Follow the money: find it first.

Nearly 1,000 activists marched in Rancho Mirage, California this week, protesting outside an invitation-only strategy meeting of leading conservatives inside and outside government.  The demonstration, organized by labor and environmental activists, targeted the meeting’s hosts, billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.

For the better part of the past few decades, the Kochs have put serious money into funding the ideas and activities of the conservative movement, sponsoring think tanks, like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and activist groups, including Citizens for a Sound Economy and Americans for Prosperity–and many others.  The Kochs have put their money in support of their ideals (low taxes, limited government, minimal regulation) and their interests: they control the second largest privately held company in the United States, which holds several large energy companies.  Unsurprisingly, they’ve been particularly aggressive in attacking any effort to respond to climate change with regulation, activism, or taxation.  The Kochs have, over a long period of time, built the intellectual and organizational infrastructure of much of what became the Tea Party.  [Jane Mayer’s portrait of the Kochs, published last summer in the New Yorker, is an indispensable source on their political efforts.]

The protesters mean to expose the influence of big money in American politics.  And, to some degree, their effort worked.  Their demonstration, punctuated by the arrest of 25 protesters, brought more attention to the Kochs and their political efforts–exactly the visibility the brothers have worked hard to avoid.  But some serious money clearly went into opposing the Kochs.  Although I haven’t priced them recently, I don’t think blimps come cheap.

Conservative critics respond, what could be more American than investing in the politics of your ideas?  And they charge anti-Koch activists with a double standard, reflexively pointing to George Soros, the billionaire currency speculator who has put a great deal of money into causes he supports, many of them on the left of the political spectrum.

Reflexive charges of symmetry, accurate or not, are a staple of contested politics, going back, at least, to the school yard (no, you have cooties) and the back seat of the car (he hit me first).  But at least two differences between the billionaire activist funders are worth noting.  First, the Kochs’ ideology aligns very well with their business interests.  Disparaging climate change science and opposing environmental regulation, for example, is a good business strategy–at least for the short term, for companies invested in the oil industry.  I haven’t seen any reports about Soros’s politics working in the service of his business: currency speculation.

Second, Soros has hardly been a shrinking violet about publicity.  The groups he funds, including the Open Society Foundations, use his name and the websites often display his picture.  Soros lectures on his ideas frequently, sits for interviews with reporters, and has published several books detailing his ideas.

In contrast, while the Kochs are not shy about taking credit for their philanthropic contributions to museums or the arts (for example, at the Smithsonian), they’ve tried to keep their political efforts, their ideas, and their interests, out of the public eye.  (Take a look at Americans for Prosperity‘s website and see if you can find Koch brothers’ support.  I couldn’t.  Perhaps they fear that some people would be less likely to buy Bounty towels if they knew their political provenance?)

In the short term, at least, getting mass media reports on Koch politics is a victory for the activities.  But last year’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee (2010), makes it harder to follow the money trail.

Meanwhile, according to Kenneth Vogel at Politico, the Kochs are coming to terms with inevitable visibility, hiring public relations experts to shape their public profile, and filing lawsuits against activists who tried to use satire, in the form of fake press releases, to draw attention to Koch Industries’ environmental policies.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Follow the money: find it first.

  1. Ken says:

    Thanks for article on this protest, and the link to the New Yorker article on the Koch’s. It’s not news on the east coast. I hadn’t heard of the Koch’s until last summer, but their reach seems far greater than Soros’. It’s good that people understand where the money comes from to finance some of the extreme ideas being circulated.

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