In some respects, the Koch Brothers in Daniel Schulman’s Sons of Wichita aren’t the caricatures of miserly billionaires or heartless oligarchs they are often depicted as. Though the four brothers were born into wealth, their father was always determined that his sons would not grow up to become “country club bums.” In order to prevent such a leisurely outcome, the Koch brothers spent their summers hard at work on the family property, settled their disputes with boxing matches, and cultivated bitter sibling rivalries that have endured throughout their adult lives. Though the Wichita Country Club was across the street from the family home, the boys did not spend idle summers lounging by the pool. As they’ve grown up, they’ve become generous philanthropists, giving to museums, cultural institutions, and medical research.
In other ways, however, the portrait drawn in Schulman’s book presents a life of tremendous privilege beyond what most Americans can imagine. Each of the four brothers was shipped off to a prestigious boarding school, attended an elite university in the northeast, and had their fortune assured by their share of the family business. Though the four worked hard, they certainly didn’t have to work their way up. Upon their father’s death, the company that passed into the brothers’ hands had revenues of $250 million. Nowadays, the brothers dabble in hobbies of the exceptionally wealthy, such as collecting art, historic estates, six-figure bottles of wine, and, at a cost of $68 million, winning the America’s Cup sailing race.
Schuman’s book is neither damning nor laudatory, but it does illuminate the motivations and beliefs of some of the most powerful political actors in the country. Though two of the brothers, Bill and Frederick, are no longer involved with the company and less involved politically, Charles and David have grown Koch Industries exponentially and become a legitimate political force as their wealth has reached astronomical levels. They are evangelicals of unrestrained campaign spending, founders of 501(c)’s and PACs, and the hosts of lavish fundraising getaways where America’s wealthiest dole out tens of millions of dollars to further their vision of economic freedom. At a November 2011 fundraiser headlined by Chris Christie, the brothers and their allies raised $70 million in a single weekend. To put that in perspective, President Obama’s campaign raised $10.9 million throughout that entire month. For the 2012 election, the Koch network raised at least $400 million, easily surpassing the $368 million John McCain raised for his 2008 presidential campaign.
The vision they seek to advance with this financial windfall is motivated more by libertarian values and a boundless faith in the free market than anything else. During the 1970s, Charles inhabited the fringes of libertarian thought, with the executive editor of a libertarian magazine he owned describing his political beliefs by saying “he seemed to me to be an anarchist” who was “contemptuous of government on every level.” Though his beliefs have moderated since that time, they are still rooted in a vision of minimal government, limited social programs, and the supremacy of the free market. David, though not quite as ideologically driven as his brother, actually ran as a vice presidential candidate on the libertarian ticket in 1980. Fittingly, he secured the slot after promising substantial donations to the campaign if he was chosen.
Since their days of diehard libertarianism, there seems to have been a drift towards more pragmatic considerations and a realization that to bring the country closer to their values, they would have to participate more actively in mainstream politics. With the industriousness and massive amounts of money that seem to characterize all Koch endeavors, they have done just that. And beyond simply participating in a political system awash with cash in the wake of Citizens United, they have made themselves some of the most powerful independent actors in American politics. The charge that the Tea Party is funded by secretive billionaires is often lobbied as a partisan barb, but there is an indisputable element of truth to it. The Koch’s network of political organization moved quickly to back the Tea Party by registering domains and setting up a text alert service to direct people to rallies, and has consistently funded a litany of Tea Party groups since. While there certainly no shortage of anti-Obama sentiment on the right, the Tea Party might have long ago choked on its own vitriol or slowly died out from lack of funding were it not for the continued financial support of the Kochs.
Overall, the scale of the Koch’s political network is truly staggering. Their constellation of advocacy groups, “social welfare” organizations, political action committees and a complex web of peripheral 501(c) organizations are once again awash with “dark money” for the 2014 election. How much will likely remain unknown to the public, although Politico reported last week that the budget has been set at $290 million. This will be used to advance the agenda of two men who, by any objective measure, have a political ideology that is well outside the mainstream. There are tens of millions of Americans who would like to see a smaller government, but relatively few would embrace the minimal government that the Kochs have championed for years. They are, after all, two men who can afford to advocate against the minimum wage, against health care, and against social security, because they have never been in a position to worry about any of these things. Ideology often finds its most vigorous champions amongst those who can afford it.