The 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the door — no, opened the floodgates — to unlimited and unaccountable political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals. The case itself rose from a film about Hillary Clinton that was funded by a group opposing her candidacy for President. And now this film, “Citizen Koch” takes on Charles and David Koch, the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential, and least known of the individuals who have taken advantage of the Citizens United ruling and the corrupting, distorting, and toxic effect on democracy.
The filmmakers make it clear from the beginning whose side they are on, opening with a racist quote from Koch paterfamilias and c0-founder of the John Birch Society Fred Koch, then cutting to Sarah Palin, shouting “Game on!” to Barack Obama at an Americans for Prosperity rally. Americans for Prosperity is just one of the more than 30 organizations known to be funded by the Kochs. It then goes back two and a half years earlier to examine the impact the Kochs have had in just a small but representative sample of issues and events, focusing in detail on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, kept in office despite a recall vote, thanks to enormous amounts of money for an “end the recall madness campaign,” none of which was disclosed until after the vote, when it was too late to affect the outcome.
The unexpected hero of the film turns out to be Buddy Roemer, former Governor and Congressman from Louisiana who has served or run as Democrat, Republican, and independent. His fresh, frank outlook and good cheer despite being ignored by contributors, voters, and the other candidates is a bracing antidote to the despair and animosity surrounding him. One Rove/Koch operative refuses to answer questions about the benefits to their business interests that the policies the Koch brothers are promoting and another insists, outside of a Koch-funded bus filled with get-out-the-vote callers representing themselves as “volunteers for Americans for Prosperity,” that his group is not “election advocacy,” just “issue” education. By contrast, Roemer’s candor — and his inability to get any support — are telling.
But the inescapable conclusion from the film is that there is something even more distressing than the impact of near-unfathomable individual wealth on politics: the impact on public understanding of the issues. As sort of Gresham’s Law of information, the availability of outlets for unlimited sources with their own spins and agendas. A group of people take in the anti-Semitic-fueled rant of a John Birch Society leader (he actually comes down on Hitler’s side regarding the threat posed by Jews), and one of them gratefully says it is good to be able to get information from those who are knowledgeable. Another man, told that the money the Kochs spent on elections is vastly greater than that spent by the unions (as much a target of the Kochs as government regulations and the social safety net), simply refuses to believe it. That same attitude — and the power of the Kochs to keep this film from being aired on New York’s PBS station to get this story told — is the real problem.
Parents should know that this film includes some disturbing language and bigotry.
Family discussion: How do other countries handle this problem? What is the best way to evaluate the impact of political spending by all sides?
If you like this, try: Koch Brothers Exposed and Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty