'Citizen Koch' Filmmakers: Watching This Movie Is 'Civil Disobedience'
The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC marked a shift in how America’s elections can be financed, allowing virtually unlimited corporate spending. In “Citizen Koch,” filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal tell the story of the effects of the Citizens United decision through the viewpoints of three lifelong Republicans in Wisconsin.
All three are state employees who don’t like the direction in which their party is going, with the billionaire industrialist brothers David and Charles Koch’s financial support of the tea party and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s limiting of collective bargaining rights for public employees.
“Citizen Koch” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and was scheduled to air on PBS last year, but according to an article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, the public broadcasting network pulled it to placate David Koch, who has donated millions to PBS. The documentary opened in select cities in June.
In San Francisco to discuss their new film, Deal and Lessin, co-producers of several Michael Moore movies and co-directors of the 2008 Oscar-nominated film about Hurricane Katrina, “Trouble the Water,” sat down to talk about the civil war in the Republican Party, how the Citizens United decision created the opportunity for money to secretly flow into elections at all levels and how the Supreme Court ruling affects everything from the water we drink to the schools our kids attend.
Emily Wilson: How did you end up covering what was happening in Wisconsin?
Carl Deal: When you’re making a film, you want real drama that’s unfolding in real time and that will make the points you’re trying to make or will teach you something. We’d heard about one of the convenings of Charles and David Koch, the billionaire conservative industrialists. They have these gatherings where they bring together some of the wealthiest conservatives, and they plot election strategies and political strategies and messaging strategies.
So, we had gone there to cover a meeting in Palm Springs, and just shortly after that meeting, we heard that in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, the newly elected governor, whose largest individual supporters were David and Charles Koch, was about to eviscerate collective bargaining for public employees, and there was a battle on the horizon. We were invited by my brother, who’s a teacher, so he’s a public employee who works for the university in Milwaukee. He said, “You should be here because all the stuff you’re talking about with money and politics is about to happen here.” So we covered the drama as it unfolded, and it was quite a story.
EW: Your film focuses on Republicans who didn’t like what was happening in Wisconsin. How did you find them?
Tia Lessin: Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Republican Party. A little town, Ripon, Wisconsin, claims that very proudly. It was a very populist, progressive party, and that’s where that began. Wisconsin is somewhat of a purple state, and we were struck by the protests at the Capitol when we first saw the crowds protesting Scott Walker’s so-called reforms — they weren’t the usual suspects. It wasn’t just nurses and teachers and students — they were firefighters and cops. There were also farmers on their tractors, coming down from rural areas. And we saw a lot of Republicans with signs saying “Not my Republican Party.” We were curious about that; it surprised us.
It wasn’t easy to find a lot of Republicans who wanted to talk to us. We ended up focusing on three of these people. One is a nurse at a VA hospital and a lifelong Republican and a SEIU member. One is a corrections officer from Ripon, Wisconsin. One is a teacher and a beef farmer in southwestern La Crosse. They’re NRA members, and one is an anti-abortion activist. All of them strongly felt the Republican Party that they care deeply about had betrayed them because of the Koch brothers and money in politics and because Scott Walker was laying into them as public servants. They were conflicted because this was their party, and their party was attacking them. They were deeply engaged in the recall movement.
EW: Why do you think they agreed to talk to you?
TL: We were very upfront with them: “Here’s who we are, Google us, watch these movies.” They’d also seen “Trouble the Water,” and they liked it.
CD: Also the level of political engagement was so high. It was all anybody was talking about, and everybody had an opinion. They felt so passionately about this that they were OK with this, and they’re very proud to have their voices in this film.
TL: There’s a civil war going on in the Republican Party — and right now they’re on the losing side. These voices aren’t being amplified. So they really were excited they would have a chance to speak, not just to their friends and neighbors and union members, but on a national stage.
EW: What do you think is the worst thing about Citizens United?
CD: The thing that surprised us is when we were making the film — we started shortly after the 2012 midterms, the first federal election after the decision was rendered — it was a tea party revolution in Washington fueled by a lot of big money that started to flow. The conventional wisdom was this just applied to federal elections, that it had no implications for disclosure.
What we found out is that it created so many opportunities for money to flow secretly into elections at the state levels, because 22 states across the country who had restrictions on corporate spending or strict disclosure requirements stopped enforcing those laws. About a year and a half after they rendered their decision, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to make a clarification when the state of Montana wanted to enforce its own bans on corporate spending in elections, and the Supreme Court refused to hear that case. That sent the message nationwide that the intent of this decision was to allow unlimited spending in elections anywhere.
TL: Even though the Supreme Court said disclosure is still important, the effect of it has been to eviscerate disclosure because corporations care about their public image, so they don’t necessarily want to spend this money publicly — there are repercussions. They make contributions and donations to nonprofit ideological corporations like Americans for Prosperity, a front group for the Kochs. They don’t have to report where this money comes from, and they spend it in elections. So there’s no opportunity for the voters to understand who’s spending all this. And it’s titanic!
The other terrible thing about Citizens United is at the time people were saying this only applies to outside spending — there’s the checks that go directly to candidates and then there’s this other spending, which is not direct contributions. What’s become clear is that the logic of Citizens United has been extended to direct contributions. The Supreme Court has lifted all limits on what an individual could spend across the board on all candidates. There used to be a maximum — no longer. So, the Koch brothers and other billionaires can spend on all 535 members of Congress. They can put a little in each pocket. That’s crazy — it’s crazy.
EW: Do you think what the Kochs are doing is unprecedented? Do you think they are affecting politics in a way others aren’t because they have so much money?
TL: When we started the film, it wasn’t clear to us the level of engagement they had in Wisconsin. It became clear that not only were they nationally involved, but also they were deeply involved with Scott Walker’s campaign, spending a lot on his behalf. We thought this was a metaphor about political spending, not just about the Kochs. But it turns out they spent $400 million in the 2012 elections. That’s more than Karl Rove spent. It’s tons more than the collective labor unions spent, and they represent hundreds of thousands of members.
So, they’re not the only guys out there doing this, and it didn’t start with Citizens United, and it’s not purely a Republican problem — there are billionaires on all sides, but they have really changed the rules of the game. They are exploiting this in every way possible, and they’re doing it to great effect.
CD: It’s hard to quantify. Did the tea party come out of nowhere? No, it emerged out of somewhere. It came out of the split of one of the Kochs’ original groups, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which split into two groups: FreedomWorks, which is sort of the mother ship for the tea party movement, and Americans for a New Prosperity, which is more directly associated with the Kochs, was playing a major role in ginning up the tea party movement. So, they’ve had a profound effect on the way our politics work.
TL: You’ve got to remember what they stand for. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket. What did his platform stand for? Shutting down the postal service. Ending Social Security. Ending Medicare and Medicaid. Eliminating the minimum wage. Eliminating regulations on businesses. Abolishing taxes on corporations and the wealthiest. That’s the agenda, and they’re having great success. They’re privatizing the post office now. Whenever there’s a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage, they’ve put in a lot of money to opposing that. The EPA is doing a whole lot less enforcing regulations. That agenda benefits them a lot in terms of their business interests. They cloak it in ideology, but it’s all about profit.
We premiered this movie at Sundance in 2013, and their net worth at that time was $68 billion, making the two of them wealthier than Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. Now, about a year later, we’re releasing this film, their net worth has climbed by $32 billion. Their net worth is about $100 billion. So they did pretty well this past year. It’s like one of our characters in the film says: “How wealthy do they need to be?”
EW: What do you think drives them? Do you have any sense of why they’re doing this?
CD: I don’t know we have any insight into the Kochs. My observation is they’re not people who’ve ever not been part of the wealthy elite. Their father pioneered a refining process and made a killing in the Soviet Union with it and built an energy empire here, which they’ve inherited. Their father was also a founder of the John Birch Society and was a fierce anti-communist in the most irrational ways. If I had to guess, it’s a combination of not having much interaction with normal people and being indoctrinated with this right-wing ideology.
EW: What are you hoping people will do once they see the movie?
TL: We hope people will watch the movie, because that act in itself is sort of civil disobedience. Because of Koch money, this film was kept off the airwaves with PBS. We are doing our best to make sure this movie is seen far and wide. If people come see it that sends a message to the Kochs, and also to public media, that money should not trump the public interest.
Afterwards, there are a lot of local ballot measures to try and reverse Citizens United for folks organizing around, and we hope this film will be a tool. It’s such a big issue, and sometimes we feel so helpless and powerless. It’s not just money and politics. It affects everything we do: where we send our kids to school, how much we pay their teachers, the curriculum they study, the water we drink. All this money has a direct impact on us and our children and our communities, and we’ve got to do something about it — at least engage in conversation about it. That’s the start.