Political Trust-Busting

Protesters from Occupy DC block a street in front of the Washington Convention Center during a demonstration against the bill
Protesters from Occupy DC block a street in front of the Washington Convention Center during a demonstration against the billionaire conservative donor Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity, on November 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers, a conservative political advocacy group opposing government regulation, is holding its fifth annual meeting at the Convention Center. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

The lurid attraction of a Donald Trump-dominated presidential election spectacle is likely to obscure another clear and present political danger that will be hidden from most Americans. That danger is the purchase -- there's no other way to put it -- of control of more than 60 percent of state governments and majorities in both Houses of Congress by extreme right-wing forces masterminded by the two wealthiest brothers in America and their donor allies.

Whoever is elected in 2016 to lead our nation, the composition of Congress and the political make-up of state governments in key states in 2017 will greatly influence how the newly elected President will govern. And while there are many factors that ultimately will determine the outcome of congressional, state legislative and gubernatorial races this year, one variable will impact the results far more than others.

In 30 states, the critical variable will be the success of the most formidable political machinery ever assembled in our democracy to influence the outcomes of both state and federal elections and policies. I call this machinery the "Koch political trust" to compare it to the great industrial trusts -- oil, steel, banking, railroads, etc. -- of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These domineering concentrations of economic power were "busted" by a crusading President and vigilant Supreme Court because they restrained trade, restricted free markets, controlled prices and threatened economic freedom. Likewise, the Koch political trust is lessening competition in the marketplace of ideas, restraining the functioning of representative government, threatening the integrity of democratic institutions and processes, and further enriching the trust owners and their allies.

The operating components of the Koch trust are a strategic engine called Americans for Prosperity ("AFP") and a political "financing arm" called Freedom Partners ("FP") and its affiliated pools of capital. Together, these two enterprises channel hundreds of millions of dollars through AFP and to its aligned network of collaborating data management, communications, organizing and mobilizing organizations. AFP and FP are both governed by Koch corporate employees and their closest political allies. This privately financed, secretive and unaccountable trust is rapidly replacing the state party as the central organizing force in Republican state politics. Its core mission is to win elections and influence policy by forging highly productive strategic political alignment among party, candidate campaign organizations, political action committees and right-wing non-profit organizations.

The Koch political trust is the most formidable multi-state grassroots political operation in America. It now spends at least several hundred million dollars per election cycle on data-driven, targeted TV, radio and digital ads, direct mail, opposition research, grassroots organizing, and get-out-the-vote efforts in select states.

It operates in most of the 24 Southern, Midwestern and Western states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, plus Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. In these 30 states, the Koch trust has contributed significantly to the election of Republican majorities in 100% of the state legislatures, 80% of the governors, 75% of US Senators and 74% of US House members.

The consequences have been dramatic -- majorities in both houses of Congress, weakened campaign finance laws in more than 20 states, restrictive voting laws under serious consideration or passed in 17 states, and mandatory restrictions on public employee collective bargaining passed in 14 states.

Over the past three election cycles, the trust has punished its Republican and Democratic adversaries and compromised the integrity of representative government. In the process, it is fracturing the Republican Party by disempowering and eliminating the party's moderate and centrist voices. It is demanding right-wing ideological purity among its elected officials. It is politically marginalizing progressives. It is rendering Congress dysfunctional and destroying respect for it among the American public. And, it is producing economic benefits in the form of favorable state and federal government actions for those who finance the trust.

As the founder of Democracy Alliance, a network of high net worth individuals and institutions who contribute to activist progressive organizations, I support the right of wealthy individuals to contribute to political activism of their choice. But the Koch trust is not simply a network of donors committed to promoting their political views by contributing to independent activist organizations.

Rather, it is a new, unaccountable and dangerous innovation in American politics.
It is an increasingly powerful party-like enterprise that is replacing the legitimate functions of the Republican state parties. It facilitates unknown levels of collaboration among Party, candidate, political action committees and non-profit activist entities. It does not disclose its organizational relationships, its operations or its donors. And because infinitely more is not known about what the Koch trust is actually doing than is attainable from public records, it is undermining the integrity of representative government.

Political trusts deny power to the many by concentrating power in the hands of the few. It is imperative that concerned Republicans, Independents and Democrats begin to demand more disclosure of the Koch trusts' donors, more transparency about its operations, and greater clarity about the nature and scope of its involvement with both party committees and non-party activist organizations.

Trusts have never been easy to bust. After the public outrage over the abuses of the Standard Oil Trust at the turn of the twentieth century, it took a bully pulpit-pounding president and a deeply concerned US Supreme Court nearly seven years to dismantle the industrial trusts. Dismantling the Koch apparatus also will likely take years. In the meantime, we could jump-start the trust-busting process if this years' presidential candidates would channel Teddy Roosevelt and demand accountability and actions to curb the unaccountable power of America's first political trust.