Horrigan: The puppet masters of U.S. politics

David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries,

David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, attends a meeting of the Economic Club of New York. (April 11, 2011) (Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS Mark Lennihan)

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Last week, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed article by Charles G. Koch that condemned "rampant cronyism" between business and government. It was as if Michael Phelps had written an article condemning swimming.

Koch (rhymes with "joke") is chairman and chief executive of Koch Industries of Wichita, Kan., the second-largest private company in America. It has interests in petroleum, chemicals, lumber and paper, fertilizer, ranching, commodities and pipelines. It owns a big piece of the Republican Party.

Mr. Koch and his brother, David H. Koch, each own 42 percent of the company. Forbes magazine estimates their combined net worth at $50 billion.


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In his article, Charles Koch acknowledged that his company benefits from certain government policies. You think? The article does not mention the Koch brothers' multimillion-dollar contributions to conservative politicians and causes, their support for conservative think tanks, their funding of anti-labor organization and anti-global warming initiatives and their funding of Americans for Prosperity, which has secretly funded the tea party movement and funneled tens of millions in secret donations to political campaigns.

If there are bigger crony capitalists working in America today, their names do not leap immediately to mind. The cynicism is breathtaking.

I read Charles Koch's op-ed as I was finishing a new book called "The Party is Over," by Mike Lofgren, who spent 30 years as a Republican committee staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives. He bailed last year, having decided his party had gone crazy and that Democrats weren't much better.

His first move was to write a blistering essay for Truth-out.org, a progressive website. The book (subtitle, "How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless and the Middle Class Got Shafted") expands on that essay.

(At this point, I would like to urge you to stop reading this column and look up Lofgren's essay. Or go to your favorite bookstore and buy "The Party is Over." I cannot do it justice here, particularly since I devoted 190 words to the Koch brothers, who are mentioned in Lofgren's book only by inference.)

Here's the inference: "Although you won't find it in their party platform, the GOP's mission is to protect and further enrich America's plutocracy. The party's caterwauling about deficits and debt is so much eyewash to blind the public. In reality, Republicans act as bellhops for corporate America and the superrich behind those corporations." Bellhops, indeed.

Lofgren did address the Koch brothers in an interview he did with Leslie Thatcher of Truthout last month: "I find it very significant, for example, that the Kochs were early funders of Michele Bachmann's presidential campaign. Titans of billion-dollar oil industries are, of course, too shrewd and cynical to believe the childish bosh that Bachmann spouts daily, but as a political stooge, she is worth the investment. The more controversy that is stirred about death panels and Muslim infiltration of the government, the less discussion there is, for example, about the tax subsidies for the oil industry.

These people know what they're doing. They use a superficial populism tinged with craziness to further a rational, plutocratic agenda." Remember, Lofgren is, or at least was, a Republican. He worked on military budget committees for former Rep. John Kasich (now the Republican governor of Ohio) and former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Here's the phrase that he uses to describe the cultural issues (guns, contraception, Muslimophobia, etc.) that today's GOP employs to energize its base: "Rube bait." The Democrats don't offer much of an alternative, Lofgren says, having sold out to big corporate donors, too, and having been complicit in writing the campaign finance and conflict-of-interest laws that are the root of the problem. A party that was aghast at the favors done for Halliburton during the Bush administration managed to be un-aghast at the favors done for the now-defunct solar energy company Solyndra.

So why aren't serious news organizations pointing out all of this? Lofgren argues that much of the press is "credulous and uncritical" and the rest of it is in the bag for one party or the other. For example, a newspaper that would uncritically publish a Charles Koch op-ed decrying corporate cronyism.

Result: That part of the electorate that would like to be well-informed must struggle to stay informed. The rest of the electorate-known in the trade as "low information voters"-is easily distracted by the bells and whistles of the postwar consumer society. Or, as Lofgren puts it, "Solidarity at the union hall doesn't cut it when 'American Idol' is on." Solution: Make politicians beholden to voters, not donors, by getting money out of elections.

Problem: The Supreme Court says money is speech, including corporate money as dictated by Citizens United v. FEC in 2010. People with the most money have the most speech. And have rigged the system so they have more of both. The rest of us get rube bait.

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers may write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or email him at khorrigan@post-dispatch.com.

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