A Wisconsin native holds a sign in protest of Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to bust public sector unions earlier this year. Photo by Fibonacci Blue.
After weeks of accusations ranging from being “lazy hippies” from the right and being “unfocused” from the professional left, the Occupy Wall Street protesters finally took their demands straight to the horse’s mouth this past Monday. A crowd of 100-strong marched all the way from ground zero (no pun intended) of the protests at Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan to the mansions of the city’s two wealthiest and most politically influential residents, NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch and Koch Industries VP David H. Koch.
The latter name may be a bit less familiar to the average liberal, but he’s considered no less dangerous to the success of their ambitions. As the city’s wealthiest resident, the combined fortune of David and brother Charles is the third largest in the nation, just behind that of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, according to Forbes. Given the brothers’ recent political involvements in shadowy organizations known as “SuperPACs” (to be explained in a moment), their powers combined represent the greatest poisoning of the American political well to occur since the days of Watergate.
The referendum on the W. Bush administration that was the election of 2008 carried in its tone of anti-incumbency a silent condemnation of electoral nepotism and American political dynasties, at least for the time being. So leave it to a game-changing-isn’t-strong-enough-of-a-phrase-to-describe-it Supreme Court decision in early 2010 to put a system already overwrought with corruption in the hands of the most powerful corporate oligarchs since the days of Warren G. Harding and reset progress in campaign finance reform by nearly twenty years.
That ruling, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commision, I suspect will be as referenced and debated for generations after the 2012 presidential election with as much embarrassment and regret as the Plessy v. Furguson, if not be as widely debated as Roe v. Wade is currently. In it, the court decided that the government could not set limits on what corporations (or the political action committees under them, like Citizens United) and unions could spend in attacking or supporting any candidate. Paired with a ruling in March 2010 made against the FEC by a federal court in favor of SpeechNow.org, special political action committees (or “SuperPACs”) making independent expenditures can now accept any amount in donations from anyone as long as there is no evidence of orchestration by a candidate’s campaign.
In other words, as long as there is a lot of paperwork no one wants to read, people (read: corporations) can now spend as much as they want on whomever they want to win a national election. If you’ve been watching The Colbert Report lately, the satirical pundit spent the last few months shedding light on the unlimited potential for real-life political corruption allowed by this ruling by creating his own SuperPAC live on his show.
Here is a recent clip where Colbert rhetorically asks a legal expert the ethical difference between money laundering and moving around funds between 501(c)3 nonprofits and SuperPACs, to which he has no real answer.
Try as Colbert might to make humor and sense of the legalese, everyday Americans have already felt the debilitating side effects of SuperPACs, whether they realize it or not.
During the mid-term congressional elections last year, television sets were flooded with ads in support of GOP and Tea Party candidates, many of which were funded by SuperPACs like Americans for Prosperity, founded and financed by the Koch brothers in 2005. Since the Supreme Court ruling, the nonprofit’s budget ballooned from $7 million to $40 million over the course of three years. Despite the brothers’ routine denial of direct sponsorship to the Tea Party movement, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer famously uncovered the details of every penny the billionaire twosome spent in support of Tea Party and GOP efforts leading up to the 2010 midterm elections.
Of course, they didn’t stop there. Months later, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker needed a counter-protest movement to bolster his wildly controversial efforts to bust public sector unions in his state, two of his largest campaign donors (guess who) came to his rescue.
As sons and heirs to the mighty oil refinery empire of their entrepreneur father, Fred Koch, the Koch brothers run an industrial conglomerate from their headquarters in Wichita, Kansas that rakes in over $100 billion a year. Since buying out their fellow brothers William and Frederick’s inherited shares in the company in the early ‘80s, CEO Charles and Executive Vice President David have spent the better half of the last fifty years morphing the company into a “market-based management” firm who, among their many capabilities, specializes in “public sector relations” (read: corporate lobbying).
The vast network of companies and brand names that fall under the umbrella of Koch Industries includes many household names (Dixie cups, Quilted Northern and Brawny paper towels, a.k.a the Georgia-Pacific company). The logic of escaping the grip of Koch Industries via boycott would be less akin to economic justice than flat-out fasting on basic human commodities.
Among the conglomerate’s lesser-known ventures are financial and investment services, commodity trading, as well as oil, mineral, and chemical technologies vital to America’s energy and environmental future. Their reputation for having any sense corporate ethics, basic humanity, or environmental responsibility are widely regarded as laughable at best.
Which is why the Koch Brothers have become particular adversaries of the Obama Administration’s early ambitions to curb American dependence on oil, greenhouse gas emissions, and implementing regulations to prevent another financial collapse. It is also why I’ve found it curious that any Occupy protests (and any loose threads of leadership they seem to possess) have yet to make any direct mention of them before the so-called ‘Millionaires March.’
Like many left-leaning voices in the media, I had a lot of trouble trying to discern what exactly the early protesters hoped to accomplish in their initial weeks of civil disobedience. What I’ve found even more frustrating is their insistence on tossing all of corporate America under one umbrella, being unwilling to sensibly distinguish those of the inexorable wealthiest 1% who are squarely responsible for the untenable corruption in our political system and those who actually agree with them.
After witnessing one “General Assembly” (which is basically a general, town hall-style, outdoor meeting where matters such as the protest’s focus are widely discussed) a few weeks ago, I left feeling like this was a movement too filled with blind pretension to get into specifics and start naming names. Despite beginning with the disclaimer “these grievances are not all-inclusive,” their recently published declaration of intent basically re-wrote the Declaration of Independence by more or less copying and pasting the word “corporations” where King George’s name should have been. It’s the sort of gaffing lack of self-awareness that lends itself to pop culture parody rather than substantive recognition from the body politic.
While Monday’s march and other activities undertaken by Occupy Wall Street have made me more optimistic about the widespread appeal of their goals that might lead to clear-cut proposals rather than only pointing outrage squarely at the problems. Following their continued success in courting attention from the media, writers like Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi offered their support and advice on delivering those solutions, placing palpable expectation as to whether or not they will act on their wisdom.
In my mind, demanding a reversal of the Citizens United v. FEC decision would have to top the list, along with an insistence in regards to the first amendment, that money is not speech– speech is speech. Then and only then can we begin to dismantle the corporate network of lobbyists, PACs, and SuperPACs contaminating Washington, and alleviate the grossly disproportional influence that the Koch brothers and their contemporaries have on how decisions in this country are made.