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Jane Mayer on the Koch brothers’ plan to ‘in effect, buy America’

One of their favorite methods, the journalist and author said, is what she calls “weaponizing philanthropy.”

David Koch

Journalist and author Jane Mayer used the term “Kochtopus” to describe the network of the shadowy, ultraconservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

Kochtopus (Koch-octopus, if you didn’t get the gag the first time around) refers to the qualities of the Koch brothers’ network, which is very powerful and which operates as much as possible “beneath the radar” (as Mayer put it yesterday, in a talk at the University of Minnesota, although I’m not sure how much radar has to do with octopus-watching, but you get the idea).

Occasionally, Mayer said, she is able to catch a glimpse of the tentacles of the Kochtopus when it comes to the surface.

In her journalistic work for The New Yorker magazine, and in her most recent book, “Dark Money,” Mayer has assembled the various sightings of a tentacle here and there into a story about the Kochs’ plan to “in effect, buy America,” and to do it without attracting too much attention. She spoke about it yesterday at a forum hosted by the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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The Koch Bros. are not so much Republicans as ultraconservative libertarians. (David Koch was actually the vice-presidential nominee on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980 – the year Ronald Reagan was elected. The younger Koch ran on a platform that called for the abolition or at least privatization of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.) Mayer said the Kochs come from a far-right element that derives from the John Birch Society of the 1950s and ’60s.

That Libertarian ticket ran a distant fourth, with 1 percent of the popular vote. And, since then, the Kochs have worked, assiduously and pretty effectively, to develop and implement what Mayer called “a strategy for, in effect, buying America.”

By “buying America,” Mayer seems to mean buying elections and buying them on behalf of candidates representing the right wing of the Republican Party – much further right than Reagan, the defining conservative of his era, was and believing more radically than Reagan did in a very small government and a very large role for the wants and needs and power of the wealthy.

The politically astute portion of the population has heard and read a bit about the Koch brothers, but the Kochs generally stay out of the spotlight and they have developed ways and means of operating in the dark, which is why Mayer’s book is called “Dark Money.”

‘An invitation to corruption’

One of their favorite methods, she said, is what she calls “weaponizing philanthropy.” This is a method, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, of exploiting loopholes in the campaign finance laws to set up organizations with names that sound like philanthropies but which have ways of injecting huge sums of money into political advertising. These methods, aided by Supreme Court rulings, have “exploded” just since 2013, to the point where Mayer estimates that for about two-thirds of all the money spent on political messaging, “you can’t tell who’s behind the spending.”

“Secret money in politics,” she added, is “an invitation to corruption.”

Over recent years, Mayer said, you can see the influence that these “weaponized philanthropies” are having in, for example, a growing number of Americans who say that human-caused global warming is not happening.

The Kochs are big-time players in the oil industry (they own a big refinery in Rosemount). Mayer stipulated that the Kochs may be very sincere in their policy goal, but the effect of many of their policy crusades definitely helps them financially as well.

One of the big money-in-politics stories in the mainstream press this year was that the Koch brothers were not active in the presidential race. Donald Trump disagrees with their view on many issues, and Trump found ways to win with a much lower level of actual campaign spending than Hillary Clinton spent or than Republican nominee Mitt Romney spent in 2008. Mayer said the fact that Trump won while spending substantially less than his opponent has caused some to wonder whether money is really as big a deal in politics as we’ve been told. It’s a good, but complicated question. Part of the answer is that tweets are free and TV commercials are expensive. But, anyway, we were talking about the Koch Bros.

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When they decided not to play in the presidential race, the Kochs focused on down-ballot races and, Mayer believes, Koch-influenced spending is a big part of the reason that so many houses of so many legislatures flipped from Democratic to Republican control over recent cycles, including this year.

She summarized her core beliefs about the money-politics continuum thus:

I’ve lived in Washington since I covered Reagan’s second term for the Wall Street Journal. While I’ve been living there, I’ve been watching money just get more and more and more influential. Why can’t they get anything done in Congress? Congress is tied in knots. Everything’s tied in knots because of the money. There are so many private interests overwhelming the public interest that it [Washington] is completely constipated.  Although, because of that, I think the money situation is very problematical and the idea that the people with the most money should have the influence is worrisome.

Moderator Larry Jacobs, director of the U of M’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, asked Mayer about the sharp increase in recent years in the share of wealth held by the top 1 percent, and how and why it came about and whether a more even distribution of wealth could return? She replied:

Wealth concentration is partly the result of policies, and policies can be reversed. We’ve had policies that have increased wealth concentration. All you need to do is look at Donald Trump. For 20 years, he paid no taxes. But he is a billionaire. There aren’t too many schoolteachers and waitresses and people pumping gas who pay no taxes. So the money’s being redistributed from the bottom to the top. That’s a policy choice made by Congress, and those laws could be changed, but it’s hard when money rules Congress.

Correction: The original version of this post said that Mayer had coined the term “Kochtopus” (although she did not claim to have originated it). The term dates back to an earlier reference by Samuel Edward Konkin III. Your humble ink-stained wretch regrets the error.