America’s purplest plutocrats, the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, stand to reap the fruits of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision this November in the US mid-term elections. They are determined to manipulate the democratic processand overturn the Democratic majority in the Senate, preparing to outspend both Republicans and Democrats to the tune of $125 million. But as the Kochs flaunt their power to buy airtime, fund think-tanks, and pocket pundits, they are coming up against a different reality. It turns out that buying an election doesn’t mean a slam dunk, and that Americans will fight for fair play and a fair society.
The brothers’ ideological work is cut out for them, since the electorate across both parties is overwhelmingly wedded to ideas like the state taking care of the sick and elderly. A memo issued by the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity explained they needed to undermine the importance Americans place on “taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.” They have funded a barrage of TV ads attacking Obamacare, featuring a mother talking directly to camera musing over its disadvantages, which has as its ultimate motive discrediting the idea of government as an agent of positive economic change for struggling Americans.
While targeted at unseating Democrats, much of their spending is also intended to consolidate their influence in the Republican party through the leverage of an intransigent minority of Tea-Party legislators. Espousing a libertarian ideology, the brothers have a deep, vested interest in preventing state regulation of their huge investments in energy, transportation, and manufacturing. Growth of green energy technologies like solar and wind threatens to devalue their capital, and they have been instrumental through ALEC in blocking state legislation favoring the new technology.
Although the declining white vote is being eclipsed by the multiracial reality of America today, the brothers’ political strategy is to arouse the Republican base and encourage the disenfranchisement of Democratic voters. The Obamacare ads are clearly targeted at married women at home with kids, who along with old white men, are reliably Republican voters.
The first result of the Kochs’ efforts was seen in the North Carolina Republican primary. Over $2 million poured into the primary to ensure the plutocrats’ candidate of choice, Thom Tillis, was selected to run against sitting Democrat Kay Hagan. According to Chris Kromm on Democracy Now, “We saw two big players coming into the primary. One, nationally, was [Koch-funded] Americans for Prosperity. …They have spent more money attacking Kay Hagan than any other candidate across the country. And that started last fall. I mean, they’ve just been blanketing, a carpet bombing of the state of these attack ads, kind of trying to soften up support for Kay Hagan. Then, on the other side, you saw millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting Tillis to really make sure he could survive this primary challenge from the tea party right.”
Although the Republican establishment-backed candidate, Tillis himself is so far to the right he is indistinguishable from his tea party challengers. As speaker of the North Carolina House, he pushed through a tax bill that cut income taxes on the rich, shifting the tax burden to an increased sales tax that affected the majority of people. He passed a bill to prevent the state from accepting Medicaid expansion funds under Obamacare – preventing hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians from access to health coverage and increasing their risk of death from illness. The legislature also passed a series of voter restriction changes that disproportionately affect poor and minority voters.
Tillis was able to do this because North Carolina, like many other states in the South and some in the mid-West, saw a virtually complete takeover of the legislature by right-wing Republicans in 2010, followed by the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor in 2012. Since then, a state once known as one of the most moderate in the South has become a virtual laboratory for Tea Party-style policies.
Yet despite the Kochs’ propaganda onslaught and Tillis victory, there is mounting opposition to the legislature’s extremism. The growing “Moral Monday” movement has intercepted and directly challenged the Koch’s social Darwinism. One Monday in April 2013, a group of advocates for workers, civil rights and other issues entered the state capitol and refused to leave. Several members of the group, led by Rev. William Barber, head of North Carolina’s NAACP, were arrested that day, but each Monday since then the protesters returned. A rally in February this year drew more than 80,000 people, and public approval ratings for the governor and state assembly have tanked.
The protests in North Carolina have the advantage that the state house is located in Raleigh, at the apex of the “Triangle Area,” an urban and industrialized region that is considerably more moderate than the rural areas of the state. Significantly, however, the movement has spread rapidly from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and some mid-Western states, becoming a rallying point for resistance to the Republican political elite. Although they have campaigned on a variety of issues, from voting rights to public education, events have created a focus on supporting Medicaid expansion in states where governors have refused the Obamacare provision for federal subsidy.
Atlanta, Georgia, is another site of resistance. Nearly 40 people were arrested protesting a bill that would bar the expansion of Medicaid. Rev. Raphael Warnock, who led the protests, told Democracy Now: “This was an effort to provide Medicaid, to provide health insurance, to some 650,000 Georgians. Georgia has the fifth-highest level of uninsured persons in the nation. We are witnessing, in this very moment, the closing of a number of rural hospitals. And so, while this issue is tragically and unfortunately racialized, often by those who are pushing against the Affordable Care Act, the fact is, it crosses racial lines. It moves from urban to rural issues. There are a lot of people who are suffering as a result of this.”
The South has been historically a bastion of reaction: Southern Democrats blocked the New Deal for African-Americans and resisted desegregation until federal intervention enforced Civil Rights Laws. As is well known, these led to a mass transfer of white Democratic voters to Republicans through Nixon’s Southern strategy. But in 2014 the American South is undergoing important changes. While Republicans have been able to leverage the deep strain of antigovernment sentiment, especially virulent in the South, and exploit racism, the growing fight over Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage is undermining its traditional conservatism and the racial divisions that have divided workers.
Not only did last Thursday’s one-day strike of workers in the fast-food industry mobilize workers in major cities like Chicago, Boston, New York, Washington DC, and Seattle for a $15 hourly wage and the right to form unions, but it also spread to towns in the deep South like Opelika, Alabama, West Memphis, Arkansas, and Southhaven, Mississippi, as well as cities in Florida, Texas, Missouri and the Carolinas. In all, workers in 158 US cities and 30 countries took part in the challenge to mega-corporations that are suffocating large swathes of the working population.
This growing movement defies the culture of intimidation and low-wage economics prevalent in the Southern states. No matter what the Kochs do, if the Democrats project a clear message of opposition to inequality, they can stem the Republican tide.