Bernie Sanders is wrong about the Koch brothers: They're even more dangerous than he thinks

Sanders says his campaign is about a "political revolution." If so, he'll have to take his enemies more seriously

Published August 25, 2015 12:56PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cheryl Senter/Reuters/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Cheryl Senter/Reuters/Brendan McDermid/Photo montage by Salon)

Bear with me for a second, because this is going to sound like a #Slatepitch or a hot take at first, I know. But after catching up on the latest from U.S. senator and presidential aspirant Bernie Sanders, who “delighted” a crowd of roughly 3,000 South Carolinians at a campaign rally this weekend, according to the Associated Press, I feel compelled to register a mild criticism. And it’s probably one of the last you’d expect to be leveled against this longtime, unapologetic democratic socialist.

Here it is: I think Sanders is going way too easy on Charles and David Koch.

Granted, that probably sounds ridiculous. After all, it was only a few days ago that Sanders was calling out the 1 percent, telling the folks in South Carolina that “a handful of very, very wealthy people have extraordinary power over our economy and our political life and the media.” He even bothered to single out the Kochs for special opprobrium. “For the life of me,” he confessed, “I will never understand how a family like the Koch brothers, worth $85 billion, apparently think that's not enough money.”

Like their fellow plutocrats, Sanders said, the Kochs “are very, very powerful.” What makes them different from the rest, though, according to Sanders, is the fact that the Kochs are “extremely greedy,” too. Sanders didn’t come out and say it, of course, but the implication was quite clear: As far as the senator from Vermont was concerned, what motivated the billionaire Koch brothers to spend untold millions on turning America into a Randian paradise was greed, one of humanity’s most mundane and timeless vices.

Oh, if only it were so simple. If only the pseudo third-party the Kochs have constructed were designed for no higher purpose than its owners’ enrichment. Because if that were true, defeating the Kochs — and their mammoth, unwieldy so-called Kochtopus — wouldn’t be so difficult. The venal are easily coopted; and while many a popular movement has been manipulated for the wealthy, few if any have admitted it. (Stripped of any idealistic veneer, the allure of such a cause is rather weak.)

In that circumstance, reducing the Kochs’ status within American politics to that of any other ultra-wealthy special interests would be a breeze. With the notable exception of sociopaths who thought Gordon Gekko was the hero of “Wall Street,” no one thinks greed is a good thing; and “I want more, more, more!” is not a winning campaign slogan. Exposed as covetous misers, the Kochs would become pariahs. Maybe their example would convince other plutocrats that such public corruption wasn’t worth the risk.

Thing is, if we lived in such a world already, we wouldn’t need Bernie Sanders. If the hollowness and impracticality of Koch-style libertarianism were so obvious, there’d be no need to portray them as such menaces to society at large, because their influence would be meager already. That’s not to say that the Kochs’ wealth doesn’t bestow on them a disproportionate level of power. It does, absolutely. But it is to say that for those who aren’t on Sanders’ side already, the Kochs’ villainy is not self-evident.

However, there’s another reason why Sanders’ shrugging off the Kochs as purely greedy is a mistake, and it’s one that has more to do with the mindset of his followers than any potential recruit. Simply put, if those who support Sanders and social democracy in general want to defeat the Kochs, they’ll need to take them more seriously. And they’ll need to grapple with the possibility that despite being out-of-touch anti-government zealots, the Koch brothers, like the road to hell, really do have the best intentions.

That doesn’t mean the rest of us should lay off or play nice, mind you. It just means recognizing that, as the American Prospect’s Paul Waldman once wrote, “no one thinks they're the villain of their own story.” And in this respect, if no others, the Kochs aren’t any different.

Now, having said all that, my argument that Sanders is being “too easy” on the Kochs might seem odd. But I don’t mean that he’s going too easy on them in respect to their character or their overall impact on the world. Rather, I mean that he’s selling them short with regard to their seriousness as a threat to not just the welfare state but the whole idea of popular government. Because what the Kochs have built, and what they are still building, is not about them or their bank accounts. It’s far more ambitious.

If the Kochs were to pull a “Leftovers” and disappear tomorrow, for example, it wouldn’t cause the many far-right and libertarian organizations they support to vanish, which is what you’d expect to happen if increasing the family’s fortune was the true goal. Instead, some other coalition of plutocrats from above and reactionaries from below would step in. Because, ultimately, American conservatism is bigger than the Kochs, no matter how many billions they have at their disposal. It’s an ideology, not a scheme.

And since conservatism promises to maintain many social privileges (and not only those of the wealthy) that’s not a superficial distinction. Yet even if you don’t buy that analysis, there’s this: If you want to defeat your opponent, you need to understand them first. Sure, the Kochs are secretive and their motivations can be murky. But whatever it is that keeps them fighting, greed — and greed alone — isn’t it.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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