The war on democracy in America

Part 1 of 4

When President Woodrow Wilson famously said we must “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” most Americans assumed that he meant the threat to democracy would come from outside the USA, from foreign sources, not from within our own country. Today, however, the danger comes from a home-grown, well-heeled, and surprisingly well-organized network of radical-right ideologues and self-interested “oligarchs.” 

They have clandestinely penetrated not only our political parties and processes, but even our academic centers of learning and our communications media. This is a shrewdly disguised  attempt to radically change how people think about our constitutional democracy and system of government. The trend has been well-documented by Jane Meyer in her excellent book, “Dark Money,” published by Doubleday in 2016. These funds derive largely from a silent national and international strategy of “steal, conceal and deal,” which goes by the short-hand name of “kleptocracy.” The “kleptocrats” would like to keep it that way.

It is generally recognized (and well-documented) how the billionaire Koch brothers, the Mercers, the Bradleys, the Wynns, the Adelsons and others have poured tens of millions of dollars into election campaigns in favor of individual conservative political candidates, and against perceived “liberal” or “environmentalist” candidates seen as potential  enemies of free-market, laissez-faire corporate capitalism. (Most of these funds have been and continue to be provided anonymously as “dark money” to avoid public scrutiny and to evade campaign finance laws and taxes.) 

Less well-known, however, are the hundreds of millions of dollars these same billionaires have been pouring into a network of so-called think tanks, front groups, fake charities, societies, trusts, LLCs, shell companies and tax-free foundations, all designed to flood political offices, the academic community, the public and the media with right-wing propaganda intended to change and stifle liberal thinking, undermine people’s democracy, and deny citizens’ voting rights.

Prominent among these groups on the radical right, of course, are the well-known Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society and the American Legislative Exchange Council. But there are dozens more, operating by stealth and secrecy. They can often be spotted by their misleading, patriotic-sounding titles making liberal use of terms like “Freedom,” “Prosperity,” “Enterprise,” “Reason,” “Leadership,” and “Public Choice.” To a surprising degree these organizations are centrally funded and secretly linked to each other. A leading thinker and guru connected to a number of these groups is the ultra right-wing economist James McGill Buchanan, founder of the ideological “Center for Study of Public Choice” at George Mason University (the law school there has recently been re-named Antonin Scalia University), who is a leading “thinker” and architect of the anti-democracy movement in America.

Two of the top “dark money” funders of these right-wing, secretive organizations today, of course, are the infamous Charles and David Koch brothers. They inherited Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in America, from their father Fred Koch, who is perhaps best remembered as the co-founder of the infamous John Birch Society. Back in the Cold War years and Red Scare of the 1950s, Fred Koch showed his hand by claiming that Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower was “part of the Communist conspiracy to destroy freedom in America.”  Really? Where were the Kochs when the balloons of war went up? Nowhere to be seen. Charles Koch recalled his father as “a John Wayne-type figure who passionately hated Collectivism.”  The Koch brothers grew up listening to and swallowing these kinds of diatribes against popular democracy in America.

Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.