Why the Left Needs Its Koch Brothers

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Richard Striner, a history professor at Washington College, is the author of Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.

It’s time for American liberals to pull out their checkbooks and fund a truly powerful campaign that will challenge the Tea Party people and their sponsors.  Challenge them with old-fashioned economic populism.  Two tremendous and headline-grabbing protest marches should be sponsored very soon by the Left—marches of unemployed Americans holding placards and banners emblazoned with a simple slogan:  “Jobs Now.”

Our historical tradition of protest marches on Washington began in 1894, when a wealthy and public-spirited man named Jacob Coxey led an “army” of unemployed Civil War veterans to Grover Cleveland’s Washington, demanding a “Good Roads Bill” that would put all the unemployed veterans who saved their country to work building modern America.

Nothing happened.

But the next great march of the unemployed would have extremely consequential results:  the 1932 “Bonus Army” of jobless veterans who served their country during World War I played a major role in toppling the presidential incumbent, Herbert Hoover.

The radical Right and its super-wealthy sponsors have diverted us from our major challenge—restoring lost employment—long enough.  But with political media dominated by the tawdry melodrama of “debt reduction,” only powerful and grassroots action by a newly-invigorated Left can help us put things back in perspective.

The anti-government fanatics of the Tea Party who have taken over the Republican Party—fanatics whose hatred of government approaches outright anarchism—were bankrolled in secret by some super-wealthy manipulators, the now-infamous Koch brothers, David and Charles.  People like the Kochs are really driven by a combination of dogmatic ideology and economic self-interest, narrowly construed.

Our unemployment crisis has been caused by conditions that the super-rich, to a significant extent, created.  It was after all an unholy network of affluent and wealthy finaglers—mortgage brokers pushing A.R.M.s that were bound to fail, investors who packaged these mortgages into “collateralized debt obligations,” and hustlers at financial firms who insured these bad securities with “credit default swaps”—who unleashed the chain reaction that dragged our economy down.  And with the damage to middle-class and lower-class purchasing power that was caused by this massive recession, the super-rich evade their duty to the rest of us:  they show little interest in investing their money in job-creating enterprises here in America.  They prefer to keep investing in sterile speculation or they send their investments abroad without a twinge of patriotic concern about the needs of this country and its people.  And many of them—people like the Kochs—defame the very idea of governmental public works that could put the unemployed back to work.

These people are in many ways what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “economic royalists.”  What they want is a nation that is dominated—ruled, in effect—by people like themselves, while the rest of us suffer from a mediocre standard of living or sink into squalor.  What FDR described as the royalists’ lust for power makes people like the Kochs try to ruin any efforts by government to broaden our nation’s prosperity.  With their Tea Party gambit, they thwarted the power of Barack Obama to promote any further recovery.

Worse, they have dominated politics and headlines by replacing the issue that many Americans care about most—the loss of jobs—with the phony issue of a “debt crisis.”  Yes, a phony issue, for a reason that our economic history confirms:  the relationship of our national debt to our national prosperity will always depend upon the overall economic context.  Here’s a little-known fact (look it up, if you like):  the accumulated deficit spending that it took to beat the Axis during World War II was so great that our national debt became greater than our GNP as of fiscal year 1945.  But with the full employment that America achieved in the Second World War (the Depression vanished like a will o’ the wisp) the United States emerged as the wealthiest nation in the world, fully capable of funding such things as the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the Cold War military build-up.

What the Left has to do in the next year or so is to find some politicized liberal philanthropists to counteract the power of the royalists.  And there are surely many wealthy Americans whose decency (and dollars) can be summoned.

There are many fine wealthy individuals—people like Warren Buffet and Ted Turner—who support enlightened public policy.  Perhaps, with a bit of cultivation, they would help to fight the arrogant elitists who are giving their class a bad name.  But the Left needs to give them a proposal.

So here goes:  they should sponsor two marches of the unemployed that would play out in very rapid sequence.  The first of these marches would converge upon the lair of the Kochs.  Thousands—preferably hundreds of thousands—of unemployed people should throng the office suites of the Koch brothers and ask them the following question:  why can’t our nation’s rich create jobs?  Or they could ask them this personal question:  “If my unemployment compensation is ending and I won’t be able to feed my family, what should I do?”  Or this one:  “If you found yourself broke and played out, what would be your most realistic course of action?  Slit your own throat?”

Then the second great march would converge upon Washington.  An enormous human influx, imbued with all the fervor of the civil rights marchers who changed our nation’s history in 1963, should flood the nation’s capital with unemployed people who will seek out the Tea Party zealots in Congress and confront them with a non-negotiable demand:  “Jobs Now.”

In this manner Obama could make common cause with a powerful constituency.  And together, they will tell John Boehner, Paul Ryan, the Kochs, Fox News, and all the Tea Party ignoramuses—in the full glare of national publicity—that their days of influence are numbered.

Will the organizers and the donors emerge who could make such a groundswell happen?  It could make all the difference in election year 2012.

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