Mainstream political understanding in the United States is increasingly informed by the perception that our elections and lives are being determined by the outsized spending of millionaires and billionaires we will never meet. The poster boys of plutocracy are the subject of this year’s book by Mother Jones senior editor Daniel Schulman in Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty.
With a timely release, considering our current national zeitgeist and upcoming midterm elections, Sons of Wichita has been received and celebrated with a twist: Schulman’s tomb of “Kochology” has been received with surprise for its non-condemning tone. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart joked “these Koch brothers almost seem human,” in an interview with Schulman. The Koch-funded Reason Foundation, of which David Koch is a trustee, notes that Schulman dismisses accusations that the Koch brothers only act in the interest of their company’s profits. And a New York Times book review claimed that Schulman “seems to be almost in awe of Charles [Koch].” Indeed, portions of the book impress upon readers a sense of calculated sophistication from a billionaire whose decisions have led to widespread public backlash against his business-fueled political campaigns.
On the surface Schulman’s descriptions are unexpectedly favorable to Koch in the eyes of, say, this Greenpeace researcher. But the narrative set forth in Sons of Wichita offers some key implicit themes. Despite a reputation for Libertarianism, with David Koch even running as the Libertarian party’s vice presidential candidate in 1980, many of the Koch’s political activities blend with mainstream Republican politics. Charles Koch, while presented as unexpectedly humble, has a longtime habit of creating and then heavy-handing projects not only within Koch Industries, but also across the vast network of political groups he creates and finances.
As told by Schulman, the Koch family history illustrates some psychological underpinnings of Charles Koch’s development.
Charles is one of four brothers (not two), born of Fred C and Mary R Koch after eldest and least-known brother, Frederick “Freddie” Koch. Father Fred Koch’s intense work ethic is something Charles has cited as a major developmental influence; and as Charles grew the family business and fortune far beyond what Fred Koch established, he also adopted his father’s knack for outspoken political activism. Schulman presents objective documentation that patriarch Fred Koch was a racist and quite literally praised Germany, Italy and Japan as the “only sound countries” in 1938, shortly before the United States entered World War II. None of the four Koch brothers have precisely mirrored their father’s extreme views, though Charles did follow his father’s lead not only into the helm of Koch Industries, but also into the anti-Civil Rights, anti-communist John Birch Society.
Charles Koch’s political network, nicknamed the “Kochtopus,” is infamous across political ideologies. It is detested by liberals for consistently pushing the political spectrum rightward and disenfranchising the financially poor–a symbol of everything that is wrong with corporate greed. Among establishment Republicans, the Kochtopus threatens a comfortable status quo as Tea Party ideologies displace longstanding conservative leaders, often at the expense of Republican-championed religious and social issues that Koch isn’t interested in. And even among Libertarians, of which the Kochs are comparable (but not synonymous, as Schulman shows), Charles Koch’s legacy of using his money to micromanage has burned many bridges.
Much is left untouched in Schulman’s book, mainly due to the secrecy the Kochs are known for. Koch Industries is privately held, and finding ex-executives and employees was clearly a challenge for the author, who did succeed in getting interviews with some insiders. The political activities of Charles and David Koch (and at times, David’s twin brother Bill) are only as disclosed as far as the letter of the law, leaving many questions unanswered about the past, current and future political ambitions of so-called “Koch World.”
And since all of us joining today’s Book Salon have questions about the Koch brothers, Daniel Schulman is an ideal person to ask. Enjoy.