Jonathan P. Baird: The 1 percent owns the GOP, but progressives have the numbers to thwart their agenda

For the Monitor
Wednesday, April 19, 2017

These are uneasy times for those of us on the liberal/progressive side. Donald Trump’s win was a devastating blow with an avalanche of awful consequences. It is painful to contemplate all the harm that will ensue. Revolted at the prospect of four years of Trump, many liberals and progressives are mesmerized at the Russia collusion story and whether we are watching Watergate II, ending in President Mike Pence.

While the Trump show is perversely fascinating to watch, to focus there is to miss a deeper political picture. In spite of what has seemed like increasingly favorable population demographics, Democrats nationally have been getting beaten badly.

The White House aside, Republicans now dominate state governments. They control both chambers in 32 states, including 17 with veto-proof majorities. Democrats control the legislature in just 13 states. Only five of these chambers have veto-proof majorities. Republicans control the governor’s office in 33 states and Democrats control 16, with one state having an independent governor supported by the Democrats.

By any objective standard, the Republicans have had extraordinary success. They control all branches of the government. Nationally, during the Barack Obama presidency, the Democrats lost more than 900 state legislative seats.

Beyond just the numbers is the further reality that the far-right fringe has become a dominant faction in the Republican Party. The moderate Republican, denigrated as a Republican in Name Only, or RINO, is an endangered species. The Republican Party now aims to gut the government by wholesale elimination of federal programs, cutting taxes, removing regulation and shredding the safety net.

Democrats and progressives need to ask: How did we get to such a weak place? Reading the news and watching social media, you do not see much self-criticism or very deep analysis by still shell-shocked Democrats as to how and why we have gotten clobbered.

What we’re up against

No one likes to air dirty laundry. Also there seems to be a compulsion to just keep doing what we have done, only do it harder. Rationalizations include: “We were close,” “the Russians,” “Jim Comey,” etc. The truth is that with the notable exception of the presidency of Obama, we have been getting our asses kicked in much of the country.

Most liberals or progressives don’t have a good grasp of the scope or depth of what we are up against. The picture is hard to see and for a good reason: Much has been hidden from the public. Secrecy is part of the brilliance of the design.

The arch-conservative billionaires have been spending an almost limitless fortune for a generation to create what has been called a “fully integrated network.” In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, this spending further accelerated. By joining forces, these billionaires have advanced an extreme strain of conservative politics which serves their bottom line, the public be damned.

New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposes the extreme right-wing billionaire methodology and agenda in her brilliant book Dark Money.

A central part of this story is the role of Charles and David Koch, the infamous Koch brothers. Moving from the right-wing netherworld of the John Birch Society to the heart of the Republican Party, they have been key political operators in building what has been called the Kochtopus. They have subsidized think tanks, created academic programs, hired a flotilla of lobbyists, financed legal groups and advanced political front groups and operatives.

Using the guise of philanthropy and being ever mindful of secrecy, they have created a private political machine that Mayer correctly says threatens to subsume the Republican Party.

In doing this, they invented a right-wing universe of jobs and career opportunities for their wannabees: Think Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity, State Policy Network, Foundation for Government Accountability and the American Legislative Exchange Council – and that is just for starters.

Of course, the Kochs did not build this remarkable structure alone. Other hugely wealthy people have been on board. Mayer names, among others, Robert Mercer, a hedge fund billionaire; Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon banking and Gulf oil fortunes; Henry and Lynde Bradley, who made a fortune through defense contracts; John C. Olin, a chemical and munitions firm owner; the Coors family of Colorado brewers; and the DeVos family, founders of Amway.

Together, over a period of almost 50 years, they have raised billions of dollars toward their goal of an America modeled on the Gilded Age before the FDR presidency. They aim to dismantle every safety net and government program created for workers, the elderly, the poor, the disabled and the environment while obliterating all campaign finance law. These folks think big. Their vision is rapacious social Darwinism, a you-are-on-your-own society with greed as the highest value.

Doubters might consider the current example of environmental protection and the evisceration of the EPA. As Mayer points out, coal, oil and gas companies form the nucleus of the Koch donor network. These companies are major funders of the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming. It is no accident Trump picked Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change denier, to head the EPA. That was a gift to the Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry. Through funding cuts and the elimination of programs, the EPA is being reduced to a shell of its former self.

Duplicate that model throughout the whole government and you will have an idea what the Kochs and their allies are up to.

‘Don’t mourn, organize’

The Democrats have their billionaires, too – such as George Soros and Tom Steyer – but the sides are not symmetrical. The overwhelming billionaire money is on the Republican side, and it has long been that way.

The Republicans represent the billionaire class and that class does not need two political parties to represent it. The Democrats cannot compete when it comes to collecting billionaire funders – and they would be barking up the wrong tree even to try. In this area, the campaign of Bernie Sanders pointed in the right direction.

So what are liberals and progressives to do?

To use the immortal words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize!” It is the 99 percent against the 1 percent. They have the money but potentially we have the numbers. We can learn from the systematic, long-term perspective and institution-building adopted by the Kochs. They don’t quit when they lose. Politics is a lifelong engagement. The fact that we have been beaten badly should be seen as just one round in a 15-round bout.

All the money in the world does not change the fact that the Kochs and their Republican allies are wedded to a selfish vision of oligarchy that will ultimately immiserate the majority of Americans while being an environmental time bomb for the planet.

Liberals and progressives can come back. The women’s marches show both the energy and the enthusiasm are there. Progressives need to do better in speaking respectfully and empathetically to all kinds of people outside their enclaves.

The superiority of the progressive vision is that it can speak to the needs and humanity of all Americans.

(Jonathan P. Baird of Wilmot works at the Social Security Administration. His column reflects his own views and not those of his employer.)