Despite the kaleidoscopic proliferation of political media over the past decade, most of what Americans hear and read about the workings of our democracy can be politely termed superficial. Only very rarely does journalism fully penetrate the glittering illusions created by partisans on every side to reveal the grittier realities. When a reporter does blast through the usual scrim of deception, that is worth noting — as in the case of Jane Mayer’s investigation in the current issue of The New Yorker of the Koch family and its malign influence.

For decades, the Koch brothers, billionaire heirs of one of the largest privately held companies in the United States, have covertly sought to promote their hard-right ideology through third parties, think tanks, foundations and front groups. Their late father, Fred, having earned a fortune assisting the nascent Soviet oil industry, eventually became a right-wing extremist and member of the John Birch Society. His sons, especially David Koch, have not only expanded the family business but infiltrated their father’s political views into the mainstream.

Happily for them, the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on nonprofit and “educational” ventures has served their corporate priorities perfectly. While Mayer cites many examples of self-serving Koch philanthropy that match their more direct program of buying politicians and policies, the enterprise that is currently most pertinent is the tea party movement.

Although the Kochs cannot be said to directly control the tea party outfits, they have succeeded in infusing their priorities, strategies and ideas into the movement through an organization called Americans for Prosperity. Typically, a Koch Industries spokeswoman sought to deny that David Koch, his brother Charles, their company or their foundations have funded the tea parties — and technically that may be true. David Koch says he has never attended a tea party event and that nobody representing the tea party “has ever even approached me.”

It certainly seems unlikely that David Koch has ever encountered any of the folks who turn up at a typical tea party event or that he has ever showed up at a congressional town hall meeting to scream about health care reform. He lives on Park Avenue in a 9,000-square-foot duplex apartment and spends his time cultivating elitist Manhattan society with donations to New York cultural institutions, notably the ballet. He used to divide his time between a yacht in the south of France and a palatial home in the Hamptons, where he hosted “an East Coast version of Hugh Hefner’s soirees” in the clothes-optional Playboy mansion.

In short, Mr. Koch is not exactly a pitchfork populist and has no interest in mingling with such unfashionable types. He also doesn’t care much what they think. A former Koch adviser told The New Yorker that the Kochs back the tea party movement for the most cynical reasons. “This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves.”

The kind of things that the Kochs want to “get done” — aside from advancing their social profile in places like the Upper East Side — mostly involve reducing taxes and regulations on themselves and their companies.

If they had their way, Social Security and Medicare would disappear tomorrow, and so would any other program that benefits families without a billion dollars at their disposal. So would the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act and every other obstacle to their massive effusions of deadly filth. Lately, they have been trying to prevent stricter regulation of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, because their company produces enormous amounts of the stuff for commercial use.

Bruce Bartlett, a conservative economist and historian who worked at one of the many right-wing think tanks funded by Koch money, believes that the Koch brothers are “trying to shape and control and channel the populist uprising into their own policies.” Perhaps the tea party activists should take a harder look at those policies — and try to figure out whether the national interest truly coincides with the avaricious, destructive attitude of these “libertarians.”

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2010

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