street Journal called the center, “the most important think tank you’ve never heard of.”

Realizing that in order to disseminate their ideas more broadly, the Kochs began yet another group in 1984, Citizens for a Sound Economy. On board that effort was a man named Matt Kibbe, who we know today as the president of Freedom Works, a prominent Tea Party group.  In fact, Citizens for a Sound Economy split into two groups in 2004: Freedom Works and….Americans for Prosperity.

Amazing.  Both Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity have been busy making many earnest people think they are part of a grassroots movement, even though the truth is that they are really pawns in a scheme funded by billionaires to change the rules of the game in their favor.*

The New Yorker article is a long read, full of many more examples of the Koch brothers’ influence on our politics. But it’s well worth reading, if you want to understand how one wealthy family can have such a profound effect on how Americans think. 

And now that the Citizens United case has completely opened the doors to people like the Koch brothers, and now that the Republican Party has withdrawn its previous support for at least transparency in our politics, there is little to stop them from using their money—through groups like Americans for Prosperity—to further erode average people’s faith in our political system and our government, a government that has kept many of those people from the harm that the the Kochtopus philosophy would surely bring to them.

Here is a short video that connects the Koch brothers to the “grassroots” Tea Party movement:

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*For a Missouri connection, here is a paragraph from the St. Louis Activist Hub blog:

“The Post-Dispatch wrote an excellent editorial last week documenting the astroturf activities of Carl Bearden, the former director of Missouri’s Americans for Prosperity and someone who played a crucial role in starting the St. Louis tea party. Bearden organized a rally outside of Senator McCaskill’s office where the tea party falsely claimed that someone from McCaskill’s office “gave them the finger” (in fact, it was someone from an adjoining office who was upset that the tea party was banging on their windows). McCaskill, in typical weak-kneed Democrat fashion, apologized anyway and agreed with Bearden to hold a meeting that was covered by Fox News and largely kicked off the tea party’s summer of angry, obnoxious, town halls. So Bearden played a crucial role in a pivotal “birthing” moment for the St. Louis tea party, and likely played a big role in turnout efforts for their other events. He also organized some of the original tea party events in other parts of Missouri.”

Here is the link to a video of Carl Bearden’s address to the Joplin Tea Party earlier this year: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gx6OV5FrqMw

Glenn Beck’s Spirit Present At Joplin Tea Party

I thought I would see and hear some references to Glenn Beck at Thursday’s Tea Party here in Joplin, since many of the ideas tossed around at such gatherings seem to first originate in his strange and lucre-loving mind.

But that didn’t happen.

Then, I realized that the spirit of Glenn Beck was there all around me: in the form of a book.

That book, The 5000 Year Leap, by W. Cleon Skousen, was available for free (courtesy of the Jasper County Republican Party), with copies spread along the table holding the “scroll of grievances.” 

John Putnam said the book, which he “found” in 1984, had “inspired” him.

Beck has endlessly and energetically promoted the book, which, according to Alexander Zaitchik, has become “the bible of the 9/12 movement,” “the civic initiative he pulled together…to restore America to the sense of purpose and unity it had felt the day after the towers fell.”

The popular Fox broadcaster has even claimed the book is “divinely inspired,” although Beck doesn’t specify what divine being inspired it. Presumably, it was the God of Mormonism.

So, since our local Republican Party subsidized the distribution of the book, and since our local Joplin Tea Partiers were urged to read the book—and I saw many folks walking around with fresh copies in hand—I thought I would find out more about the author, especially since the Tea Party movement is heavily influenced by Beck-like thinkers. 

Who was W. Cleon Skousen?

Perusing Alexander Zaitchik’s essay on Salon.com, I discovered that Skousen shared Glenn Beck’s Mormon faith, and that he was ostensibly a “historian.” But as Zaitchik described him,

 …Skousen was not a historian so much as a player in the history of the American far right; less a scholar of the republic than a threat to it. At least, that was the judgment of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which maintained a file on Skousen for years that eventually totaled some 2,000 pages. Before he died in 2006 at the age of 92, Skousen’s own Mormon church publicly distanced itself from the foundation that Skousen founded and that has published previous editions of “The 5,000 Year Leap.”

Skousen died in 2006 at the age of 92, the author of more than dozen books; a 15-year veteran of the FBI (in administration);  a law school grad; a teacher at Brigham Young University;  Chief of Police in Salt Lake City (where, according to Zaitchik, “he gained a reputation for cutting crime and ruthlessly enforcing Mormon morals” and, according to a 1961 article in Time, the conservative Mayor of the city said Skousen, “operated the police department like a Gestapo“);  and most important for our purposes, a virulent anti-communist conspiracist,  who earned a good living giving speeches to far-right gatherings.

As an anti-Communist, Skousen was affiliated with the John Birch Society, whose elaborate communist conspiracies proved too much for men of the right like William F. Buckley, who sought to sever the Birchers from “legitimate” conservatives. In those days, there were adults in the conservative movement, and when Skousen and the Birchers grew more and more extreme—accusing WW II hero Dwight Eisenhower of being a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy“—most responsible conservative groups dumped him.  Buckley said such accusations were “paranoid and idiotic libels.”* Russell Kirk, an eminent conservative philosopher, viewed such people as being “disconnected from reality.”  Barry Goldwater concurred.

Wrote Zaitchik:

By 1963, Skousen’s extremism was costing him. No conservative organization with any mainstream credibility wanted anything to do with him. Members of the ultraconservative American Security Council kicked him out because they felt he had “gone off the deep end.” One ASC member who shared this opinion was William C. Mott, the judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy. Mott found Skousen “money mad … totally unqualified and interested solely in furthering his own personal ends.”

Damn. That sounds a lot like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing conspiracists these days.

Zaitchik also wrote something about Skousen’s increasing popularity that again sounds eerily like our own Glenn Beck, whose “enemy” is not so much communism, but progressivism:

When Skousen’s books started popping up in the nation’s high-school classrooms, panicked school board officials wrote the FBI asking if Skousen was reliable. The Bureau’s answer was an exasperated and resounding “no.” One 1962 FBI memo notes, “During the past year or so, Skousen has affiliated himself with the extreme right-wing ‘professional communists’ who are promoting their own anticommunism for obvious financial purposes.”

By 1970, Zaitchik reports that Skousen had discovered that “liberal internationalist groups” like the Council on Foreign Relations were pushing U.S. foreign policy “toward the establishment of a world-wide collectivist society,” which would later become the New World Order, a “super-conspiracy” involving the Rockefellers and the Rothchilds and other very “powerful” people.

Eventually, the Mormon Church cut its ties with Skousen, which was just in time for his invitation to become part of the “Reagan Revolution.”  Zaitchik wrote:

In 1980, Skousen was appointed to the newly founded Council for National Policy, a think tank that brought together leading religious conservatives and served as the unofficial brain trust of the new administration. At the Council, Skousen distinguished himself by becoming an early proponent of privatizing Social Security.

It was around this time that Skousen published the book that changed the life of Glenn Beck, The 5,000 Year Leap,  which Zaitchik described this way:

…a heavily illustrated and factually challenged attempt to explain American history through an unspoken lens of Mormon theology. As such, it is an early entry in the ongoing attempt by the religious right to rewrite history. Fundamentalists want to define the United States as a Christian nation rather than a secular republic, and recast the Founding Fathers as devout Christians guided by the Bible rather than deists inspired by French and English philosophers. “Leap” argues that the U.S. Constitution is a godly document above all else, based on natural law, and owes more to the Old and New Testaments than to the secular and radical spirit of the Enlightenment. It lists 28 fundamental beliefs — based on the sayings and writings of Moses, Jesus, Cicero, John Locke, Montesquieu and Adam Smith — that Skousen says have resulted in more God-directed progress than was achieved in the previous 5,000 years of every other civilization combined.

So, learning all of that, I realized that Glenn Beck was in fact a part of the Joplin Tea Party, through the vehicle of W. Cleon Skousen’s book.  And I realized what attracted John Putnam, the chairman of the Jasper County Republican Central Committee, to Skousen’s interpretation of American history.

Putnam is a conservative Christian, who when I first encountered him, was an elder at Christ’s Church of Joplin, and who was a believer in the Bible as the “inspired” and inerrant Word of God.  

He said at the Tea Party on Thursday:

I see a real similarity between the days we live in and the founding days of this country. I realized at least in 1978 that America was on an unsustainable path.  We have continued to spend more than we take in, we have continued to turn our back—to become more interested in commercialism and entertainment and luxury than we have the spiritual values that made this country great. And my family’s tired of listening to me say we can’t go on this way, but in the last year there is a whole lot of other people who have seen that the pace is accelerating and it is up to the people to restore the country…

I suspect that many in the crowd Thursday hold views similar to those of Mr. Putnam.  Indeed, Jay St. Clair, the minister who uttered a rambling four-minute plea to the Almighty, began his remarks this way:

Welcome to the Tea Party!  Well, this isn’t a religious gathering but I will tell you that everything about our country was founded on the faith of God and the principles that are found in his Word…

Such folks don’t want to admit that our secular country—the United States of America—was not founded on the Bible, but on Enlightenment philosophy, a philosophy that was responsible for taming the excesses of fundamentalist Christianity, and a philosophy that is under attack, either consciously or unconsciously, by some members of the Tea Party movement.

If these people were to get what they wanted—a return to “God-directed” governance—then the Tea Partiers would no longer be mere objects of liberal scorn.

They would be forces to fear.

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*In 1962, Buckley published “a 5,000-word excoriation” of Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, which included the following:
How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument while it is led by a man whose views on current affairs are, at so many critical points . . . so far removed from common sense? That dilemma weighs on conservatives across America. . . . The underlying problem is whether conservatives can continue to acquiesce quietly in a rendition of the causes of the decline of the Republic and the entire Western world which is false, and, besides that, crucially different in practical emphasis from their own.
Few conservatives today are willing to say about Glenn Beck and other conspiracists that their views are “so far removed from common sense.”
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