In glitzy shadows, a health reform foe lurks
IN EARLY November, thousands of protesters descended on Capitol Hill to hear Representative Michele Bachmann decry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “takeover’’ of health care. As they disembarked from their buses, they were greeted with doughnuts and coffee, and handed protest signs and talking points about socialized medicine. Few of the protesters were aware that a right-wing billionaire had paid for the meals, buses, or salaries of the helpful guides. On the same day, this rich proprietor was toasted by Manhattan’s fashionable socialites during the City Opera’s opening night, where he was lauded for his support.
David Koch, an oil and gas billionaire who is the ninth-richest person in the United States, according to Forbes magazine, was simultaneously responsible for a $100 million refurbished opera house and a protest that featured signs comparing health reform to the Holocaust. The two sides to Koch’s activism aren’t unique - they harken to a long tradition of conservative tycoons who were great philanthropists with one hand and ruthless powerbrokers with the other. But Koch’s hidden presence in the health care debate illustrates the extent to which the Old Right is creating - and then hiding behind - the grassroots fervor of middle-class opponents of health reform.
Across the New York social circuit, Koch is hailed for his donations to reputable causes, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But for years, Koch has also been funneling tens of millions of dollars to more subterranean efforts that reflect his conservative politics. His flagship group, Americans for Prosperity, sponsored Bachmann’s rally against health care reform. Although the Lincoln Center’s State Theater is now called the David H. Koch Theater, none of Koch’s right-wing fronts bear his name.
Americans for Prosperity is leading the way in channeling recession-era distress into anger at President Obama. This “grassroots’’ group has orchestrated many of the tea party protests, as well as steering activists into disrupting town hall meetings of Democratic members of Congress. Americans for Prosperity’s tactics are not new. Just as Koch inherited his oil business from his father, Americans for Prosperity borrows from the ultra-right group also founded in part by his dad, the John Birch Society.
Conceived by Robert Welch and a small group of conservative industrialists, including Fred Koch - David’s father and the namesake of the family firm of Koch Industries - the John Birch Society cloaked its pro-business, anti-civil rights agenda in the rhetoric of the Cold War.
The Birch Society battled communism by labeling President Kennedy a traitor who had to be impeached, denounced taxes as a creeping red menace, and attacked the forces of racial integration as being directed by the Kremlin.
Cushioned with large donations from Koch and others, the Birch Society helped propel Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination in 1964 and helped Republicans make gains in the congressional midterms of 1966.
Like Americans for Prosperity, the John Birch Society rarely acknowledged its funding from the very rich. Instead, it depicted itself as a citizens group merely interested in American ideals of freedom. Rather than argue the policy nuances of entitlement programs or new regulations, the Birch Society marshaled opposition by depicting progressive reform as capitulation to the Soviet Union. In that polarized environment, the interests of millionaires suddenly became aligned with patriotic families who wanted to do their part against the communist threat.
Shortly after the Birch Society faded, David Koch founded Americans for Prosperity in 1984 (then known as Citizens for a Sound Economy). Americans for Prosperity still portrays itself as a defender of freedom and the average Joe. On the Americans for Prosperity website, financial regulations, health reform, net neutrality, and the estate tax are all assailed as forms of socialism.
While David Koch is celebrated as a patron of New York opera, his Americans for Prosperity donations have gone largely unsung. With his millions, he will not only have saved this year’s performance of the “Nutcracker,’’ but also contributed greatly to the obstruction of universal health care, the denial of climate change, and the derailment of much of President Obama’s domestic agenda.
His dad would be pleased.
Lee Fang works for the Center for American Progress in Washington.