Shop Notes

Mayer: Kochs' influence felt across society

Posted: Feb. 26, 2016 | Tags: Koch brothers


The New Yorker

Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money,” reports on billionaire American families who have spent the last 30 years moving the country to the right: the oil-rich Charles and David Koch brothers; Richard Mellon Scaife of the Mellon banking and oil family; John M. Olin, from a chemical and munitions fortune; Harry and Lynde Bradley,  brothers who made money on defense contracts; the Coors family of brewing fame; the DeVos family, founders of Amway.

All share an interest in limited government, limited regulation, lower corporate taxes. “They said they were driven by principle, but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests,” Mayer wrote in her book, and backed by her research, she repeated the point in a conversation last week at American University with students, faculty, staff and the community.

The Workshop’s Executive Editor, Charles Lewis, led Mayer, author of three best-selling books and a New Yorker staff writer, through the history of the Kochs, once considered on the far right of the Republican Party, but who have, in effect, made their libertarian views seem more palatable and mainstream.


Photo by Shaun Schroth, School of Communication

Workshop Executive Editor Chuck Lewis talks to Jane Mayer about her new book, “Dark Money," and the influences of the super-rich on the political process.

“If you boil it down, their message is: Government is bad. Private industry is good. Regulations are bad,” she said, citing their interest particularly in eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mayer wrote about the Kochs’ influence on inaction on climate change in 2013, following the publication of a report by the Workshop into the Kochs’ charitable and political giving over a five-year period. That analysis found that the Kochs gave tens of millions of dollars to the arts, humanities, medicine, colleges and universities, think tanks and youth organizations — in addition to politics. This influence throughout society was so pervasive, that the Kochs spent more than $14 on lobbying, nonprofits and education for every $1 they gave directly to politicians.

And one of the biggest issues about the money, particularly in politics, is the lack of transparency. “Most of it has been sidelined into these secret groups,” Mayer said, referring to loopholes in federal laws as well as the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which allows companies to spend as much as they want to support or oppose individual candidates.

“From their standpoint, politicians are just actors who are spouting lines. And the key to changing America is to write the script. And so how do you get to write the script? Well, you have to change kind of the whole way elite opinion is formed in the country,” she said.

Mayer said the Kochs, like the other families she writes about in the book, took to heart Lewis Powell’s 1971 memo, “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.”  The memo became a "blueprint" for the Koch brothers to move their conservative ideas into the mainstream and to try to influence politics at every level.

They followed the Powell plan: “… (what) you’ve got to change is the people who write editorials in the newspaper, the professors at the universities, scientists who are putting out studies, the preachers in the pulpits, and as much as anything else, the judges in the courts,” she said.

And as the Republican slugfest continues in 2016, where are the Kochs? Are they tapping into their $889 million war chest to influence what has already been an unexpected presidential-primary season? 

“They’re on the sidelines, waiting to see which candidate emerges as the best chance of knocking off Hillary Clinton,” Mayer said.

She added that businessman and reality-TV star Donald Trump “must be very perplexing to them.”

Trump has described other candidates who have begged for money from the Kochs as “puppets,” and she said, “He makes a great point of saying he’s a billionaire in his own right, and doesn’t need other billionaires’ backing.”

And for those who think there is no connection between Trump and the Kochs: Mayer said to look at Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s work history: He was previously the New Hampshire director of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-affiliated group. 

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