The Stakes: Koch & Co. Aim for a Revolution in 2016

06/18/2015 10:20 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2016

The 2016 election ambitions of the Koch brothers and what they represent on the Republican right wing, free-market absolutism, are nothing short of breathtaking. They feel within their grasp a historical opportunity they have been dreaming about for decades to turn back liberal institutions and customs. Things have lined up their way. Congress is in Republican hands. Big money, insurmountable money, can swing the party's presidential nomination their way as never before. And they have battle tested at the state level their legislative game plan to roll back settled elements of environmental protections, workers' rights, progressive taxation, voting rights, criminal justice policy and a host of social issues including abortion rights and gay rights, as well as to play fast and loose with separation of church and state.

What the Kochs represent is a continuous line of corporate reaction to the welfare state and the legitimation of unions that goes back to the New Deal. Their forerunners are the people who called FDR a Nazi and a Communist (as the Tea Partiers are fond of calling Obama--though with the Muslim kicker these days) and in private would call the president Franklin Delano Rosenberg. The continuity is actually amazing over time, with a history of notable triumphs (Taft-Hartley) and defeats (Medicare), but with the single-minded goal of taking over the Republican Party.

The Tea Party was a particular triumph in that these free-market absolutists were able to paper over their tensions with the Republican Party's largest voting bloc, right-wing populists (social conservatives and evangelicals) in the face of the twinned whammies of 2008, the financial crisis and the election of Obama. On the first signature issue of the Tea Party, opposition to Obamacare, the free-market absolutists and the populists each developed ferocious anger, but for different reasons. For the free-market absolutists, who have never renounced their goal of reversing Social Security and Medicare, this was viewed as a potentially irreversible victory of the welfare state. For the populists, it was a threat to their security which depended on the likes of Social Security and Medicare--Obamacare was going to take these things away from them, as they saw it, and give it to the 'undeserving.' The confusion in this on rational grounds was never better formulated than in the famous and oft-carried banner, 'Government hands off my Medicare.'

The same was true, dissimilar motivations leading to similar politics, for the second signature Tea Party issue--the "debt crisis". On the third signature issue, immigration, the tensions became more difficult to paper over: Cheaper labor is all to the good for the free-market absolutists; for the populists: one, it's a shrinking job market; and, two, they're terrified believing they're watching white American dominance melt away.

Commentators have recognized the 'Republican civil war' for years: the Tea Party versus the ever rightward-moving Republican 'establishment'. But now, that tension has a parallel within the Tea Party: the interests of the people's party and the oligarchs' party don't quite line up once again. This recognition, by the way, is the unique virtue of the Huckabee campaign--he's making his case for the presidency on behalf of the populist wing--and it bears watching how he fares when the primary voting begins.

But for the free-market absolutists, whose undisputed champions are now the Koch Bros., 2016 has become a time to push a ton of chips out on the table. There are two reasons for this. One is the opportunity, and the second is that the opportunity may be short-lived.

Overhanging it all is the recognition throughout the party that they live under a demographic sword of Damocles. For youth and minorities the Republicans seem all too often like Martians. The thrust to try to open toward minorities, championed by the Bush-led establishment, has been effectively shot down by the populists. But there is an end-run strategy that all elements of the party can agree on: voter suppression. Youth and minorities not with you? Don't let them vote. Red states with the trifecta of both legislative houses and the governorships in Republican hands are passing these laws in droves. This central place of voter suppression in the Republicans' electoral strategy is well understood by the Clinton campaign, which has taken taking these laws to court early on.

But something else has happened: our elections have gone oligarchic. No candidate believes any more that 'people power'--read small donations--amounts to a hill of beans in the super-pac, post-Citizens United era. Candidates are auditioning for the oligarchs in a way that has taken the well-known money-talks quality of American elections and pushed it into cartoonish high relief. The Kochs see a real chance here finally to achieve the Republican Party takeover they and their 'economic royalist' predecessors have sought for four generations.

And they also know that the window for this project is brief, and that their shining opportunity for a historic turning back of the welfare state, union rights and the rest is right now. What they're aiming for in 2016 is to reproduce the red-state legislative/executive trifecta in Washington: there's little chance the House will turn Democratic (the gerrymandering after the Tea Party breakthrough election of 2010 insures this for a good while longer.) They like their odds on holding the Senate. Winning the presidency becomes the opportunity of a lifetime.

Thus the stakes are the amazingly high in this election. If the Kochs et. al. effectively buy the nominee, hold the Congress and prevail in the general election we know what they will do. We've seen it in Kansas and Ohio and Michigan and, above all, in Wisconsin, where an aggressive agenda has stripped union rights, cut taxes, and promises to trash the state universities. It's no wonder the Kochs' preference for president is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who's proved tried and true. He'll run as the governor who stood up to the public-employee unions they way Reagan ran as the governor who stood up to campus protest and the counterculture.

So that's the end game here: nothing short of nationalizing the agenda of ALEC--the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has largely drafted the legislation passed in these red trifecta states. Think about national right-to-work laws. National abortion restrictions. National open-carry gun laws. A neutered EPA. Privatizing Social Security. National stop and frisk policies. Hell, just think about privatizing the national parks. And by the way, don't expect obstacles by way of the judicial branch: remember last year's gutting of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.