David Koch Was One of America’s Most Powerful Politicians, though Voters Never Elected Him to Anything

By Lisa Graves

David Koch was more than a billionaire or a son of a Bircher. He was one of the most powerful politicians in modern American history–even though he was never elected to anything.

Make no mistake, despite some of the fawning eulogies or warm remembrances of his “honkish” laughter, he was a real villain on the most important issues facing us today.

His extreme political agenda was overwhelmingly rejected when David ran for Vice President in 1980. Running against Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Koch failed to win even a million votes after spending more than $2 million of his fortune from Koch Industries, the business he and his brother inherited and made into one of the most powerful private companies on earth.

Original documents unearthed by KochDocs shed new light on that agenda and how David Koch and his brother used their wealth to move it from the fringe to domination of the GOP.

For example, the 1980 Libertarian Party platform contains a laundry list of radical proposals that are now mainstream Republican ideology, including abolishing the U.S. Department of Energy and popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The ticket also opposed anti-pollution measures and called for the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service, public lands and waterways, as well as Social Security.

Notably, the Libertarian Party also vehemently rejected all forms of campaign finance laws, going as far as to call for the repeal of the Federal Elections Commission Act, which established rules that prevented people like David Koch from using his vast wealth to exert undue influence over elections or policymaking.

In one newly discovered letter on David Koch’s letterhead, he complained that Federal Election Campaign Act prevented him from doing what they needed “to marshal all our available resources to continue our forward progress” on the Libertarian Party agenda because the law “severely limited the amount any individual could spend to help a political candidate or a political party,” adding:

“All I wanted to do was to help the candidate of my choice, and yet it was a crime for me to do so! But there was one exception to this law: a candidate, himself, could contribute an unlimited amount to his own campaign.” So he became ran as a candidate to be Vice President.

Thirty years after he ran for office, a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court cast aside long-standing legal precedents and used the First Amendment to bar Congress from regulating outside spending, which unleashed David and Charles Koch to spend unlimited money to try to dominate and capture American democracy through the power of their wealth.   

I’ve been studying his role in his brother’s political empire since 2009 when suddenly activists were redirected from blaming Wall Street for crashing our economy to blaming newly-elected President Obama and his efforts to get more Americans access to life-saving health care.

What I discovered when I pulled on that thread was an alphabet soup of front groups with deceptively positive names that were all tied to these billionaire brothers, including a group they controlled dubbed “Americans for Prosperity” (AFP), which are essential to obtaining their radical agenda.

Others were looking closely at the Kochs too, but the documented facts about how AFP was fueling the Tea Party did not stop David Koch from lying to Jane Mayer when she asked him about funding that political movement in her breakthrough story for the New Yorker, which led to her authoritative biography of the Koch shell groups in her book, Dark Money. 

Facts about climate change also did not stop David Koch from funding groups lying about the reality of climate change caused by the burning of carbon. He even suggested that if the planet were warming that would be great, as he and his brother funded an array of groups trying to obstruct efforts to limit carbon pollution–despite the overwhelming science against them.

All the while, used his fortune to buy a veneer of respectability that his destructive policies did not merit, gaining positive press for funding cancer research even though the companies he and his brother led spewed carcinogens into the air and water of communities near their plants, as Chris Leonard’s new book, Kochland, documents in detail.  

David Koch’s own carbon footprint was almost incalculably gargantuan. And like a greenhouse gas his legacy will remain a powerful, destructive force for decades ahead due to his role in thwarting efforts to mitigate the devastating climate changes America and the world are witnessing.

It will also extend because he and his brother helped pack the U.S. Supreme Court with a majority of men chosen to rollback our legal precedents to the robber baron era, according to their ally and beneficiary, Leonard Leo.

None of this should come as a surprise: David Koch’s true legacy was always extreme greed, and, that’s what is truly sad.

Lisa Graves is the Director of the KochDocs project, and she formerly served as Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Office of Legal Policy at the U.S. Department of Justice and in other posts. Her bio is available here. Follow her on twitter @thelisagraves.