3 Things You Should Know About Koch-Brand Conservatism as 2016 Nears
Politically speaking, the country is as divided as it has ever been. This has no doubt come about, at least in part, as a result of competing media outlets, each offering an echo chamber of sorts in which the same ideas and ideologies are used to present the news, discuss policy matters, and of course, decide who’s to blame for the world’s current woes.
With the most recent elections in the rear-view mirror, we’re now likely to indulge in fierce and intense debate about what should happen next, and also start hearing some very preliminary predictions for what awaits during the next presidential election in 2016. Naturally, that debate will be fueled by the media, which is in turn fueled by sources of its own. At the top of the food chain — if you follow the money all the way back through the super PACs, the think tanks, and grassroots community organizations — you’ll find a handful of incredibly wealthy donors and special-interest groups.
Political donors, the ones with immense capital reserves anyway, are who fund many super PACs, think tanks, and political campaigns. Both the Democrats and Republicans have their own army of donors, with labor unions and liberal-leaning celebrities usually posting up for the Dems and pro-business conservative billionaires funding the Republicans.
But one name seems to draw more ire than all others: Koch.
Charles and David Koch, commonly referred to as “the Koch brothers”, are the owners of Koch Industries, a multi-national corporation based in Wichita, Kan., that dabbles in everything from chemical manufacturing and energy production to commodities trading and ranching. Together, the Koch brothers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, influencing political campaigns and funding think tanks, dark money groups and political action committees to push their pro-business, right-wing agenda. During the 2012 election cycle alone, the Kochs raised $400 million for political campaigns, and have weaved an enormously complex system and network throughout the political and economic landscape.
More recently, the Koch brothers have made even more waves by announcing plans to spend as much as $889 million during the 2016 campaign cycle, a figure that the New York Times notes is completely unprecedented and rivals what both parties typically spend during a campaign cycle overall.
“It’s no wonder the candidates show up when the Koch brothers call,” said David Axelrod, a former Obama adviser, told The New York Times. “That’s exponentially more money than any party organization will spend. In many ways, they have superseded the party.”
Most people are familiar with the name, but what exactly are the Koch brothers trying to accomplish? What is it behind their specific brand of conservatism that outrages so many on the left, and draws in so many on the right? The ideology isn’t terribly complex, and mostly boils down to a few central points.
1. Identification of factions
The Koch ideology essentially separates people into the three traditional groups: conservatives, liberals, and moderates. By placing every single individual within one of these three distinct camps already oversimplifies things, but that is just a part of the system, and is an easy way of visualizing the world strictly in terms of black, white, and gray.
Now, these three groups — that we can also refer to as the “freedom” third for conservatives, the “collectivist” third for liberals and the “non-ideological” third for moderates — really doesn’t bring anything new to the table. People are trained to think about political divisions in thirds, and that really plays an incredibly pivotal role in the entire political system. What each and every election usually boils down to is which side — the liberals or the conservatives — can manage to swing the most votes from the moderates. This becomes a type of ideological warfare, and most people enter the fray, or voting booth, knowing full well which side they’re on and can’t be swayed. But it’s figuring out the rest of those people, who are reluctant to identify their intended team, that’s the key to winning elections.
Traditionally, conservatives have held the advantage in terms of self-identification, but that hold is slipping. According to a Gallup poll from early 2014, 38% of Americans identify as conservatives and 23% identify as liberals. While that’s a considerable gap, it does appear to be closing. The more people identify with a certain ideology, the more polarized the country becomes. Gallup results show that over the past decade, Democrats have become increasingly more liberal, and Republicans have become much more conservative than before.
The important takeaway here is that people have preconceived notions about what these labels mean, and will stick to their ideologies oftentimes without listening to what the other side has to say. By feeding off of that polarization, big money donors like the Kochs can take advantage of the numbers, and use polarizing issues to garner up support for policies that fit into certain agendas.
2. The Plan of Attack
Simply put, The Kochs, and those subscribing to their ideological values, are trying to win over people from the middle third of the spectrum — the moderates. Naturally, they are doing so by attacking the remaining third — the liberals. Liberals, of course, do this as well, albeit in a different fashion. But liberal donors can’t match up in terms of capital to what the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, and other billionaire donors can provide for the right.
In order to initiate their plan of attack, the Kochs start off simple: by rebranding the opposition’s ideology. Instead of merely calling the other side “liberals,” many conservative candidates, Tea Party members, and right-wing media talking heads refer to them as “collectivists,” or “socialists.” Now, what the vast majority of Democrats and liberals believe in is not socialism, but simply a belief that government can be a tool that is used to do good in society, not simply out to take everyone’s guns, lock them up in FEMA trailers, and implement Sharia Law.
Getting back to the point, by rebranding their opponents as “collectivists,” it’s not difficult to then make the jump to fascism. Fascism is a form of radical right-wing governing that incorporates certain leftist elements. It has become a sort of default insult for those in government, especially when the government tends to overreach. What exactly “overreaching” entails, tends to become the key issue. For many people, including those in the Koch camp, overreaching — which tends to border on fascism or socialism, in their minds — can come in the form of taxation or minimum wage increases.
In fact, the minimum wage is one issue that Koch strategist Richard Fink decided to focus on during a speech called “American Courage: Our Commitment to a Free Society.” As The Huffington Post reports, Fink’s speech drew parallels between North Korea and President Obama’s plan to increase the federal minimum wage.
“Psychology shows that is the main recruiting ground for totalitarianism, for fascism, for conformism, when people feel like they’re victims,” Fink said. “So the big danger of minimum wage isn’t the fact that some people are being paid more than their value-added — that’s not great. It’s not that it’s hard to stay in business — that’s not great, either. But it’s the 500,000 people that will not have a job because of minimum wage.”
He continued, “We’re taking these 500,000 people that would’ve had a job, and putting them unemployed, making dependence part of government programs, and destroying their opportunity for earned success. And so we see this is a very big part of recruitment in Germany in the ’20s.”
While it’s likely true that raising the minimum wage would have some undesired consequences, planting the idea in people’s heads that it will lead to Nazi-style fascism is quite a stretch. In fact, by many measures, estimates say that raising the minimum wage wouldn’t have much of an effect at all on employment numbers. It’s probable that there likely would be people let go as businesses adjust, but would the United States turn into a fascist state because the minimum wage was increased to $10.10 per hour?
But, by putting these sort of hyperbolic ideas out there, the Kochs are not only telling conservatives what they want to hear — that liberals are lazy, government-dependent losers — but also convincing moderates that they don’t want to be like the liberals. The problem, it seems, is that many moderates aren’t buying in.
“When we focus on decreasing government spending, over-criminalization, decreasing taxes, it doesn’t do it, OK?” Fink said, “We’ve been reaching the [middle] third by telling them what’s important — what we think is important should be important to them. And they’re not responding and don’t like it, OK? Well, we get business — what do we do? We want to find out what the customer wants, right, not what we want them to buy.”
3. Who’s the good guy, and who’s the bad guy?
While nobody will disagree with the idea that fascism is a bad thing, the issue at hand is determining what fascism actually looks like. To the Kochs and those who share their ideology, fascism takes on the appearance of tax increases on the wealthy and mandated raises to the country’s lowest earners. In essence, by creating a welfare state or what closely resembles one, the United States will slip into a collectivist fascist brand of governance (and we all know how that’s turned out for every other nation that’s tried it).
That line of thinking, however, is what tickles liberals, and turns off so many moderates.
What composes the left-right political spectrum is not merely a straight line, but a circle. On this spectrum, the far right (fascism) and the far left (socialism) eventually find a meeting point. That is, how many conservatives see fascism being the end-result of an overly liberal state, and how many liberals see an unchecked capitalist state turning out as well. Essentially, both are means to the same end.
From a liberal viewpoint, capitalism and free market economics leads to fascism through the complete deregulation of the economy, privatization of the public sector, the destruction of unions and an overall avalanche of bad policies for the working class. This, in their eyes, leads to mass incarceration (think private prisons), large numbers of unemployed people, and a society that is ruled by the rich, for the rich. A society that seeks to serve only corporate interests.
On one hand, power is concentrated in the hands of a few ultra-powerful and wealthy politicians, and on the other, in the hands of a few ultra-powerful and wealthy businessmen. Two paths to the same destination.
What truly will work and allow the economy to grow and prosper is a combination of different elements from both ideological camps. That is how America has gotten to where it is today, with a seesawing between left- and right-leaning governments that keep each other in check. But what the Kochs want to do, along with those who share their worldview, is steer the country heavily to the right. That will have consequences other than what’s intended.
But this, in a nutshell, is the overall plan the Kochs want to implement. A combination of lowering taxes, lessening regulations and opening up the markets would likely be very good for business, but probably have some very negative effects for society. We’re seeing the effects of these kinds of drastic changes right now in the Koch’s home state of Kansas, as Governor Sam Brownback has slashed taxes for the wealthy and for businesses, while running the state into a deep hole.
That’s not to say that lowering taxes and regulations in certain cases won’t have a positive net effect. The key is to do so with balance and surgical precision. And the Kochs’ brand of conservative ideology is not exactly balanced or precise.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger