The Populism of Billionaires

Posted Sept. 06, 2010, at 8:22 p.m.

The tea party, if it is unified in any way, prides itself on being a populist movement. So it is odd that many of its candidates and financial backers are well-heeled and pedigreed. What, one has to ask, do these people know — or care, beyond their own political aspirations — of the struggles of working-class Americans?

As George Will pointed out in Thursday’s column, many of the party’s candidates are Ivy League educated and had the luxury of moneyed upbringings. There is nothing wrong with such credentials; they just would seem anathema to a group that wants to reclaim America from educated elitists such as Barack Obama.

More troubling is where such candidates and others who claim allegiance to the tea party will be getting their campaign money.

New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote Sunday of the “straight line” through rich tycoons’ opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security as “socialism,” child labor laws and Medicare.

“Only the fat cats change — not their methods and not their pet bugaboos (taxes, corporate regulation, organized labor, and government ‘handouts’ to the poor, unemployed, ill and elderly),” he wrote.

One set of players, the Koch family, has been involved in much of that straight line and given nearly $200 million to conservative and libertarian causes. An article in the Aug. 30 New Yorker offers a detailed look at their involvement in conservative politics.

Koch Industries, which briefly owned the mill in Old Town before it was shut down as a paper-making facility, is the country’s second largest private company. The brothers who now run it, David and Charles, have a combined wealth of $35 billion. Logically, they’d like to protect that wealth and their company, which a University of Massachusetts at Amherst study found to be among the top 10 air polluters in the U.S.

The company’s founder, Fred Koch, who began amassing his fortune helping the Soviet Union build oil refineries, was an original member of the John Birch Society, which has little use for government. He passed his loathing of government to his sons.

In 1980, David was the vice presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party, which garnered only 1 percent of the vote. This made the brothers realize that they needed to create a movement in order to turn their ideas — including lower taxation and fewer and weaker environmental regulations — into reality, according to The New Yorker.

They founded the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center and Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which have given credibility to climate change denial, to the notion that environmental regulations are overly burdensome and that taxes must be lowered. Turning these ideologies into policy would benefit Koch Industries and the Kochs personally.

Bruce Bartlett, a policy advisor to President Ronald Reagan, told The New Yorker that the problem for the Kochs was that their libertarian movement was “all chiefs and no Indians.” With tea party activists, many of them trained by Americans for Prosperity, they found their “Indians,” those who will carry their message to a broader audience, while making it look like a populist movement.

Money well spent for them, but a sad abuse of people looking for a way out of the country’s current bad times.

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