Democrats haven’t exactly been subtle in their criticism of Charles and David Koch and the conservative political operation they’ve helped create. For Dems, the Koch brothers have come to symbolize much of what ails the political system: elite billionaires manufacturing movements and buying elections for far-right Republicans, who in turn use the levers of government to help the rich get richer.
Not surprisingly, Charles Koch, the chairman and CEO of Koch Industries, isn’t pleased with the criticism. He has a new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, making the case that he’s simply “fighting to restore a free society,” and finds himself outraged by “collectivists” engaging in “character assassination.”
Much of the piece is fairly predictable – Koch doesn’t seem to care for government or those who “stand for government control of the means of production and how people live their lives” – and it features a spirited defense of Koch Industries’ environmental record. The piece isn’t behind the WSJ paywall, and it’s well worth your time.
But this was the paragraph that stood out.
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinsky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society – and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
Someone should probably let conservatives know that any argument with a Saul Alinsky reference is hard to take seriously.
Of course, that’s not the real problem with the argument.
Rather, the underlying issue is one of a failure of self-awareness. The Koch brothers, as has been well documented, aren’t exactly struggling to communicate their ideas with the public. They’ve invested tens of millions of dollars in a massive political operation, including brutal attack ads targeting policymakers who’ve dared to pursue a progressive policy vision.
Indeed, reading Koch’s op-ed and its complaints about “character assassination” immediately made me wonder if the conservative billionaire has actually seen any of the anti-Democratic commercials he’s helped subsidize.
It’s true that the Koch brothers, up until fairly recently, were not commonly recognized as major political players. Their names rarely passed through Democrats’ lips. But as they’ve become more deeply involved in policy and campaign debates, effectively creating a well-financed operation that would rival that of a modestly sized national party, the Koch brothers have been subjected to scrutiny and denunciations.
Not to put too fine a point on this, but that’s what happens in a political system with, to borrow a phrase, “free and open debate.” Those who try to influence the direction of the nation sometimes receive pushback from those who disapprove and prefer a different direction.
It’s what makes Charles Koch’s complaints unpersuasive. It would appear from his op-ed that he’s comfortable financing attack ads targeting Democrats, but he’s outraged by Democrats who respond in kind with attack ads of their own. When he makes the case for a regressive vision, Koch sees himself as merely celebrating the restoration of a free society, but when his foes make the case for a progressive vision, they’re radicals trying to stifle debate.
As Jon Chait put it, “[T]he trouble is that his critics attempt to ‘discredit’ and ‘intimidate’ him and employ ‘character assassination.’ All these terms appear to be Koch synonyms for ‘saying things about Charles Koch that Charles Koch does not agree with.’ In the kind of ‘free and open’ debate he imagines, Koch would continue to use his fortune to wield massive political influence, and nobody would ever say anything about him that makes him unhappy.”