Tag Archives: Koch brothers

Political scientists discuss the Koch Brothers

During 2015 the Koch Network (a network of donors that is organized by the Koch Brothers) spent nearly $400 million to influence politics. That compares to the $404 million spent by the RNC and the $319 million spent by the DNC during the entire 2012 cycle. Increasingly, the Koch Network resembles a political party, with its own research and mobilization operations, as well as sophisticated data analytics that many candidates believe to be superior to the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) data capabilities. In addition, the Koch Network has begun vetting, cultivating and supporting candidates to run for office, fulfilling more party-like aspects.

To gain deeper insights on the Koch Brothers, who have been active in politics for more than three decades, and their network, I interviewed three distinguished political scientists. Alex Hertel-Fernandez has spent years studying the Koch Networkwith Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol. Brian Schaffner is a professor of political science at U-Mass Amherst and is considered a leading expert on campaign finance. His latest book, “Campaign Finance and Political Polarization: When Purists Prevail” is discussed here. Heath Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He previously authored a book “The Tea Party Divided: The Hidden Diversity of a Maturing Movement,” about the origins of the Tea Party, and has an upcoming book on money in the political system.

Together we discuss the long-term strategy of the Koch Brothers, how the decline of the GOP has strengthened Trump and how to reduce the influence of money in politics.

Alex, could you lay out the three-pronged strategy of the Koch brothers, their overarching strategy to push their agenda?

Alex Hertel-Fernandez: I think an important thing to know is that the strategy has changed over time. They started off much more interested in ideas and funding think-tanks and academics through organizations like Cato and the Mercatus Center in the 1970s and ’80s. Then they switched gears to focus more on policy advocacy during the Clinton administration with organizations like Citizens for a Sound Economy and, later, at the 60 Plus Association and the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Then you’ve seen kind of a new innovation in the form of AFP [Americans For Prosperity], which was spun off of Citizens for a Sound Economy, where they’re not just lobbying in D.C., but they actually had a federated grassroots presence across the state. We think this is a really key innovation on the part of the Koch Network. They’re able to have this centrally directed organization, where the priorities are set from above, from the Koch’s inner circle of political leaders, but they have grassroots members in these chapters across the states and paid staffers at both the state and the regional levels, so they have the capacity to intervene both in state and national politics in that way.

I think the final move that the Kochs have made that’s important to know is moving to coordinating donors. They’ve moved from giving simply their own money into politics into corralling other wealthy conservative donors to give to their network and supporting organizations that they’ve created and are maintaining over time. These are the twice-yearly Koch seminars that now are putting together several hundred millionaires and billionaires who are right-leaning.

And where we’ve seen policy shifts at the state level coming from the Kochs? Where would their big wins be?

A.H.F.: I think two areas that I can speak to are Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, and then labor policies, which are two areas I’ve looked at with Theda and with another co-author in the case of Medicaid. We looked at these battles of whether or not the state would expand Medicaid to cover newly uninsured adults who were previously ineligible for the program and, it turns out, that Americans for Prosperity has been one of the key organizations pushing back against expansion in the state. What’s remarkable is that, in many cases, they’re lobbying precisely the GOPers that they helped to elect. I think Tennessee gives us a good example of this. Andrew Ogles is the AFP director there, who worked to elect many of the state’s legislative GOP members in the past electoral cycle and then immediately pivoted to joining the AFP and pushing them to reject expansion of Medicaid. That’s one area where you’ve seen [policy shifts], because that network’s been ineffective at pushing the state-level policy. The other one is right-to-work law as another measure to cut back public sector labor unions. We found that one of the best predictors of where you saw these cuts in 2011 passing legislatures was where AFP had the stronger presence and where they really made public sector labor unions a priority.

Right. Brian, I’m actually curious about your research on the state level. Do you think that there are big impacts coming from campaign contributions at the state level? Has the environment changed in the last few years with wealthy people mobilizing? What are your thoughts there, in terms of what we can gain from the research that you’ve done and other people have done?

Brian Schaffner: Yes. We can look at that several-decades time span in our book. Issue groups played significant roles in terms of campaign contributions but they were actually relatively small group compared to business interest, union interest and parties. In the more recent periods, the more recent decade, the issue groups like the Koch Brothers and other kinds of organizations like that have started giving more money in the state races. They tend to get to more extreme candidates and, also, the independent spending by these groups has taken off quite a bit and it’s been quite pronounced in a lot of states.

Does that spending correlate with wins? That is, are the Koch brothers getting a return on their investment? I’m specifically thinking of 2010 and 2014, this has been crippling for the Democrats. We expect losses off-cycle, but is there any possibility that the massive amount of spending has exacerbated those losses? What’s your read on the literature there?

B.S.: Well, I mean, it’s hard to say to what extent that matters compared to the simple changes of turnout and redistricting and another kinds of things that were happening at the same times. I hesitate to say that this is all the result of any one given force.

You think there’s evidence that this has had an impact?

B.S.: Sure. There are races, marginal races, in which these investments have I’m sure had to play some role in terms of moving a few legislative districts or a few state races that might’ve gone the other way.

Heath, you have studied the Tea Party and there’s sort of a running debate as to whether the Tea Party is a grassroots movement or a very corporate donor-class movement, driven by people like the Koch brothers, and your take is that it’s both; what is your read on the Tea Party and how it’s affecting politics?

Heath Brown: Well, I think your take is right. What I found in the book is what others have found, that there have been these two things going on. The Tea Party is sort of a name that we call a certain dimension of a much longer tradition that goes back to maybe the 1940s or so. The Koch brothers, in some way, have entered into the Tea Party phenomenon in 2009, 2010, 2011. But they were around, funding groups that preceded the Tea Party, that supported the Tea Party and will last past when the Tea Party is no longer called the Tea Party. That, I think, is going on but, at the very same time, the grassroots work that has very little association with big money, has very little association with the Koch brothers, it’s also a very real phenomenon.

They just so happen to use a lot of the intellectual stuff that’s been created by organizations like Cato and all the others that are around them. In that way, even if the grassroots, or grassroots organizations, and grassroots activists who have never received a dollar from any of the Koch brothers’ associated organizations, they still have been deeply influenced by the intellectual infrastructure that has been built over the last 30 to 40, even longer, years. I think that influence can be absorbed in tangible ways with dollars given to organizations, but also in much less tangible ways with simply the array of policies that have been a part of the Tea Party agenda since 2009.

Right. For this next part, I want to focus on the Koch brothers and the GOP. We’re seeing divides, but also a lot of cooperation here. Alex, I can see both arguments in your research. The GOP hates the Koch brothers because they can’t control the Koch brothers, and they create their own movements and sometimes publicly go against the GOP. But at the same time, the GOP should like the Koch brothers because they’re spending tons and tons of money to get Republicans elected. What do you think the relationship is between the Koch brothers and the GOP? Who’s gaining power? Who’s losing it? What’s going on there?

A.H.F.: It’s a tricky thing to wrap your head around. We struggled with it ourselves, because on the one hand, as you noted, the Koch Network has at this point built its own parallel operation that in many ways looks like the GOP and on some metrics is even larger than the GOP when it comes to staffers across the state at this point. It’s spending across all of its activities in the next electoral cycle, grassroots advocates who are on the ground and on the states on which AFP is operating and so on, so forth.

But on the other hand, as you mentioned, they are working with the GOP in order to advance their agenda, so the way we described it is as a force-field operating to the right of the GOP, pressuring them and pushing them further to the right, while taking advantage of this intertwined infrastructure. One thing that we noted about the Koch Network and AFP in particular is that many of the people who staffed the Koch Network have come from posts at the GOP. A large proportion of the people who are serving as directors of state chapters at AFP have previously served for state Republican lawmakers, on campaigns and whatnot, and will go back into GOP politics. These are closely intertwined organizations, and I think that’s a source of strength for the Koch Network. As I mentioned in the previous example of Tennessee, when this Andrew Ogles was tapped to lead the opposition to the Medicaid expansion, he knew exactly where to push because he had been helping elect all of the GOP folks in the legislature in the previous cycle. It’s a source of strength for the Kochs.

But from the perspective of the GOP, it’s a problem because it’s weakening their capacity to set agendas, defied candidates that they support, independently of these party groups. As we show in the changing organizational resources work that we’ve done, I think you stated that in the other piece, we were talking about that. The GOP does simply control fewer resources to direct towards politics than it once did, and a big, big part of that is that more money is flowing through the Koch Network.

Are we going see more outright antagonism between the GOP and the Koch Network? Or are we just starting to see it?

B.S.: I think the point of pressure that you’re going to see is not between the Koch Network and the institutional GOP per se, but it’s between the Koch Network and other longstanding members of the GOP coalition. Business, for instance. The Chamber of Commerce by all accounts is quite conservative; it’s taken really a hard right turn since the 1990s and yet it’s finding itself increasingly in tension with the Koch Network. The Koch Network has opposed things like a farm bill, infrastructure spending, export-import bank most recently, and these are all things that Chamber, however conservative, is supportive of. These are things that businesses want and need to maintain their revenues. I think you’re going to see more tensions like that where, especially in the business community, part of their folks were opposing the sort of priorities that the Kochs are pushing.

Right. Brian, can you sort of give me an overview of what you see has happened to the parties in the last few years and how your book shows that campaign finance has really been interwoven into the story?

B.S.: The parties have really taken quite a hit in the last several years, but I think part of that is that these Supreme Court decisions have really opened up pathways for money to come in in every way except through parties. So all the parties continue to be highly regulated, in terms of both disclosure and limitations on what they can support or how much money they can raise — these other groups are able to do almost whatever they want, and so it’s not surprising then to find that you’re getting a parallel party organization built alongside the Republican party that’s sometimes cooperating with the party, but sometimes fighting against the party. It’s really been to the detriment of the mainstream party and, as we argue, the ability of parties to compromise, because when the money comes in through outside groups, those groups are primarily interested in particular policy being passed, whereas the parties are, first and foremost, interested in [winning] elections so they’re willing to compromise what they think is going to be some of the electoral benefits from it.

But what we find, the groups run by, for example, the Koch brothers are not very interested in compromise. They’re very interested in seeing their policies pass. So, I think that’s been a huge deal in terms of both undermining the party organization and ultimately undermining compromise in terms of political process.

Heath, I want to direct this one to you. Brian, you can jump in too because you’re a big party partisan, you’re a fan of parties. I think political scientists really like parties, but most people don’t understand this. The idea that parties have to respond to voters and the Koch brothers don’t; at the end of the day, the Koch brothers have to run candidates who win primaries, right? When I’m reading Jane Mayer, most of what they do is they run ads, very bad ads, very deceiving ads. At the end of the day, they can still claim, if they want to, “Hey, all we’re doing is running candidates and winning elections.” Why do you think that we should be worried about the rise of extra-party organizations that are owned and operated by a very powerful billionaire network?

H.B.: I would say a couple of things. To me, one of the pieces of this is the question of political transparency, and it seems like, as much as anything else, the Koch brothers have gone and exposed the big gap, the regulatory gap that exists in how we think about disclosure of political money. Many of the ways in which the Koch brothers and others seek out influence is through the least transparent possible ways. Campaign contributions seems to be just one small part of the way in which they seek influence, and most of the other ways that they seek influence are highly non-transparent. I think that would be one of the reasons why I would be worried, is that the way in which they’re seeking out power really stands outside of the ways we have thought about tracking influence and tracking money. That would be one of the things that I would raise.

One of the others is going back to one of the earlier points, about some of the overlap between the parties in the ways in which certain social conservatives and Christian conservatives have found it very difficult to find common cause with some of the platforms that the Koch brothers have backed. Marijuana legalization, gay rights, reproductive rights, are all either not part of the agenda that they have been pushing or, in some ways, have been counter to the longstanding positions of Christian conservatives. I think that’s another way in which Republican Party politics has had to struggle with the rise of the Koch brothers’ institutions.


B.S.: Can I just emphasize one of Heath’s points, which is that I think one of the really critical and key differences is that parties can be held accountable in the way that these third-party groups cannot be. Parties are enduring institutions and they’re uniquely on the ballot in every election. If you think about the research, for example, on attack ads: if a candidate attacks another candidate with an ad, there’s the possibility that they themselves will be punished for being too negative or too harsh. The Koch brothers don’t have to worry about that. They’re not on the ballot. They can do things, be harsh, they can attack, they can be deceitful without any kind of electoral recourse because they can hide behind the guise that they’re not the candidate, they’re not on the ballot. Whereas parties are on the ballot so they can be openly held accountable for the ways in which they raise or spend campaign [funds], the things they do during campaigns.

A.H.F.: That’s a great point. I’d also say that, in addition to not being on the ballot, elections aren’t the only thing that they care about, as Heath mentioned. This is one in a long list of goals that they hope to achieve. They’re active both in the election but then after the election as well, with whoever is elected, pushing them to adopt the policies they prefer. It’s not just about elections for them.

Definitely. I want to conclude with the question of what do you do about the Kochs? What policies should we pursue? Do we need more journalists investigating this? Would disclosure also help with that? Alex, if you had to say, given the current composition of the Supreme Court, where do you think the best push is? If I wanted something that’s really politically possible. Where can we make inroads on the influence of big money in politics?

A.H.F.: Given the present political realities of the Supreme Court and of Congress right now, it seems like the best hope would be for people who disagree with the Koch Network to organize in the same ways that the Kochs have organized. A key leverage point for the Koch Network has been, at the state level, progressives and left-leaning groups have traditionally lacked a lot of capacity to lobby across the states simultaneously. I think that’s one clear area where a stronger progressive organizational push could really pay off well. If you can’t pass legislation, the other alternative is just to out-organize.

Brian, I think I know what your solution is, but what do you think the solution to a problem like the Kochs is?

B.S.: We argued in the book that giving the parties more of the ability to compete on a level playing field would be a good start. Removing or increasing the contribution limits to and from parties would at least help them kind of play at the same game. The parties also have to feel a little more bold themselves. The political parties generally try to stay out of things like primaries. In some states they’re in fact mandated to do so. But if they want to really push back against these groups, I think they’re going to have to get more involved earlier in the election cycle to encourage the right candidates to run and try and get their preferred candidate on the general election ballot. We’re kind of seeing how this plays out when the party doesn’t get very involved, right now, in the Republican side of the presidential election.

Yes. That was actually the question I was going to ask. Is the Trump phenomenon the result of weaker parties? Whenever I read “The Party Decides” literature, they’re like “The party, the elites decide the nominee.” How? How do elites control the process? Is it just that the parties are too weak to make their will decide the nomination that we’re seeing with Trump?

B.S.: I think, on the Republican side of things, actually what you have now is a party whose influence has been so eroded by the kind of presence of things like the Tea Party and the Koch brothers, that they’re too scared to get involved, like the elites are too scared to try to influence this in any way. Either through endorsements, getting together, or whatever. It’s not clear to me that it would actually matter anyway because the perception of the Republican party amongst conservatives is so poisoned, I think, the last four or five years, that most conservatives think the party is a big sellout to moderation and that it’s the Tea Party and these other groups that are really holding forth the conservative ideals. I’m not even sure the party at this point, because they let their power erode so much, I’m not sure they actually could do anything if they wanted to, but they’re certainly not trying.

Just to finish it up, Heath. What do you think is the solution to the Koch brothers, big money in politics? What would you see as the first steps?

H.B.: My sense is that the Koch brothers aren’t all that interested in democratic politics. I think their ideology and their strategy is just that they are as interested in the inside baseball side of government as much as they are in the very public side of election campaigns. What I would think of as a first step is much more attention to the hidden side, to the policymaking process that most people don’t see, because there isn’t a whole lot of attention given to it compared to the amount of attention given to the electoral cycle.

One of the things that I said in the presidential transition, that the process, that day after the election ends and everybody goes home, attention shifts away from politics to all sorts of other things. I think I would want to pay a lot of attention to that time period because I suspect that a group, I think institutions like the Koch brothers, would realize whoever ultimately wins, they can influence policy outcome if they could influence that process and that process, and that process is a whole lot more predictable then the vagaries of elections. I would want much more attention and much more transparency around some of the hidden ways that policies are made because the most visible, public ways may not go as far to determine the outcome of politics and also the interests of the Koch Brothers. That’s partially the role the media might play and also has to do with the information that is collected about politics.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

The secrets behind the Koch brothers: Inside the remarkable new book that details their dirtiest deeds

Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” has already revealed many previously unknown facts about the Koch brothers in particular. For instance, reporting in the book forms the bulk of her latest New Yorker essay, showing that the Kochs’ newfound interest in criminal justice reform is primarily a front to boost their P.R. and to gut health and safety laws. In addition, the book shows that family patriach Fred Koch’s fortune was cemented by lucrative deals with Stalin, and was forged by providing crucial support to the Nazi regime. But even these stunning results only touch the surface of the interesting facts, some new and some expounded, in Mayer’s new book.

The Nazi Connection

One of the earliest revelations from the book was the New York Times reporting that Fred Koch partnered with Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis to build an oil refinery that was “a critical industrial cog in Hitler’s war machine.” This is damning enough, but other passages from the book are equally jarring. For instance, in 1938, Fred wrote that,

“Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard….”

Mayer argues that he preferred their work ethic to the laziness and government dependence he believed was caused by the New Deal. Later, he hired a German nanny for his two sons who was “a fervent Nazi sympathizer who frequently touted Hitler’s virtues.” To round out his wrongheadedness, Fred claimed that, “the colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” expressed admiration of Mussolini and aided Stalin early in his career.

Ideological Indoctrination

One of the crucial parts of the Koch strategy is creating an intellectual infrastructure for their libertarian ideas. Mayer lays out the long history of the wealthy buying their way into universities, focusing on John M. Olin’s strategy of funding programs for “Law and Economics” at prestigious universities. Olin, who believed that Marxism and Keynesianism were essentially the same, and claimed that liberalism and socialism were “synonymous,” aimed to reshape the university. Rather than an explicitly conservative course, he preferred the law and economics program because it didn’t appear ideological, but noted that “Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects.” He said later, “Law and Economics is neutral, but it has the philosophical thrust in the direction of free markets and limited government. That is, like many disciplined, it seems neutral, but it isn’t in fact.”

The Koch brothers are slightly less subtle, funding organizations like the Mercatus Center, which unabashedly support a plutocratic agenda. Mayer writes that George Pearson, an early Koch advisor, believed gifts to universities “didn’t guarantee enough ideological control.” He suggested that donors maintain control over hires. As of 2015, Mayer reports that the Kochs subsidized programs in 207 colleges and universities and were set to expand into 18 more. In some cases, such as West Virginia University and Florida State University, their foundations exert influence over hires. At Florida State, one student reported that the new introductory economics course included lessons that “sweatshop labor wasn’t bad,” and “climate change wasn’t caused by humans and isn’t a big issue.” A libertarian donor gave grants to 63 colleges to fund programs that were “required to teach his favorite philosopher, the celebrator of self-interest Ayn Rand.” In North Carolina, Art Pope funded think-tanks that pushed to cut public university budgets at the same time as he gave grants to support programs in “Western civilization and free-market economics.”

Even more disturbingly, the Koch brothers have recently been pushing their ideology into high schools. The curriculum teaches that,

“Franklin Roosevelt didn’t alleviate the Depression, minimum wage laws and public assistance hurt the poor, lower pay for women was not discriminator, and the government, rather than business caused the 2008 recession.”

Christina Wilkie and Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post report that the program, Young Entrepreneurs, which Charles and Elizabeth Koch founded in 1991, has expanded dramatically, with $1.45 million in assets in 2012. In 2012-2013, it was taught in 29 Kansas and Missouri schools, with plans to expand into 42.

Strategic Use of Racism

One of the dirtiest tactics on the right has long been the strategic use of racism for political gain. In his book on the subject, Ian Haney-Lopez argues that racism has been exploited to undermine the middle class. The Koch brothers and their network of organizations often stoop to low levels to ensure Republicans are elected.

Mayer reports that during now-Gov. Sam Brownback’s 1996 Senate race there was a “barrage of phone calls informing voters that his opponent Jill Docking, was a Jew.” According to later reporting from the Wall Street Journal, an operative on the Koch payroll was involved in the ads. Later, the American Future Fund, which “received more than 92 percent of its 2012 revenues from two organizations connected to Charles and David Koch,” became involved in an attack on former Democratic congressman Bruce Braley. The odious Koch-linked attack narrated,

“For centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now, they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero, where Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. It’s like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor.”

Mayer notes that David Koch accepts the crank theory pushed by Dinesh D’Souza that Obama is secretly influenced by his father’s anti-colonial agenda. She cites an interview Matthew Continetti had with David in which Continetti reports:

David agreed. “He’s the most radical president we’ve ever had as a nation,” he said, “and has done more damage to the free enterprise system and long-term prosperity than any president we’ve ever had.” David suggested the president’s radicalism was tied to his upbringing. “His father was a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “Obama didn’t really interact with his father face-to-face very much, but was apparently from what I read a great admirer of his father’s points of view. So he had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.

Random Factoids

Mayer’s book is frequently difficult to stomach: Learning how a powerful group of donors is engaging in a coordinated assault on American democracy is never easy. Nor is it easy to read about the children of Crossett, Arkansas, who stay inside breathing from respirators because of Koch Industry pollution. However, the book contains a slew of anecdotes that are at least somewhat humorous, which can ease reading. For instance, Mayer notes that,

“Susan Gore, heiress to the a piece of the Gore-Tex fabric fortune and founder of a conservative think tank… was so intent on increasing her personal inheritance that she tried to adopt her ex-husband.”

The goal was to increase the share of the family trust she would inherit. Mayer’s book also highlights how the conservative plutocratic movement have often bought off seemingly anti-establishment characters. She notes that Glenn Beck is paid more than a million dollars a year to read what is termed “embedded content,” which he says on air, “making it sound as if it were his own opinion.”

Interestingly, the Koch brothers were not always loved by leading conservative intellectuals. Mayer notes that William F. Buckley Jr. called their ideas “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.” As I’ve documented, such criticisms may return as the Koch brothers continue to threaten the power and influence of other powerful right-wing interests,like the Chamber of Commerce.


Mayer’s book draws from other works, like Daniel Schulman, Ken Vogel and the brilliant investigative journalist Lee Fang. However, it offers a comprehensive history, not just of the Koch brothers, but of early funders of the conservative movement, like the Richard Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin. In addition, it includes detailed document of Art Pope’s takeover of North Carolina, the powerful DeVos family and the depravity of John Menard Jr., who once labeled arsenic-tainted mulch as “ideal for playgrounds.” As the Koch network becomes on track to spend a small fortune on the 2016 election, their history and strategy becomes even more compelling.

This piece originally appeared on Salon. 

How to defeat the Koch brothers: Here’s what it could take to end their right-wing stranglehold

Over the last decade, the Koch brothers have taken an increasingly important role in American politics. Recent reporting as well as academic research suggests that the Kochs now control a network that will likely outspend the Republican National Committee in 2016, and has sophisticated data analytic capacities, as well as a surveillance operation. The Kochs fund organizations that create model bills, run get-out-the-vote operations and recruit candidates. That is, the Koch network shares all of the things a traditional party does, without being accountable to voters. The remedy, say two political scientists, is to shift the campaign finance landscape to strengthen parties. But any reform must include public financing.

The rise of the Kochs

Though they have been involved in politics for more than four decades, the Koch brothers only recently began participating directly in electoral politics. However, their operations have expanded quickly. A recent Politico report finds,

Koch and his brother David Koch have quietly assembled, piece by piece, a privatized political and policy advocacy operation like no other in American history that today includes hundreds of donors and employs 1,200 full-time, year-round staffers in 107 offices nationwide. That’s about 3½ times as many employees as the Republican National Committee and its congressional campaign arms had on their main payrolls last month, according to POLITICO’s analysis of tax and campaign documents and interviews with sources familiar with the network.

At the same time as the Koch brothers have expanded into electoral politics, traditional party organizations have become weaker. Political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who have studied organizations on the left and right extensively, find funding non-party organizations have increased dramatically on the right while the Republican Party has become weaker (see chart).



Hertel-Fernandez tells me,

“Political resources are now far less likely to flow through the official Republican committees than they were a decade ago. Instead, contributions are increasingly likely to go through outside groups. By far, the most prominent of these extra party funders is the array of groups directed by the Koch brothers.”

Their research aligns with extensive work by journalists. In his 2014 book, “Big Money,” Kenneth Vogel writes of the Koch network,

“Intentionally or not, this new system has eroded the power of the official parties that have rigidly controlled modern politics for decades… The result is the privatization of a system that we’d always thought of as public-a hi-jacking of American politics by the ultra-rich.”

Dan Balz notes that,

“When W. Clement Stone, an insurance magnate and philanthropist, gave $2 million to Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign, it caused public outrage and contributed to a movement that produced the post-Watergate reforms in campaign financing. Accounting for inflation, that $2 million would equal about $11 million in today’s dollars.”

In 2015, the Koch brothers revealed a spending goal of $889 million for their network, nearly 81 times more than Stone, and far more than the $657 million that the Republican Party spent in 2012. In her book “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer argues that this has long been a goal for some on the right, writing that Karl Rove “had long dreamed of creating a conservative political machine outside the traditional parties’ control that could be funded by virtually unlimited private fortunes.”

But Rove’s goal may soon become a nightmare. While most people have focused on the part of the GOP’s post-election autopsy that worried about its overwhelmingly white base, a more important nugget may well be its discussion of the increasing power of donors. The document reads,

“The current campaign finance environment has led to a handful of friends and allied groups dominating our side’s efforts. This is not healthy. A lot of centralized authority in the hand of a few people at these outside organizations is dangerous for our party.”

Take the Medicaid expansion, which has been stunted by powerful political interests, despite rather strong public support. Hertel-Fernandez, Theda Skocpol and Daniel Lynch find that while GOP governors and business groups were favorable to the Medicaid expansion, Koch-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and AFP (Americans for Prosperity) fought vigorously against it (I’ve discussed this work here). As the Koch brothers grow stronger, there will be more fights between the GOP and this increasingly powerful and unaccountable family.

Meanwhile, Ken Vogel reports that in 2014, the Chamber of Commerce “considered wading into the 2014 Republican primary in a major way.” Their goal: “ousting tea party conservatives and replacing them with more business-friendly pragmatists.” Vogel cites Club for Growth president Chris Chocola who criticizes former Gov. Haley Barbour because,

“Haley wants every Republican to win, regardless of how they vote for office. The Club for Growth PAC helps elect candidates who support limited government and free markets. Unfortunately, the two goals coincide less often than the Republican Establishment cares to admit.” [emphasis mine]

Quotes like this indicate that there will be increasingly fraught relationships between outside groups and the GOP establishment.

Could the solution be stronger parties?

What, then, can be done? In their book, “Campaign Finance and Political Polarization,” political scientists Brian Schaffner and Ray La Raja use a vast amount of state-level data to argue that stronger parties lead to less ideological candidates. As the chart below from their book shows, the distribution of party money favors more moderate candidates, while issue groups like the Koch network favor more extreme candidates, and business groups favor the right. It’s also worth noting that these data suggest an asymmetry in the parties, with Republicans more likely to support candidates further to the extreme than Democrats (thus the rightward tilt of the “party money” graph). Their extensive analysis of state-level data, over a long historical period, suggests, “In states where parties face more restrictive campaign finance laws, legislators are further from the center than in states where parties are financially unconstrained.”


Although La Raja and Schaffner focus on polarization, a recent report by Daniel Weiner and Ian Vandewalker of the Brennan Center for Justice makes a different argument: Stronger parties could actually strengthen democracy. They write,

“Targeted measures to strengthen political parties, including public financing and a relaxing of certain campaign finance regulations, could help produce a more inclusive and transparent politics.”

Their core argument is that parties are accountable to voters, while donors are not. They compare two of the biggest spenders in 2014: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), a party organization, and the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC. They note that,

“the Senate Majority PAC. The DSCC took in 44 percent of its contributions from small donors of $200 or less, while Senate Majority PAC received less than one tenth of one percent of its funds from small donors.”


“Of the $46 million that Senate Majority PAC spent in total, $36 million came from just 23 donors who each gave half a million dollars or more, according to FEC data.”

They also note that parties are more transparent than PACs, so stronger parties would bring more sunlight to the democratic process.

Though they approach the argument from different angles, the Brennan Center Report and the La Raja/Schaffner book share in common the proposal that public financing should be available to parties and that limits on party contributions to candidates should be reduced or eliminated. Brian explained his thinking to me thusly:

“While the Mitch McConnells and John Boehners of the world are certainly not moderates, they are not nearly as polarized or uncompromising as super PAC funders like the the Kochs and Adelson. And it’s the fear of backlash from those outside forces which is working against any kind of compromise in Washington.”

He adds, “The Koch network now has many of the aspects of a political party — GOTV, complex data analytics, candidate selection — without the accountability to voters.”

Political scientist Seth Masket notes that the proposal to strengthen parties had quite a bit of support at a Brookings event he attended. He argues for a system in which parties can funnel public money to preferred campaigns. However, political scientist Lee Drutman is highly skeptical, at least of the idea that unlimited funding would decrease polarization. He argues that there are t0o few competitive districts and little incentive from parties to run moderates if there were. He also notes, correctly, that it’s unlikely small donors would increase political polarization.


Because the current composition of the Supreme Court makes reform difficult, progressives have good reasons to be supportive of proposals to strengthen parties, but also good reasons to be wary. The reason to support such a campaign is, somewhat ironically, that as the Republican Party has become weaker, even more right-wing forces have become stronger. The rise of extreme candidates like Trumpcan certainly be explained in part by the weakness of the GOP compared to outside donors. The negative side is that the Democratic Party has never been particularly kind to economic progressivism, and that big money is inherently anti-democratic, whichever channel it flows through.

On the issue of public financing, there is mutual agreement: La Raja tells me, “I think reformers should be focused more on how the money is raised than on how it is spent. That is why some form of public financing makes sense.” He argues that campaigns should be seen as a public good (because they raise awareness, knowledge and mobilization) and therefore supported by public funds. Empowering small donors means empowering average Americans and bolstering independent political power for progressives and people of color, who currently make up a vanishing share of the donor class. Even more fundamentally, it’s obvious that tackling economic inequality is essential to tackling political inequality. As Louis Brandeis writes (in a quote Jane Mayer uses for the epigraph of her book), “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can’t have both.”

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

How To Create a More Progressive America

Barring a dramatic scandal or an unforeseen event, Hillary Clinton will be the 2016 Democratic party nominee for president. While many on the left have complained about her close ties to banks and her past unwillingness to tackle inequality, such complaints are unlikely to be solved by any challenger. Progressives should instead begin creating the infrastructure to shift American politics in a more progressive direction — and do so while supporting Clinton in 2016.

To understand why progressives should push Hillary, rather than run against her, it’s important to understand some important lessons from political science. First, long periods of liberal control tend to make voters more conservative (and vice-versa). As Larry Bartels recently noted, James Stimson’s Policy Mood indicator shows that Americans are “more conservative than at any point since 1952.” (Shown in the graph below.)

 This graph demonstrates how policy mood tends to move in the opposite direction as the sitting President, becoming more liberal under Bush/Reagan and more conservative under Obama. It’s not inevitable that Americans will choose a Republican; arguments that Americans simply won’t put another Democrat in the office after two years of unified party rule are based on only a few data points.

(And it bears repeating, of course, that Al Gore won the popular vote after two Clinton terms in 2000.)

In the case of Obama, an unabashedly progressive President, Americans may well seek a slightly more moderate candidate. With Obama’s presidency domestically defined by healthcare, it’s likely voters won’t want more spending in that area; however, there could be interest in higher spending on childcare or education, two areas that Clinton has built her political career around.

In a recent Economist/YouGov Poll, about 40 percent of independents said Hillary Clinton was too liberal, and only 13 percent said “not liberal enough.”

However, Hillary benefits from having the highest net favorability among Democratic respondents, and all respondents, in fact. (Net favorability is the total favorable minus total unfavorable, the smaller bars for Webb, O’Malley and Sanders, shown below, come from their relative obscurity.)

The graphs above show two things: One, progressivism faces roadblocks in the immediate future, as the country angles for moderation after what is perceived as an emphatically liberal Obama administration; and, two, Hillary Clinton, like it or not, is in the best position of any Democratic candidate to mobilize the progressive base. This is where it becomes important to recognize that the best chance for a progressive agenda lies not in challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, but in making sure she gets the White House, and then holding her accountable once there.

In modern politics, parties have far more power than politicians. As the parties have become increasingly polarized, and their constituencies increasingly divided by class, it’s harder for middle-class or working-class voters to justify a Republican vote. The vast chasms between the two parties are so deep now that the difference between the leftmost Republican who could win the presidency and the rightmost Democrat is still large. I’ve illustrated before the massive differences in results between Republicans and Democrats in terms of promoting economic growthreducing inequality and reducing racial disparities. It’s more important to get a Democrat in office than nitpick over ideology.

Most importantly, a large portion of what Presidents do goes entirely under the radar. I’venoted before the extensive political science literature showing how Presidents affect policy by staffing bureaucratic positions, enforcing regulations and appointing judges. Many important policy choices elide journalists and many small changes, such as executive orders go unnoticed but have dramatic impacts. Further, Presidents have someinfluence over whether monetary policy focuses on boosting employment or reining in inflation. Together, these policies have dramatic impacts on growth and inequality.

All of this means that progressives should focus on ensuring a candidate that will listen to their interests wins the Presidency, rather than the perfect candidate. There’s a good case for Hillary being that candidate. Clinton has a higher favorability rating than any serious Republican contender (only Bush, Rubio and Walker have a chance of winning the nomination) and she has a dramatically high recognition rate. She’s won support across the party elites, from both the liberal and conservative wings. Given the current playing field, the only credible challenge to Hillary would likely come from someone to her right, and likely one that couldn’t win an election.

This calculus means progressives need to make sure Hillary addresses our concerns. Already, Hillary has indicated a possible move to the left, criticizing overpaid CEOs and hedge fund managers in a recent Iowa visit. But it will take sustained pressure to ensure Clinton pursues a progressive agenda once in office. For that progressives need to learn from their enemy: the Koch brothers.

In 1980, David Koch ran for President on the libertarian ticket and won a mere 1.1 percent of the vote. Chastened by his loss, he and his brother realized that the way to shift policy would be to create a libertarian infrastructure aimed at pushing Republicans to the right. Certainly, there are other factors maintaining right-wing ideology: Grover Norquist and his anti-tax pledge, Newt Gingrich and his Republican revolution, and the brutal political savvy of Mitch McConnell. However, the massive network of think-tanks, foundations, universities, fellowships that the Koch’s finance, in addition to a sophisticated polling and market research apparatus, all keep Republican politicians in line.

Progressives can’t replicate the strategy, but they can create structures that will ensure that politicians are incentivized to pursue progressive policies. That will involve focusing on three areas that will bring about a more progressive America:

1) Voter turnout

The importance of voter turnout for a progressive American cannot be understated. The chart below, created with data from Vincent Mahler shows the relationship between voter turnout and redistribution. The relationship is powerful, and as I’ve extensively documented, cross-national studies and studies within the states find that higher turnout lead to more progressive policies.

To boost turnout, progressives should invest in get-out-the-vote operations and same-day registration. In addition, stricter enforcement of motor-voter requirements could increase the number of registered voters by 18 million.

2) Labor mobilization 

For a long time, the mainstream left has taken unions for granted. Unions were seen as parochial, narrowly interested in advancing their own interests. In reality, unions provided an important check on the Democratic party, making sure it didn’t move too far to the right. Unions partially filled this role by boosting turnout. In a study with Patricia Davis, Director of the Office of Global Programs at the Department of State, Radcliff shows that their election day mobilizations push candidates and parties by increasing turnout and organizing workers, unions hold parties that benefit the working class and middle class to the left.

However, unions are currently besieged by right-to-work laws being instituted across the country, which dramatically reduce union density, and as a result, union influence. All the while, national Democrats have largely remained silent.

One of the criticisms of the idea that unions increase turnout is that the causation is actually reversed: That it isn’t a matter of union membership making people more likely to vote, but rather that people who vote are more likely to join unions in the first place. However, political economists Daniel Stegmueller and Michael Becher find that even after controlling for this effect, joining a union will increase an individual’s chance of voting by 10 percentage points. Ryan Lamare, an Assistant Professor of Labor and Employment Relations, studied the effects of unions in Los Angeles County and foundthat unions boosted turnout, particularly among Latinos.

3) State and local activist infrastructure

Finally the progressive movement needs to invest in an intellectual and advocacy infrastructure. Here, the Kochs aren’t the only people who have used this strategy; evangelicals have successfully ensured that Republicans stay steadfast on the culture war because of their extensive and well-maintained an advocacy structure. The NRA has done similar. Now, the left needs to massively mobilize at the local and state level. Here, progressives face a disadvantage: Conservatives were able to make use of Evangelical churches, gun clubs and politically active chapters like the Tea Party. Progressives have only a few similarly mobilized coalitions; but they can still be potent, as the environmental movement has recently shown.

Historian Erik Loomis recently wrote the obvious: “If progressives push [Hillary Clinton] to the left through consistent organization, she’ll swing left. If she feels more pressure from Republicans, she’ll swing right. This shouldn’t be all that hard to figure out, yet it constantly surprises us how politics actually work in this nation.” He’s correct. The problem is that movement-building is difficult. Waiting for Godot is easy.

This article originally appeared in Salon.