If the Koch brothers didn't exist, the left would have to invent them. They're the plutocrats from central casting – oil-and-gas billionaires ready to buy any congressman, fund any lie, fight any law, bust any union, despoil any landscape, or shirk any (tax) burden to push their free-market religion and pump up their profits.
But no need to invent – Charles and David Koch are the real deal. Over the past 30-some years, they've poured more than 100 million dollars into a sprawling network of foundations, think tanks, front groups, advocacy organizations, lobbyists and GOP lawmakers, all to the glory of their hard-core libertarian agenda. They don't oppose big government so much as government – taxes, environmental protections, safety-net programs, public education: the whole bit. (By all accounts, the Kochs are true believers; they really buy that road-to-serfdom stuff about the the holiness of free markets. Still, you can't help but notice how neatly their philosophy lines up with their business interests.) They like to think of elected politicians as merely "actors playing out a script," and themselves as supplying "the themes and words for the scripts." Imagine Karl Rove’s strategic cunning, crossed with Ron Paul’s screw-the-poor ideology, and hooked up to Warren Buffett's checking account, and you’re halfway there.
For years, the brothers shunned the spotlight. David Koch used to joke that the family business, the Wichita, Kansas-based Koch Industries – with annual revenues* estimated at $100 billion, it's the second-biggest private firm in America – was "the largest company you’ve never heard of." But when Barack Obama became president, the Kochs, like a lot of right-wingers, flipped out. They threw their weight behind a stealth campaign to turn back the president’s "socialist" agenda: They were early backers, some say puppet masters, of the Tea Party movement, and when the tea-infused GOP retook the House in the famous midterm "shellacking" of 2010, it was with a big assist from Koch money. (They later blessed the brief, ill-fated presidential run of Tea Party-favorite Herman Cain. That's how crazy – or cynical – these guys are.) Progressive activists and the news media started paying attention – most notably ThinkProgress and Jane Mayer of The New Yorker – and pretty soon the Kochs had become the poster boys of "the 1 percent" and a surefire fundraising tool for the Democratic Party; at the mere mention of the Koch name, liberal wallets fall open.
Now the Kochs are the subject of a blistering (but to all appearances factual) documentary by the activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald. Koch Brothers Exposed aims to show how the brothers' machinations affect the lives of "living, breathing human beings," as Greenwald put it to me at the film’s New York premiere in late March. "When I learned about the damage the Kochs were doing to our democracy, I wanted to make sure more Americans understood what they're up to."
On the evidence of Koch Brothers Exposed, the more relevant question is: What aren't they up to? The film – scrappy and low-budget, but effective all the same – weaves together a string of shorter videos produced over the past year by Greenwald’s nonprofit Brave New Films, each looking at a separate tentacle of the "Kochtopus," as lefty wags have dubbed the Kochs' network. It recounts how the brothers have:
• helped fund efforts to undo a model diversity policy in the Wake County school system in North Carolina, effectively resegregating the district – part of a larger campaign, the film alleges, to weaken the public school system and prepare the way for widespread privatization;
• pushed voter ID laws – purportedly aimed at combating ballot fraud but really designed to keep Democrats from voting – through their financial support for the American Legislative Exchange Council, an increasingly radioactive business group specializing in the drafting of corporate-friendly pick-up-and-pass legislation for state lawmakers. (ALEC is also behind the insane "Stand Your Ground" gun laws at issue in the Trayvon Martin shooting case);
• pumped millions of dollars into more than 150 colleges and university in exchange for control over hiring and curriculum decisions, to ensure students will be exposed to the free-market fundamentalism of Ayn Rand, Freidrich von Hayek and like minds;
• bankrolled a coordinated campaign to swing public opinion in favor of privatizing Social Security, deploying Koch-funded think tanks, experts, and pundits to spread the myth that the program is on the brink of bankruptcy.
(Greenwald might equally well have documented Koch-funded efforts to repeal Obama's health care law, deny climate change, undermine collective-bargaining rights, or block Wall Street reform, but there's only so much a single film can cover.)
All diabolical stuff, from the liberal point of view. Of course, you might want to argue that even if the scale of the Kochs' doings puts them in a league of their own, they're just exercising their constitutional right to play politics at the platinum level, like plenty of other high rollers on the right (and on the left, for that matter). Which of course gets at the basic problem – the gigantic power of money in American politics makes a joke of our democracy. And, for sure, without ever touching the subject directly Greenwald's film makes a powerful case for campaign finance reform, by showing the malign sway a couple of rich guys with radical views can have over millions of lives. But Greenwald isn't just saying the system is rotten, or that the Kochs are wrong (though he is saying both); he wants to persuade us – viscerally – that these guys are bad.
He makes a strong circumstantial case. The film brings us to Penn Road in Crossett, Arkansas, a low-income black community where, by all appearances, the residents who haven't already died from cancer are stuck at home, tethered to oxygen tanks. Could all this death and illness have anything to do with the stream of stinking toxic waste water out back oozing downstream from the Koch-owned Georgia-Pacific plant? The residents sure think so. A woman named Dolores Wimberley sobs at the grave of her non-smoking, non-drinking 43-year-old daughter, who died of lung cancer, and says, "I feel that Georgia Pacific and Koch is responsible for my daughter’s death."
Koch Industries vehemently denies any responsibility for the cancer deaths in Crossett and touts its environmental record as "exemplary." As ThinkProgress and others have documented, it is not: Koch Industries has been named one of the top ten worst polluters in the country and found criminally liable in more than one pollution-related case, including one involving the discharge of (carcinogenic) benzene. And, wouldn't you know, the company has lobbied hard to prevent the E.P.A. from classifying formaldehyde, produced in huge quantities by none other than Georgia-Pacific, as a "known carcinogen" in humans.
Greenwald lays it on a bit thick here and there, but that's kind of the point. "A lot of progressives really believe that if we can turn out one more white paper with bullet points about how to fix Problem X, we can fix it," Greenwald says. "But that's not primarily the way you reach people or move them. You reach the heart first. What I always try to do is make the political personal."
But you have to ask: Who’s going to watch, or even hear about, Koch Brothers Exposed? The film isn't being released to theaters, since Greenwald reckoned few moviegoers would be willing to pony up $10 or more to see a no-frills documentary about a couple of oldster ideologues, however powerful or well researched. So to get the word out Brave New Films has teamed up with 40-plus progressive membership organizations and labor unions to form a far-flung anti-Koch coalition. The idea is that groups and individuals will hold screenings everywhere from their homes to bowling alleys, church basements, college campuses, and union halls. "The ultimate goal," Greenwald told Alternet, another partner, is "organize, organize — and then, organize." (Lefty activists are notoriously single-issue, but the all-enveloping reach of the Kochtopus makes opposing the brothers something all liberals can get behind: education, environment, labor rights, campaign finance, corporate malfeasance – everyone’s cause is on the line.) Available via streaming outlets and cable video-on-demand starting May 8, the film has the potential at least to reach beyond the choir into millions of American homes.
Have the Kochs caught Greenwald's flick? It has certainly crossed their radar. Google "Koch Brothers Exposed" and the first thing you see is a paid text ad that reads, "YouTube propagandist-for-hire dishonestly attacks Koch for cash." It links to Kochfacts.com, the company’s all-purpose damage-limitation website. A lawyer for Koch industries recently fired off a statement to Deadline Hollywood saying, "Mr. Greenwald's statements are maliciously false and misleading, and we urge the news media not to republish them," conveniently forgetting that the news media (from The New Yorker to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times) is a major source of Greenwald's information. The film maker is pushing back with his Top Ten Koch Facts and a busy media schedule.
Whether or not Greenwald’s film reaches its hoped-for audience, we can expect to hear plenty about the Koch brothers this campaign season. Obama and the Democrats are going to make the election a referendum on a Republican Party hijacked by ideological zealots, 1 percenters, and religious nuts – we’re a long way from hope and change here – and the Kochs make a handy proxy for two out of the three. Team Obama regularly beats the Koch drum in their fundraising emails, leading to an angry public back-and-forth recently between a Koch lieutenant and the president's campaign manager. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney has been discreetly courting the Kochs, who backed him for president in 2008 and are said to have pledged to raise $100 million to defeat Obama. As Greenwald put it in a recent interview, Charles and David Koch "are going to do everything their money will allow them to do to influence this election negatively."
*Correction: This sentence originally stated that Koch Industries' annual profits are estimated at $100 billion. It should of course have read "annual revenues."