David Koch's misunderstood legacy
The Koch brother had a profound effect on American politics — but he was no puppet master
Billionaire David Koch was half of the 1980 Libertarian Party presidential ticket along with Ed Clark, the first to crack 1 percent of the vote. He was also half of the "Koch brothers" along with his sibling Charles, a dynamic duo in both business and politics, bankrolling conservative and libertarian causes. Dead at age 79 after a long battle with prostate cancer, David Koch was a singular force for liberty.
The Koch brothers are widely reviled as the poster children for the nefarious influence of money in politics. A pair of extremely wealthy industrialists — Forbes estimated that David was the 11th richest person in the world at the time of his death — who seek to roll back government regulations of businesses, gutting protections for ordinary Americans to fatten the corporate bottom line, puppet masters for the modern Republican Party. Jane Mayer's 2016 book Dark Money makes their investment in like-minded intellectuals, academics, think tanks and advocacy groups sound like the work of cartoonish movie villains: "It was in essence a libertarian production line, waiting only to be bought, assembled and switched on."
Horrors! In reality, whatever people claim to think about money in politics, whether something is perceived as sinister or righteous really depends on what side the mega-donors are on. It is seldom the same people sounding the alarm over billionaire progressives Tom Steyer or George Soros and the Koch brothers, with a few notable exceptions. Koch allies understandably roll their eyes at the notion they secretly control a GOP led by President Donald Trump — the tariff-hiker who tweeted last year "The globalist Koch Brothers, who have become a total joke in real Republican circles, are against Strong Borders and Powerful Trade," dismissing both their "money" and "bad ideas" — and running trillion dollar deficits in a time of relative peace and prosperity.
But they have undeniably had their wins. It is hard to imagine criminal justice reform passing, in an unlikely collaboration with the Trump administration, without their efforts. They have helped elect countless Republicans who have in turn voted for tax cuts and to confirm the conservative judges now leaving their mark on the federal bench. The Tea Party was neither as "astroturfed" as its detractors assume or as enduring as its supporters hoped, but the Kochs certainly augmented it and tried to push it in a more fiscally conservative, less populist direction.
The Kochs have been advocates for realism and restraint in U.S. foreign policy, seeking unlikely allies in their efforts to wind down our seemingly endless wars. That is among their most important contributions: On the right, they are the best funded counterweight to the neoconservatives who defined the GOP's approach to the world in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They have fought against occupational licensing requirements that make it difficult for working people to do things like braid hair, highlighting government regulations that can actually hurt the poor. They opposed mass incarceration before it was fashionable to do so on the Democratic presidential debate stage, indeed even while some were still boasting of their toughness in supporting the opposite policies.
Realizing that there was a limit to what supporting conventional Republicans could do to advance their values, the Kochs have become more discriminating about which candidates they back and have to some extent stepped back from their involvement in GOP politics. And plenty of their giving is uncontroversial. David Koch raised millions of dollars for cancer research and also generously funded theaters and art museums.
None of this means the Kochs are above criticism. The left argues that among other things they have helped make the Republican Party resistant to thinking about climate change. The right has increasingly begun to question whether an uncritical embrace of economic dynamism is really "conservative" in any meaningful sense and has certainly started to move in a different direction on immigration.
I have worked for organizations that have benefited from the Kochs' generosity while publishing countless things they undoubtedly disagreed with. I have also been a reporter trying to cover Koch-related events, seeking information about campaigns and political candidates only to be bombarded by talk about how to make charities more effective and to run companies using "market-based management."
But even as the age of Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren raises new challenges to the Koch worldview, David made an impact on the politics of the last 30 years at least as significant as those denouncing him from the Senate floor. His brother Charles will no doubt try to continue it.