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To many of their critics they are almost evil incarnate. The fabulously wealthy industrialists, Charles and David Koch, are accused of corrupting US politics for the benefit of the super-rich and the detriment of ordinary Americans. They have, in this view, promoted a dense web of pro-free market organisations in an attempt to distort political debate to further their own narrow commercial ends.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Random House) is essentially a dossier written for those who share that perspective. Jane Mayer, who has worked as an investigative journalist for The New Yorker for more than two decades, has written an exhaustive study of the brothers’ attempt to influence public opinion. There is little if any attempt to persuade the non-partisan.
No doubt most if not all of what Mayer says is true. Indeed, in outline at least, much of it is uncontentious: the Koch brothers are fabulously wealthy (about $43bn each, according to the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires); they have long used part of their wealth to support think-tanks; and they have close connections with like-minded billionaires. Mayer dubs this network the “Kochtopus” to describe its many-tentacled approach.
In recent years, the brothers have come to play a more central role in influencing US electoral politics. In practice, this has meant supporting candidates who are on what could be defined as the radical right of the Republican party.
Dark Money is for those who want more detail. It outlines the family’s history including a guilt-by-association revelation that the brothers’ father Fred, the founder of the dynasty, had business links with Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. It explores how the brothers moved from a position of keeping a distance from mainstream politics — in 1980, David stood as the Libertarian party candidate to be vice-president of the US — to close involvement. It also outlines the numerous organisations and individuals through which the Koch brothers promote their world view.
For the non-partisan reader, the obvious question is likely to be one of double standards. Although there is no doubt that the Kochs support conservative causes (at least if that term is misleadingly defined to include libertarianism) what about the wealthy backers of liberal movements (in the American sense)?
Dark Money addresses this objection several times but only in passing. Mayer mentions that Barack Obama and the Clintons have received substantial financial backing from Wall Street titans. She also points to George Soros as an example of a billionaire who has supported many liberal causes. Her riposte is that the conservatives spend much more in the aggregate to influence the political process and they are more secretive.
The more interesting question is the exact nature of Mayer’s objection to the Kochs. A careful reading of the book makes this clear. Fundamentally, she seems to be suggesting that it is that the brothers influence politics in order to pursue their own commercial interests. Their promotion of free market ideas is, in her view, designed to benefit their business. But this begs the question of what she expects them to do. It would certainly be perverse to argue they should campaign against their own interests.
There is a long history of political realism, going back to ancient Greece, that sees politics as fundamentally a question of interests. The organised political sphere in a democracy provides a forum in which competing interests can be peacefully resolved.
Mayer does not explicitly spell out an alternative in Dark Money but her preferences are clear. She makes numerous references to the disinterested views of highly educated experts on subjects ranging from economics to climate change. Yet the public often dislikes such experts for good reason. These functionaries are frequently wrong, a possibility Mayer naively discounts, and they all too often take a disdainful view of the mass of the population.
If conservative billionaires such as the Kochs or Donald Trump are enjoying political success it is because their opponents fail to offer an inspiring vision. Rather than obsessing over the influence of the super-rich, the critics should reflect on their own failure to project an alternative.
The writer is the author of ‘Ferraris for All’ (Policy Press, 2012)