Last week, Steve Inskeep of NPR's "Morning Edition" sat down with Charles Koch, co-owner and CEO of Koch Industries and the more vocal half of the infamous Koch brothers duo, to talk to him about his unprecedented political campaign spending.
One year ago, the Koch brothers announced that they were budgeting nearly $900 million for campaign spending for the 2016 election year, a figure that was on par to match the spending of both major political parties.
And according to Koch's interview with NPR, he's behind on that budget, and plans to really lay on the moola as the poltical battles start to heat up, especially those in Congress, prompting Inskeep to aptly label the Kochs as "a political force unto themselves." But it's not only for reasons of money that the Kochs might be seen as the third major party in American politics. Once the shock and awe at the depth of their wallets subsides, the reasons behind their spending habits become the real topic of interest.
The Kochs are, according to mainstream belief, more or less right-leaning, an assumption no doubt prompted by their propensity to sponsor Republican candidates far more often than they do Democrats. But if you listen to this back-and-forth between Inskeep and Charles Koch, some surprisingly anti-Reaganite, anti-conservative rhetoric comes out of Koch's mouth as naturally as campaign funding comes out of his pocket. His anti-government ideals don't come as any surprise, but when he blatantly bashes corporate welfare and crony capitalism, it seems as though he is undermining the very goal of spending money on political candidates.
Instead, as he unravels his borderline coherent political views, Charles reveals that the Kochs simply see Republicans as the current lesser of two evils. Or, as he phrases it, "The Democrats are taking us down the road to serfdom at 100 miles an hour, and the Republicans are at 70 miles an hour."
What the brothers are really behind, a point that might be a bit foggy in this interview, is a libertarian ideology that is reminiscent of old-school, academic, Friedman-and-Hayek-style classical economic liberalism.
When we think of the economic rationalizations of big money campaign spenders, we normally think of what leftists refer to as the neoliberal model. It describes an approach to economics that, while embracing the laissez faire utopian notions of classical liberalism, heavily favors corporate health, financialization “and a cultural project of building consent for the upward redistributions of wealth and power.”
This economic outlook gives recipients of big campaign money loads of ammunition to rationalize the policy kickbacks that their sponsors are hoping to get out of their donations: Just as misguidedly evoking the First Amendment rationalizes the legality of unlimited campaign spending, the idea that what is good for the fat cats is good for the rest of the economy rationalizes the fruits of that unlimited spending. It's trickle-down economics without the myth of the trickle-down. Just look at how tax dollars are used to bail out financial institutions, award unneeded military contracts and subsidize publicly un-lucrative professional sports arenas, to name a few.
But this is not the type of rationalization that the Kochs use for their campaign spending. They unabashedly criticize corporate welfare, and rather than blame billionaires for buying government officials, they blame government officials for selling themselves to the highest bidder. "What the government spends to get people to reelect them dwarfs any money spent in a campaign," asserts Charles.
But isn't that hypocritical? Aren't the Kochs the ones buying those self-auctioning public servants? Aren't they just as guilty as the politicians?
Not according to the Kochs. Instead of using their campaign money to buy favors, they see themselves as championing an ideology; they're rescuers of the American economy, salvagers of the American way of life.
Charles Koch is a capitalist puritan. Milton Friedman is his Jesus, Friedrich Hayek his Peter. His goal for his influence is to reindoctrinate the country according to the pure theory of capital, the sole principles of which are capitalism and freedom. Pure economic liberty is the only road to true prosperity, while government intervention is the road to serfdom.
As crazy as this may sound to some given the past half-century of increasing wealth inequality, it has a certain appeal to many others who still want to hold onto hope for an individualistic utopia. The Kochs have the American Dream on their side, and they're trying to revive the notion that, with a small enough government and vibrant enough economy, any American can pick him or herself up by the bootstraps and make a respectable, comfortable living.
To put it plainly, the ideology that the Kochs are pushing with their money is a palpable threat to the still fragile progressive turn the American economic narrative is taking. With the presidential race in full heat, campaign finance reform is a real hot topic on both sides of the aisle. For the first time since its inception, when Joe and Jane Blue Collar hear the words “Citizens United,” not only do they know what is being talked about, but also, much of the time, it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. And as more economic reports are published year after year, more and more Americans are coming to the conclusion that the logistics of the American Dream are ideals that need to be radically rethought.
But the Kochs are threatening that turn toward critical reform. They are throwing their money at a narrative that is purer than the neoliberal model, but is still based on its basic tenets of unchecked growth and power brokering. And that, in a way, makes it all the more dangerous. Their ideal America is one that inadvertently produces all of the inequality we see today and more, but without the blatant undertones of corruption that have turned people off to the current system.
In other words, the Koch narrative threatens to take us back to the very ideas that got us into this mess into the first place.
Chris Gelardi is a social critic and soon-to-be journalism graduate student. He is currently working in special education in Chicago. Visit his blog at https://ruskinia.wordpress.