In Koch We Trust: Shadow Politics and the New Democracy

04/13/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

In 2010, two court cases dramatically changed the course of American politics. In the now-infamous Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from regulating or placing "caps" on corporate donations to independent-expenditure political organizations.

In the second case, vs. FEC, a U.S. Appeals Court established that Political Action Committees (PACs) could accept unlimited contributions from individuals as well as corporations, and that the source of any such contributions from incorporated entities did not have to be disclosed. Combined, these two rulings gave rise to what is now known as the "super-PAC", an independent-expenditure PAC that can accept unlimited donations from any individual or corporation, and does not have to disclose where those contributions come from. While super-PACs cannot contribute directly to political candidates, they can still advocate for or against particular candidates -- so called "independent expenditures" -- by running TV ads or other forms of promotion.

Super-PACs and other similar independent-expenditure organizations have radically transformed how political campaigns are financed. Two years after Citizens United and vs. FEC, 1,300 registered super-PACs spent a total of nearly $830 million on independent expenditures in the 2012 elections. While Romney and Obama spent close to $1 billion each on their respective campaigns -- the combined funds raised by the individual candidates, the Democratic and Republican Parties and super-PACs directly tied to the candidates -- what is surprising is the amount of money spent by conservative super-PACs against Obama.

Five of the top conservative super-PACs (including Romney's own) spent a combined $250 million against Obama, almost as much as the Democratic Party had spent on its own candidate. With expenditures equaling that of political parties themselves, super-PACs and other "independent expenditure" have come to dominate campaign financing, and yet the public does not know where a large part of that money is coming from.

Enter the Koch brothers. David and Charles Koch own Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States, and their combined net worth is upwards of $85 billion, making the two brothers the fourth richest men in the country. While the company is largely based in the manufacturing, refining and distribution of oil, chemicals and energy, Koch Industries owns a little bit of everything, including Brawny Towels and Dixie Cups.

The Kochs have become the favored punching bags of the political left for the immense sums of money they have thrown towards Republican candidates across the country. Senate minority leader Harry Reid even began a coordinated campaign on the Senate floor to shed light on the immense influence the brothers have on American politics. Reid has the right to be alarmed. This year, the Koch brothers announced that the vast political network under their control plans to spend close to $900 million in the 2016 elections. This figure will place the Kochs' expenditures on par with the planned budgets of each of the Democratic and Republican Parties. In effect, a new political party has been formed: The Party of Koch.

Let's backtrack. The name Koch first entered into the political sphere when David Koch ran as a Libertarian vice-presidential candidate in 1980 (and lost). In his campaign, David Koch advocated for the abolishment of public schools, Social Security and welfare -- as well as the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and the I.R.S. -- and fought for a truly free marketplace unconstrained by government regulation. After this election, both of the Koch brothers largely fell from public view. Over the course of three decades, the Kochs built an expansive and complex political operation, founding and supporting numerous non-profit political organizations and super-PACs. Many of these organizations are not required to disclose lists of donors, and so it is next to impossible to pin down exactly how much money the Koch brothers have donated towards political candidates, and by extension, how much influence they have in politics.

The Kochs burst back onto the political stage in the 2012 presidential election. Even before the election began, David and Charles Koch reportedly pledged to spend a combined $60 million of their own money to unseat Obama, while Americans for Prosperity (AFP) -- a non-profit organization founded by David and Charles Koch in 2004, operating as a super-PAC -- spent a whopping $112 million against Obama and Democrats in Congress. Two years later in the 2014 midterm elections, AFP spent an unprecedented $125 million on Congressional candidates, and the Koch's entire network (including AFP) reportedly spent close to $300 million. Woven throughout every account of the Koch's political operations is the complete opacity of their network- very little is know about how much money the Koch brothers have given themselves, who else has contributed money towards their operations, and where that money goes. With the super-PAC, the Koch brothers have found an outlet through which they can maintain a massive political empire in the shadows.

The Koch's intended expenditure target of $889 million for the 2016 election cycle has changed the face of American democracy; the Kochs will rival the spending power of the Democratic and Republican Parties in the coming election. Yet, while each of the major political parties seek to serve the interests of constituent voters, the Kochs' network only serves to further the interests of its billionaire founders. The opacity of super-PACs and other independent-expenditure organizations does not bring the same level of accountability to the Koch network as in the Republican and Democratic parties. Above all, the lack of accountability is what is most frightening. The Kochs have brought American politics into the shadows, where the light of truth can no longer reach.