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© Frank

interviews

Funding the Free-Market Agenda

by Theda Skocpol
May 30, 2021

This interview with Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Theda | I'm a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University. I study American politics. I am looking at things over time, thinking about how governments make, or don't make, certain public policies. I've also looked at American voluntary associations and social movements across all of American history. 

My most recent work is focused on the right in the United States. I wrote a book about the Tea Party some years ago. My research partners and I have tracked groups that are to the right of the Republican party, like the Koch network, and how they have pulled the party toward opposition to taxes and social programs. We also consider how elite groups like the Koch network interact with popular groups. More recently, I have looked at how some of the civic groups opposed to the Trump presidency are organized all over the country, just like the Tea Party is organized.

frank | I want to talk to you about your work on political philanthropy and how the Koch’s play their part. It is an interesting time to look at the remnants of the GOP and ask which direction they will go. 

I think they are locked in at this point. And they are locked in as an authoritarian party, which is very frightening because they are very close to taking control again.

You write about the billionaire issue entrepreneurs. What do you mean by that? 

Well, let me draw on some work I've done with my colleagues, particularly Alex Hertel-Fernandez, who teaches at Columbia University. We all know that wealth inequality and income inequality galloped ahead in the United States since the 1970s. We now have concentrations of enormous income and wealth at the top of American society, and disparities that are, in some ways, greater than they were in the late 19th century. As that has happened, a certain proportion of millionaires and billionaires and multibillionaires have gone beyond contributing to individual politicians and have become very politically active. The political influence that comes with the individual contributions of big money has been with us forever, but my colleagues and I noticed that, starting in the 2000s, there were consortia and associations of very wealthy people forming on both the left and the right.

By consortia, I mean groups of very wealthy people who meet twice a year, usually in very posh resorts, for several days, to talk with one another about their understanding of American society.

The Koch brothers assembled such groups to analyze U.S. politics about where they thought it should go and how they could pool their contributions to get it there. The Kochs and the wealthy donors they assembled did donate to individual politicians, but they also gave to other organizations that could craft policy, mobilize constituencies, and generate ideas in a think tank. 

This trend started in 2003 when Charles and David Koch decided to hold these meetings twice a year. These meetings gradually grew bigger and bigger. Now, there are about 400 or 500 millionaires and billionaires, many of whom are still actively running particular companies or industries all over the country, that come together to coordinate their resources. 

They bypassed the Republican Party after the Bushes were out of office and put pressure on Republican candidates to adopt big tax cuts tilted toward corporations and the wealthy, eviscerate regulations, fight against labor unions — basically to implement what we call “the ultra free-market agenda.” I mean, this agenda is even more radical than what the Chamber of Commerce has proposed in the past. The Chamber of Commerce, historically, has been, at the least, willing to go along with the idea of raising taxes to build bridges, or roads, or to support public education.. These ultra free-market millionaires and billionaires, on the other hand, wanted to really shift the debate in the country and within the Republican party. Their most important organization in doing so was Americans for Prosperity, an organization that helps to elect very right-wing Republicans and persuade them to carry through their promises once they're in office.

Now, this didn't happen only on the right. It also happened on the left. There was an organization founded in 2004 called The Democracy Alliance that tries to together liberal and progressive-minded millionaires and billionaires. They too were pushing certain very progressive ideas from outside the party. 

In our research, we compare how these groups emerged, who is in them, and how they grew. It's just undeniable that the Koch network grew much bigger by 2010 and on into 2016. And, for a time, the Koch network spent more money than the Republican Party committees. That's not true anymore, but it was true. The Democracy Alliance grew, but it never got as big as the Koch network and its members never spent as much money

The big difference between them is that the Koch Network millionaires and billionaires pooled their money and ran it through organizations that the Koch's controlled.

We call it free market Leninism, meaning very disciplined and very centralized. Progressives, on the other hand, had market anarchy.

Their members pay dues, but, beyond that, members choose what they want to give money to. Their money goes to dozens and dozens of different liberal organizations – think tanks, environmental groups, voting rights groups, women’s groups, and groups advocating for Blacks or immigrants or gay rights. 

Do you think the success of the Koch’s, and the right more broadly, has to do exclusively with how they're organized? Or does ideological and political acceptance from politicians come easier on the right?

Most people on the left would say, it's just the sheer amount of money that gives them their power. We don't agree with that. We think it's how the money is spent. The Koch network has been able to persuade Republicans over time to adopt their ideas. They do that through a combination of planting people in campaigns, supporting candidates in their election, and going to bat for politicians once they're in office.

Democrats have money, but they are scattered in the way they spend it. I mean, we shouldn't kid ourselves. There is more money on the left than there used to be. There are a lot of very wealthy progressives. A lot of them live in California. They are not poor. It's not a lack of money. It has to do with how it's spent.

I think a lot of money has been wasted on the left because the left’s theory of politics has not been as oriented toward power. 

Money has been spent on policy advocacy — hiring experts to come up with ideal policy plans. You can have all the policy plans you want, if you don't have people in office or with the power to carry those policies out, it just is not going to work. 

The other big difference is that the Koch network, and in particular Americans for Prosperity, is federated. They have influence in the states. They have paid directors and paid staff in the states so that they can influence not only Congress but state legislatures as well. And they have been successful. They have literally taken over state legislatures across the country. Wisconsin used to be a liberal state and now its state legislature is run by Koch network-type Republicans. Those Republicans can block a Democratic governor. They can gerrymander the districts so that even though Democrats in Wisconsin often get more votes, they just can’t control what happens in policy.

So again, it largely comes down to how money is spent. 

How do the Koch’s persuade the Republican party to embrace their ideology? In 2012, we saw more resistance from mainstream Republicans. Are politicians just following the money? Or are these ideas popular?

Well, these are not popular ideas and they never have been. 

The first part of the answer to this question is that until the 2020 election, generally, many Americans did not bother to vote and certainly not state elections. So, a small organized group that knows what it's doing can deploy a lot of different kinds of techniques at once: generate policy papers, get activists to call in, run television ads, influence nominees in the Republican party. They can do a lot to change the agenda of things that are debated and voted on in legislatures without having a majority. 

I mean, think about it. Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts and he adopted what was essentially Obamacare in Massachusetts. And then he ran for president and he picked Paul Ryan, a favorite of the Koch network, someone who’s career had been fostered by the Koch network, and made him the candidate for vice president. He signaled many ways in which he would adapt to that right-wing wealthy interests on a national stage.

The second part of that answer is that the Koch ultra free market agenda  is not what many ordinary voters in the Republican party ever wanted. Many people say that the Tea Party was created by the Koch network. That's just not true at all. We've done a lot of research on that. The Tea Party organized their own grassroots groups of people. Their primary issues were immigration, conservative Christian ideas about families and gender relations, and, increasingly, anger about changing race relations in the country. That is not the Koch agenda. The Republican party has two separate prongs of radicalization that finally fused under Donald Trump, but they weren't the same thing. And yeah, the Koch network tried to use the grassroots Tea Party. And the Tea Party used the Koch network. 

The Tea Party put Koch type people on TV to say they just want to cut Social Security and Medicare. No, the grassroots Tea Partiers did not want that. We've done interviews with plenty of Tea Party members. A lot of them are on Social Security and Medicare, and they believe real Americans have worked for those things.

Grassoots Tea Party participants – and now backers of Donald Trump — are angry about immigration and the changing racial and ethnic composition of the country. That is not the same thing as the goals of the Koch network.

I think the Tea Party wing and their ethno-nationalism has proved to be more popular. When my colleague, Vanessa Williamson, and I were interviewing Tea Partiers in 2011, Donald Trump was just beginning to go on TV and do his birther thing. Saying Obama was not a real American and that he should show his birth certificate. The people we were interviewing were thrilled by that. If they could, they would have voted for him instead of Mitt Romney. So, I wasn't very surprised in 2015, when Trump announced his candidacy, that he immediately shot to the top and proved a lot more popular than the standard  Republican candidates. And there were what — 16 or 17 other Koch influenced politicians running? 

So it is a complicated argument. We aren't saying the two prongs won’t use each other. They will, but they try to have it both ways. The Koch network people hold their noses and say they won't support Trump. Charles Koch holds his nose and says he won't vote for Trump, but, on the other hand, they have played a huge role in boosting GOP  turnout in Florida, for example. The voters the Koch network helped get to the polls in 2016 to support Senators the Kochs liked voted for Donald Trump, too.

This research is public. Is the ‘left’ listening? Is the ‘right’? The popularity of groups like the Lincoln Project is interesting because it acknowledges that Democrats view Republicans as tactically superior in some ways. 

The left needs to learn certain things from the right. That’s been true for quite a long time. Above all, that personal contact with voters is essential. You have to invest in grassroots work year round, not just during an election cycle. 

That's been part of the Christian right for a long time. They talk to people and begin to see who will open to the messages they start with. They start simply by going to community events and building relationships —  building relationships comes before persuading people politically. It's a very time intensive kind of work. Some of that has been learned by liberals and progresives We can certainly see that sort of work in what Stacey Abrams and the network she helped build did in Georgia from 2014 through 2021.

I will say this, I think our research is read by some people in the Koch network.

They have changed their way of posting information after seeing that we use their websites – but, then, we just go to the Wayback Machine 

Generally, we find more receptivity to our research findings  on the right than we do on the left, which is not my personal preference, but, you know, I'm a scholar. So the work is published. I find a lot of people on the left want us to tell them what they want to hear. People have tried to stop publication of things that they think don't present what they want. As a scholar, I cannot go along with that.  And speaking personally as a liberal Democrat, I also believe that the left can learn from the truth — and from some things right-wing organizers have done.  No one should ever fear the facts.

Why are they so hesitant to see what's helpful?

Because the groups on the left are all competing to get donations.

I mean, on the left they think money is everything. That's not true.

I think that became evident in some 2020 senate races. Jamie Harrison's race is a good example. 

Yes, Harrison never really had a chance in South Carolina no matter how much money he raised. I also think about the enormous amounts of money that was wasted in the Kentucky race, too, where money given  to a very appealing candidatethrown down a rabbit hole. The Democratic Party was not ready to contest South Carolina or Kentucky. They could be, but it would take about a decade. You have to do on the ground organizing  for quite a long time. The Lincoln Project —  and I love their ads — but, let's face it, these are people who have woken up to what has happened to the Republican party too late. This party is an authoritarian party. It's terrifying to look at it at this point.

It is interesting. Their pivot now is — we are a pro-democracy organization. No party. No candidate.

I don't want to speak disrespectfully, but the Lincoln Project Strategy is more symbolically important than likely to make a real difference politically 

I mean, somebody like Liz Cheney, who is about as Koch network as you can get, is speaking up right now. That is a good thing, but it takes more than speaking up. It takes organization. It takes organization that reaches people at the grassroots. Many of the ordinary Republicans out there are supporting this frightening stuff because they have no information except what they see on the news and the right wing media. They're often perfectly good people in some ways who really believe frightening, delusional things. . 

In my research, I travel places and I sit down and listen to people. It doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse because I understand just how deep a lot of the Trump messages of fear and hate have  penetrated. They are not going to be countered by a few television ads.

I wanted to ask quickly about a particular issue. Immigration has become a primary campaign driver of the right. Is there a way to articulate what is really going on without jumping back into this redundant and stale argument about border security?

I guess I'd answer that in two ways. I do think that the southern border is not easily controllable. It is quite porous. And there are countries in the south that are physically devastated. Poor people will try to come to the United States. Even if many of them die in the process, they will try to get across that border. So coming up with some kind of way to manage the border humanely while helping the countries and communities migrants  leave behind is what the Biden plan is. That's gonna take a while to pay off. 

Immigration is the number one issue for the hardcore Tea Party types and Trump, but not for most Americans. Most Americans actually do want to accept some refugees, and do understand that immigrants are part of what makes us strong. That kind of openness to immigration is not an unpopular stand. I think even the hardcore Tea Party has recognized, and Trump has too,  that the dreamers are a sympathetic subgroup.

The problem is the way our media operates. It turns all these things into high stakes, symbolic, simple-minded battles. 

At the same time, the Democratic Party has some pretty extreme advocacy groups that are out there in la-la land. Average Americans think that talking about things like no borders, no immigration service, and defunding the police is crazy.  The Democrats have young activists funded by some of these millionaires and billionaires that are just pushing for things that get a lot of media attention. They all live in big cities and they're all college-educated, moral purists. I mean, they're really puritans.

But it's not as if that kind of thinking is typical for most  Democrats. Democrats have an entire array of political alignments. It is a pretty big task to put that coalition together, particularly if you've got to win elections in Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as in Massachusetts and California.

Right. Or Texas.

Well, Texas is a problem. The Democrats lost Hispanic voters on the border. I mean, many progressives don't take into account that nobody in the real world knows what “Latinx” means. Few Texans of Hispanic backgrounds want to just get rid of ICE — half of them have friends or relatives who work for ICE. 

How does the media do a better job?

I think that it's going to be very hard to reverse the nationalization of media, but it's important to start conveying a more complex story in media. Police reform is not a simple story. I tell my students in my classes, go ahead and attack me if you want, but if you look at Minneapolis, the horrible George Floyd-type incident was not previously addressed by liberal city governments because of police union rules. That is something for people on the left to think about. Are there some limits to what unions should be able to do to undermine the effectiveness of, for example, reform-oriented police chief? I would ask students to think about that. I would ask the media to present some of that. It is an interesting story. Furthermore, when you do surveys of minority populations in big cities that have neighborhoods with a lot of crime, they don't want the police defunded. They want the police to behave well and treat them with dignity, but when they call the police, they want the police to come. I have to say that when I present such facts to my students, it doesn't come as a surprise to the minority students, but it sure comes as a surprise to a lot of the white ones.

It also helps to have a historical perspective. If you go back and study American immigration, like my colleague Mary Waters does, it's always been the case that the immigrants who are recently settled here are not always thrilled about the next wave of people coming across the border. That has always been true. And it's true for many Hispanic groups now.

Republicans are going to make some headway among Hispanic populations unless Democrats get real about what it is they are saying. 

It's up to Democrats to find a way to be a center-left party, one that really does include a variety of considerations and voices. That is obviously what Joe Biden is trying to do, but Joe Biden is 78 years old. It's much harder to build a majority and win U.S. elections on the left because the ideology that sells in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts does not sell in all of the other places you have to win.

Democrats have to win more votes, in more places in order to have a chance to carry the Senate or the electoral college. Or even, after all the gerrymandering that has occurred, the House of Representatives. I actually think there's no more important issue than voting rights right now. I think that it is very possible that all of these voter restriction laws add up and tip the next two elections.

Are Democrats addressing this concern? 

The stakes are enormous. I am guardedly optimistic, but also very worried. 

Even though I studied the right, I was surprised at the level of fealty towards a violent form of authoritarianism that we have seen. I am very worried about the purging of election officials and the changing of the rules. I'm much more worried about what's happening at the lower levels of government than about the GOP in Congress 

In order to advance voting reforms, I think the left will need to set aside legislative proposals about getting the big money out of politics. You're not going to get big money out of politics. Focus on voter reforms that will protect people's right to vote, and maybe the anti-gerrymandering stuff, because that's popular.  Try to pass that. Don't worry about changing the filibuster across the board if it can be modified for voting reforms. Don't worry about getting all money out of politics.

Get the wishlist out of there. 

Go with the core things that the average American will say, okay, that's fair, including a lot of Republicans, because I think there are about 20% of the Republican party base that understands there's something happening here that maybe isn't a good thing. I hope so. I mean, the next year will tell because I think if the U.S. House flips in 2022, that sets the stage for overturning the presidential election 2024, doesn't it?