David Koch: Demon or Demigod?

Is Koch’s vilification by the media justified?

David Koch, born in Kansas in 1940, joined his father’s company, Koch Industries, in 1970 and after setting up a New York division, became President of it in 1979. On August 23rd David Koch passed away, although his cause of death was undisclosed, he had been battling prostate cancer for close to 28 years. After his death was announced the media was quick to point out the lasting and damaging legacy that Koch had left behind. The information put forth in these articles would make it easy to build up an image of Koch who, through his death, managed to escape a world he had a hand in destroying for decades. Alongside his brother Charles, David had been a proponent of free market principles; principles rooted in the organisations they fund such as the Cato Institute and American’s for Prosperity. The brothers often receive criticism from the media because of the “dark money” they pedalled into the American political system. Koch’s damaging relationship with the environment and his supposed ‘bank-rolling’ of the right-wing have become the focal point of his legacy immediately after his death. The narrative being created of Koch, while not entirely unjustified, could be described as inaccurate.

The media coverage of Koch Industries’ damage to the environment is an aspect of Koch’s legacy they have managed to represent well. Koch Industries is the 17th biggest air polluter; the 22nd largest greenhouse gas emitter and the 13th biggest water polluter in the US. The damage to the environment is reinforced by the Koch’s climate change denialism, evidenced by a seminar that the Cato Institute held in 1991 titled ‘Global Environmental Crisis: Politics or Science?’. Koch Industries has had to pay close to $750 million in fines for their environmental violations. David Koch had consistently lobbied Congress to pass looser environmental regulations. American’s for Prosperity got over 400 members of Congress to sign a pledge to vote against climate change legislation that does not include equivalent tax cuts. Their lobbying of Congress is undoubtedly a contributor to the current political climate in the US, an article from Bloomberg highlighted the influence the brothers managed to exert, “They helped to unleash a political insurgency that in turn set the stage for our present state of extreme polarisation, an outcome I don’t think they expected or desired.”. The image being created can be simplified down to Koch wanting to preserve his business, in a selfish pursuit of profit. However, the articles about Koch’s legacy have seemingly made it their mission to misrepresent him in other aspects of his life.

David Koch is often labelled a conservative because of his contributions to the Republicans (notably the Tea Party caucus) and his efforts to stop Obama returning to office. The conservative label is an inaccurate one. While Koch contributes to the GOP, it is mainly to stop tax legislation and environmental restrictions. Koch would have described himself as a libertarian and the brothers breakdown of political ideologies can be found on the Cato Institute website. A lot of fuss was made over Koch’s donations to the GOP during the 2012 election cycle with many news outlets claiming that the Koch’s were controlling the largest funding network in politics, all behind closed doors. In an article by AP News Beth Rotman, who works for the government watchdog company, Common Cause, stated “[The Koch’s] undermined so many important American values over the past several decades as part of their attempted corporate takeover of American Politics”.

Lobbying of government is made to seem an entirely one-sided trend that occurs only within the huge billionaire donor circles of the GOP. Many news outlets claimed Koch’s continuous bank rolling of the right-wing pushed through legislation quite simply to make him richer. In fact, it happens to be much more complicated than that. The term ‘Dark Money’ used to explain the Koch’s lobbying network, run through American’s for Prosperity, reeks of scandal and illegality despite being common on both sides of the political spectrum. After the Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United v. FEC, ‘Dark Money’ is an entirely legal and not a right-wing dominated phenomenon. During the 2018 midterms the FEC compiled data on every political contributor as it does every year. ActBlue, the largest democratic donor, raised over $1.3 billion, with $1.19 billion going to outside committees to support democratic affiliated organisations. Alongside this, an article from the Wall Street Journal highlights how during the 2014 midterms the Republicans ‘Dark Money’ circle consisted of around $2.2 billion. The Democratic ‘Dark Money’ circle consisted of about $7.4 billion, money that was barely reported on.

Claiming that Koch spent his money bank-rolling the right wing is a clever way to mislead the public especially with todays perception of what the right-wing represents; the extremes being white supremacy, sexism, racism and curtailing of basic human rights. This is where Koch confounded his critics, as he was pro-choice, advocated for same-sex marriage and open borders and contributed funds to stem-cell research. A Bloomberg article highlighted how he worked extensively with Barack Obama to free non-violent prisoners and overhaul sentencing. Changes they argued would reduce a convicts likeliness to re-offend and remove barriers to opportunity once they were released. Koch’s immigration views caused problems with Trump during the 2016 election and Trump tweeted, “the Koch’s were a joke in real Republican circles”. The decision to not fund Trump reportedly caused a fissure in Republican donor pools.

A part of Koch’s life that has not been widely reported on after his death are his charitable activities. Koch was a massive contributor to cancer research and in 2012 he donated over $2 billion to create New York City’s new ambulatory care centres and renovate hospitals. Koch also contributed money towards the education system, which he was criticised for in an LA Times article that stated “[ Koch donations ] typically come with ideological blinders attached, as when the University of Utah accepted a $10m donation…to establish a free-market economics program to counter the ostensibly Marxian bent of the University’s economics department.” The insinuation that Koch’s donation attached “ideological blinders” to the University of Utah’s economics department is a troubling one as this economics department prided itself on its Marxist economic research. However, the Marxist lens had already placed blinders on the horse so to speak. The Koch brothers’ donation re-positioned these blinders away from a damaging doctrine, opening the economics department to a freer market of ideas. While Koch’s philanthropic endeavours are highly respectable, and will no doubt have a substantial effect in years to come, the polarising effect he had on the American political landscape will survive long past his death. No amount of money will be able to reverse the damage he has done to the planet or to future generations. It’s a sad fact that Koch had the power to do great things for the world and it is a shame that he used his money to do potentially irreversible damage to our environment. The benefits that David Koch brought to society will forever be overshadowed by the toxic seeds he has sown.

Written by Sion Marsh

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