Over in Wichita, there’s a big energy and industrial conglomerate run by a pair of right-wing robber barons named David and Charles Koch. Every morning they get up and do their best to bring down the federal government, pump gunk into the environment and add to their pile of filthy money. They’re even global warming skeptics. Can you believe it?
That’s the narrative being peddled by the left in recent weeks about the Koch brothers and their various enterprises, Koch Industries.
The two brothers do make an inviting target. They’re billionaires. They shovel money into right-wing causes. In the eyes of the environmental left, their privately held energy and industrial businesses are the epitome of everything that’s wrong with our wasteful, destructive modern economy.
The smearing of the Kochs is unfortunately how the game is played these days. It’s the political equivalent of what the military calls “shaping the battlefield.” You don’t engage on the merits of any particular issue, whether it’s the size of government or the validity of "Obamacare." That comes later.
Instead, you cut off adversaries before the main fight by undermining their credibility. You plant the seed in the news media that any association with the target is tainted. As a bonus you get a villain to which you can point to drive your own fund-raising.
Not too long ago, the website ThinkProgress started digging into the Kochs’ activities and found out they funded Americans for Prosperity, a group that helped get the tea parties going.
Next thing you know, protesters started showing up at Koch-sponsored events such as a gathering of conservative political donors in California earlier this year. Demonstrators waved signs saying “Koch Kills” (Koch is pronounced “Coke”) and “Uncloak the Kochs,” as if over the several decades of their political involvement, they had tried to hide their activities — despite public appearances and speeches and donation reports on foundation websites.
A New Yorker hit piece on the Kochs last August perfectly captured this vibe with its headline: “Covert Operations.”
What’s interesting is that many of the anti-Koch groups are working the other side of the same street: they, too, are getting behind-the-scenes money from a billionaire, except that of course their rich dude is a good guy, a man of the left: George Soros.
Politico reports that several such organizations, including Common Cause, the Ruckus Society and the Center for American Progress, have received more than $7 million from foundations linked to Soros. And those foundations have given another pile of money to other Koch-bashers such as the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way.
Some of these groups, Politico notes, “are beneficiaries of a liberal donor network that meets in secret twice a year — very much like the Koch donor network.”
The sudden attention to the Kochs can be seen as one byproduct of Obama’s election and the issue mix he has pursued. Before Obama, the Kochs operated in relative obscurity in part because they are libertarians, a relatively narrow slice of the ideological spectrum.
But an agenda suddenly dominated by issues like health care and cap and trade triggered visceral opposition from the entire right wing: economic conservatives, social conservatives, small-government advocates — and libertarians like the Kochs.
After Obama, the fissures dividing the normally fractious world of right-wing politics all but vanished, and the Kochs were suddenly important players in a united coalition.
In some respects, the Kochs make unlikely media villains. From what I read, they blame the Republicans as much as the Democrats for our bloated government. They favor gay marriage, drug legalization, a smaller defense budget and fewer U.S. foreign adventures.
And they seem to be good employers, judging by a piece last week by United Steelworkers Vice President Jon Geenen, who opposed plans for a boycott of Koch products.
The Kochs own Georgia Pacific, and according to Geenen its plants use advanced manufacturing technology, its workers are well-paid and the Kochs have “positive and productive collective bargaining relationships with its unions.”
What you see in the campaign against the Kochs is the left, once again acting out its conceit that its positions automatically define morality. Our billionaire money is good, yours is tainted. On Election Day next year, we’ll get a clue as to whether all this behind-the-scenes skirmishing made much difference in the outcome either way.