The Billionaires’ Trick to Keep Everyone from Voting
Sunday book excerpt: The Hidden History of the War on Voting
The Billionaires’ Trick to Keep Everyone from Voting
Outside of Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan (and a hedge fund guy), just about all American billionaires are white. And while their white privilege helped most of them to become billionaires in the first place, for the politically active billionaires on the right, it’s their money that they care about the most.
Fred Koch, the founding patriarch of the Koch family, was an early supporter of the John Birch Society (JBS), which vigorously opposed any efforts to reduce the powers of the very wealthy or elevate the wealth or political power of poor or working-class people. Their most public positions in the 1950s and 1960s were against racial integration and communism—the ultimate method for leveling the fortunes of the rich. The JBS opposed virtually all “welfare” legislation, from Social Security to Medicare to unemployment insurance, calling it socialism and equating it with a softer version of communism.
Around that same time, a Russian immigrant who’d fled the Soviet Union (her father had lost his pharmacy shop to the Bolshevik Revolution) came to America with dreams of becoming a great author or actress. Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum chose the stage and pen name of Ayn Rand, and in the 1950s she wrote a rather simplistic novel celebrating inherited wealth.
In Atlas Shrugged, a young woman and her hapless brother inherit a railroad from their father and try to grow it over opposition from the unions, which want a safe workplace and reasonable pay. As George Monbiot wrote:
In a notorious passage, she argues that all the passengers in a train filled with poisoned fumes deserved their fate. One, for instance, was a teacher who taught children to be team players; one was a mother married to a civil servant, who cared for her children; one was a housewife “who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing.”35
In a subsequent novel, The Fountainhead, one of the “producers” of her mythology rapes a woman, but it’s all good because the woman decides that she enjoys it mid-rape. Monbiot boils it down simply: “Rand’s is the philosophy of the psychopath, a misanthropic fantasy of cruelty, revenge and greed.”
While Fred Koch was helping the JBS in its fight against taxes and regulation, his sons were apparently reading Ayn Rand and taking her philosophy of radical selfishness to heart. They were also, by the 1970s, running the Koch oil operation and having constant struggles with regulators, particularly during the Carter administration.
Looking for political juice, David Koch joined and then largely took over the Libertarian Party in the late 1970s.
That political party had been created by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), a lobbying group formed in 1946 that represented the Big Three carmakers, the top three US oil companies, Monsanto, DuPont, GE, Merrill Lynch, Eli Lilly, and both US Steel and Republic Steel. Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, was on its board of directors, as were United Fruit president Herb Cornuelle; National Association of Manufacturers director and DuPont and GM board member Donaldson Brown; and Leonard Read, a longtime US Chamber of Commerce executive.
The mission of the new libertarian movement was straightforward: to lobby for the interests of big business and the uber-wealthy people that such business had created.
The same year that the FEE was created and they began the rollout of libertarianism, Congress busted an obscure University of Chicago economist named Milton Friedman for illegally shilling for the real estate industry.
As Mark Ames wrote:
The purpose of the FEE—and libertarianism, as it was originally created—was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale to back up its policy and legislative attacks on labor and government regulations.
This background is important in the Milton Friedman story because Friedman is a founder of libertarianism, and because the corrupt lobbying deal he was busted playing a part in was arranged through the Foundation for Economic Education.36
Friedman was later implicated in the aftermath of the brutal and violent takedown of democracy in Chile, and his acolytes helped privatize the state-owned properties of the Soviet Union, creating the kleptocratic and oligarchic government that now runs Russia and many of the former Soviet states. Libertarianism, it turns out, has had real-world impacts, which include the deaths of thousands.
No country has ever successfully established a libertarian form of economy or governance; it was, after all, a scam set up to front for the very rich and the corporations that made them that way. But that hasn’t stopped libertarian and corporatist ideologues from trying.
While Chile and Russia are well-known examples, few Americans seem to remember how George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld simply stood on the sidelines watching as the treasures of Iraq were looted after the United States took down their government.
It was to be a Grand Experiment: they’d finally prove that without government interference in a nation’s economy or social systems, a utopia would emerge. L. Paul Bremer was their front man, arriving in Iraq on May 2, 2003, to begin the process of “freeing” the country’s economy so that the world’s corporations would flood in and create a paradise.
As Naomi Klein wrote for Harper’s Magazine in an article titled “Baghdad Year Zero”:
The tone of Bremer’s tenure was set with his first major act on the job: he fired 500,000 state workers, most of them soldiers, but also doctors, nurses, teachers, publishers, and printers. Next, he flung open the country’s borders to absolutely unrestricted imports: no tariffs, no duties, no inspections, no taxes. Iraq, Bremer declared two weeks after he arrived, was “open for business.”
One month later, Bremer unveiled the centerpiece of his reforms. Before the invasion, Iraq’s non-oil-related economy had been dominated by 200 state-owned companies, which produced everything from cement to paper to washing machines. In June, Bremer flew to an economic summit in Jordan and announced that these firms would be privatized immediately. “Getting inefficient state enterprises into private hands,” he said, “is essential for Iraq’s economic recovery.” It would be the largest state liquidation sale since the collapse of the Soviet Union.37
Once again, Milton Friedman, the FEE’s heirs, and libertarianism made a few more billionaires and destroyed the lives of literally millions of people.
The source of the funds being channeled to Friedman back in 1949 was a man named Herbert Nelson, who was the chief lobbyist and executive vice president of the National Association of Real Estate Boards, which not only was opposed to rent control laws but also had one of the largest lobbying budgets in Washington, DC.
Congressional investigators found a letter he wrote in 1949 saying, “I do not believe in democracy. I think it stinks. I don’t think anybody except direct taxpayers should be allowed to vote. I don’t believe women should be allowed to vote at all. Ever since they started, our public affairs have been in a worse mess than ever.”38
Although the details are still a bit fuzzy, it appears that libertarianism (and the creation of a political party using that name) was Nelson’s idea, or at least one he promoted vigorously. With a budget of over $60 million (in today’s dollars), Nelson hired the FEE to come up with a third party that would argue for the interests of the wealthy developers and landlords he represented. The FEE, in turn, hired Milton Friedman.
Reason magazine, heavily funded by the Kochs, was the main voice of the libertarian movement in the 1970s, and in 1977 it published a fascinating article by Moshe Kroy that described how libertarians should market their free-market fundamentalism to skeptical Americans. Noting that it was important not to lie to people outright, Kroy wrote, “The point is that you can use tricks—and you’d better, if you really want libertarianism to have a fighting chance.”39
The tricks involved repackaging and reframing libertarian dogma and using “salesmanship.”
For example, Kroy asserted that the average person wouldn’t understand an abstraction like individual rights. So don’t even bother explaining how libertarianism would shrink government and empower corporations and the rich. “Instead,” Kroy wrote:
what you can do is to explain to him that libertarianism is just against one thing: CRIME. By crime you mean just what he means: theft, robbery, kidnapping, enslavement. He will of course agree, because he thinks this is obvious. Then you just explain (at great length, and with many examples) that taxation is armed robbery, that inflation through deficit spending and money printing is theft—as well as forgery of money—that draft is basically kidnapping, etc.40
This was something the average person could understand. The government that people thought would protect them from polluting corporations, would provide an efficient court and fiscal system to protect their jobs and bank accounts from corporate grifters, and would defend their lives in war if necessary—that government was, in fact, an evil thing.
If the billionaires could get the average American to look at government the way that oil, chemical, real estate, and banking industry billionaires did, and just elect politicians who were bought and paid for by those industries, then things would get very, very easy.
Buying Politicians, Selling Lies, and Suppressing the Vote
Right-wing billionaires know that if average Americans understood their real agenda, we’d never again elect a Republican. And it’s been that way for a long, long time.
As historian, author, and University of Wisconsin professor Harvey J. Kaye wrote in 2015 for Bill Moyers’s online magazine.
Polls conducted in 1943 showed that 94 percent of Americans endorsed old-age pensions; 84 percent, job insurance; 83 percent, universal national health insurance; and 79 percent, aid for students—leading FDR in his 1944 State of the Union message to propose a Second Bill of Rights that would guarantee those very things to all Americans. All of which would be blocked by a conservative coalition of pro-corporate Republicans and white supremacist southern Democrats.41
It wasn’t always this way.
In 1956, when Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower was seeking reelection, he campaigned on a platform that bragged that the Eisenhower administration “has enforced more vigorously and effectively than ever before, the laws which protect the working standards of our people,” that “unions have grown in strength and responsibility, and have increased their membership by 2 millions,” and that the administration had led the “expansion of social security” and called for “better health protection for all our people.”
The platform pledged that the Eisenhower administration would “continue to fight for dynamic and progressive programs,” including “improved job safety of our workers.” It would “[s]trengthen and improve the Federal-State Employment Service and improve the effectiveness of the unemployment insurance system”; prevent corporations from robbing pension plans by working to “[p]rotect by law, the assets of employee welfare and benefit plans”; “assure equal pay for equal work regardless of Sex”; “[e]xtend the protection of the Federal minimum wage laws to as many more workers as is possible”; and—remember that this was before Nixon’s Southern strategy—“[c]ontinue to fight for the elimination of discrimination in employment because of race, creed, color, national origin, ancestry or sex.”
It even went so far as to embrace increased immigration into the United States, noting that the administration had “sponsored the Refugee Relief Act to provide asylum for thousands of refugees, expellees and displaced persons” and would “continue and further perfect its programs of assistance to the millions of workers with special employment problems, such as older workers, handicapped workers, members of minority groups, and migratory workers.”42
Eisenhower was the last Republican who was elected without having to resort to treason or election fraud, and the last Republican to talk in such a “liberal” way. Fred Koch’s John Birch Society was fond of informally referring to Ike as a communist.
From the polls in the 1940s to polls today, most Americans are closer to the policy positions of Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, than to those of even moderate Democrats like former president Bill Clinton. And when presented with clear lists of Republican positions, most Americans are repelled.
So, to get people to vote for the largely Republican politicians they own, the billionaires and their front companies realized that first they must lie.
But even that wasn’t enough.
When Reagan, in his first inaugural, said, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” most Americans didn’t understand that the president was setting up calls for privatizing Social Security; ending Medicare (which Reagan had campaigned against in the 1960s when it was passed); and dialing back on the pollution controls that the EPA had put into place during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. Just minutes after the Iranians released their hostages, Reagan said, “It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.”43
Most Americans didn’t think he meant that we should stop funding hospitals and public schools, or devastate LBJ’s Great Society programs that had cut the poverty rate in America in half. They didn’t see Betsy DeVos or Scott Pruitt on the horizon.
But there they were.
Ironically, in 1980, the year Reagan was first elected president, David Koch essentially outed the Libertarian Party. He made a massive donation to the party, and they put him on the ticket as vice president. And he figured that Americans were smart enough that he wouldn’t have to use the salesmanship that Moshe Kroy had advocated just a few years earlier.
The Libertarian Party platform on which Koch ran in 1980 was unambiguous. It included the following:
We favor the abolition of Medicare and Medicaid programs.
We oppose any compulsory insurance or tax-supported plan to provide health services. . . .
We favor the repeal of the . . . Social Security system. . . .
We oppose all personal and corporate income taxation, including capital gains taxes.
We support the eventual repeal of all taxation.
As an interim measure, all criminal and civil sanctions against tax evasion should be terminated immediately.
We support repeal of all . . . minimum wage laws. . . .
Government ownership, operation, regulation, and subsidy of schools and colleges should be ended. . . .
We support the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency. . . .
We call for the privatization of the public roads and national highway system. . . .
We advocate the abolition of the Food and Drug Administration. . . .
We oppose all government welfare, relief projects, and “aid to the poor” programs.44
The list went on from there, including ending government oversight of abusive banking practices by ending all usury laws; privatizing our airports, the FAA, Amtrak, and all of our rivers; and shutting down the Post Office. In a bone they threw to the white supremacist, white evangelical, and Catholic Christian movements, they also called for an end of all tax-supported abortions (although the Hyde Amendment had already banned this in 1976).
Koch thought they’d kicked off a movement, but when the election returns came in, he was disappointed. Commenting that he’d always been talking to friendly crowds, he candidly noted that he was surprised when his candidacy pulled only about a million votes nationwide.
So the billionaires walked away from libertarianism and turned their attention to taking over the Republican Party. That, it turned out, was much easier.
The Rise of Social Issues
In the spirit of the 1971 Powell memo, the Supreme Court, in its 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, made it legal for wealthy people to own politicians and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections and policy. Two years later, it extended the logic that such spending was protected by First Amendment “human rights of free speech” to corporations in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti.
Buying politicians was not only legal but astonishingly cheap: for a few hundred thousand dollars, a captive politician could shepherd through Congress legislation that would ensure billions of dollars in profits for his overlord corporate and billionaire donors.
The problem that the billionaires and their corporations had was that Americans were getting wise to the game. People in the United States still wanted—just as they did in the 1950s—the sort of social safety net enjoyed by the citizens of every other developed county in the world.
How could countries from Germany to Canada to Costa Rica provide a free or nearly free college education, free or very-low-cost universal health care, and excellent free public schools when we in America had over a trillion dollars in crippling student loan debt, more than 600,000 medical bankruptcies every year (the total for the other 33 of the 34 OECD “developed countries”: zero), and crumbling 1960s and 1970s infrastructure from schools to roads to airports and railways?
And when David Koch came along and transparently laid out the libertarian agenda, the shock was even deeper. By the end of the Reagan administration, most Americans realized that they had little say in the fate and future of their own nation and its domestic and international policies.
A diversion became necessary. Enter “social issues.”
The Supreme Court had upended the “social” hopes of white racists with Brown v. Board and subsequent decisions, and President John F. Kennedy’s decision to force integration of schools in the South lit that torch.
The Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 helped create a multimillion-dollar-a-year anti-abortion industry, particularly among the more cynical religious hucksters and TV preachers who began to thrive and prosper on viewer donations in a big way in the 1970s.
President Bill Clinton’s 1994 passage of the assault weapons ban kicked the weapons industry and their front group, the National Rifle Association, into the big leagues of fundraising and fearmongering.
Meanwhile, as Reaganism’s economic impacts spread across the country, destroying much of the white (and some of the emerging black) middle class (mostly through gutting unions and legalizing the corporate theft of pension funds), economic insecurity became widespread.
By 2000, a generation was reaching college age and discovering that they’d almost certainly never do better than their parents—a first since the Republican Great Depression of 1929 (yes, that’s what they called it until after World War II).
Republicans, who had historically pointed to “liberals” calling for more unionization (the US peak, just before Reagan, was around a third of the country; most European countries are over 80 percent), an expansion of Medicare/Medicaid, and better schools, changed their sales pitch.
Liberals, they said, were fundamentally un-American. The American Dream, which the Greatest Generation had defined as a good union job with annual vacations, home ownership, and the ability to put their kids through college, was reinvented to be the lives of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
Every American, the Republicans told us in op-eds and on TV, wanted to become a billionaire, and every American still had that opportunity—just look at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs! If we didn’t take good care of those billionaires, there may not be a money bin in the future of the average (but lucky or brilliant or inventive or lottery-winning) American.
Massive tax cuts for the very wealthy passed by Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump—which, in total, sucked well over $20 trillion out of the economy and handed it over to the very, very, very rich—were going to stimulate the economy and expand opportunity. Everybody could one day become a job creator.
In a pivotal 1996 memo from GOPAC, a Republican nonprofit, to Republican politicians and activists distributed by Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, R-Georgia, the speaker and his colleagues made it clear that the future of the GOP wasn’t going to be in meeting the needs of average Americans; instead, they suggested, it was in talking in a way that would cause people to think the GOP was.45
Never again would they blunder into clear and blunt language about their true goals, as David Koch had so disastrously done in 1980.
Titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” the memo declared, “We believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases.”46
The list, the memo said, was “prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible.”
There were two parts: “Optimistic Positive Governing words and phrases . . .” and “Contrasting words to help you clearly define the policies and record of your opponent and the Democratic party.”
When discussing tax cuts or deregulation of polluting industries or cutting backdoor deals for big banks, Republican politicians should use words like candid, common sense, crusade, dream, duty, family, freedom, liberty, opportunity, pristine, prosperity, reform, strength, tough, truth, and vision (this is only a partial list).
When describing Democratic plans to extend unemployment insurance or expand unionization or build out America’s infrastructure, and especially for issues like abortion, guns, gays, or God, there was a very different word list. It included “powerful words that can create a clear and easily understood contrast. Apply these to the opponent, their record, proposals and their party”: abuse, betray, bizarre, bosses, bureaucracy, corrupt, decay, disgrace, greed, hypocrisy, incompetent, liberal, pathetic, permissive, radical, red tape, self-serving, shame, sick, taxes, traitors, waste, and the two worst: unionized and welfare (again, among other words).
Rush Limbaugh and a pack of well-funded competitors were rising fast with a little help from their friends, amplifying Newt’s GOPAC word list.
Ken Vogel and Mackenzie Weinger reported in Politico in 2014 that “conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including [Glenn] Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative.”47 Most of the money was laundered (my word, not theirs) through groups like the Heritage Foundation.
“Heritage began sponsoring Hannity in 2008 and paid $1.3 million in 2011 to a broker to arrange and fund the deal, according to the group’s IRS filings,” Vogel and Weinger wrote. “The Koch brothers–backed Americans for Prosperity paid at least $757,000” primarily to sponsor Mark Levin’s radio show, and Rush Limbaugh was “paid more than $2 million in some years and more than $9.5 million overall.”
The billionaires know how to take good care of the people broadcasting their worldview virtually 24/7 in every city in America of any consequence. Nothing even close—nothing at all, frankly—existed or exists on the left side of the radio dial.
Meanwhile, billionaire Rupert Murdoch brought to the United States the same libertarian worldview he’d first inflicted on Australia and then Great Britain. Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, wrote about Murdoch’s awesome influence over that country in a blunt article for the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2018 titled “Cancer Eating the Heart of Australian Democracy.”48 Murdoch himself, Rudd wrote, was “the greatest cancer on the Australian democracy. Murdoch is not just a news organisation. Murdoch operates as a political party, acting in pursuit of clearly defined commercial interests, in addition to his far-right ideological world view.” He pointed out that “Murdoch owns two-thirds of the country’s print media.”
“In Britain,” Rudd wrote, “Murdoch made Brexit possible because of the position taken by his papers. In the United States, Murdoch’s Fox News is the political echo chamber of the far right, which enabled the Tea Party and then the Trump party to stage a hostile takeover of the Republican Party.”
Murdoch’s positions weren’t at all ambiguous, Rudd suggested. They were simply pro–white rich people. “In Australia, as in America,” he wrote, “Murdoch has campaigned for decades in support of tax cuts for the wealthy, killing action on climate change and destroying anything approximating multiculturalism.”
In fact, while liberals were scrambling to raise and then exhaust around $17 million over half a decade to put Air America on 54 radio stations nationwide (conservative talk is on more than 1,000), Murdoch apparently didn’t think twice about losing nearly $100 million a year in the first few years of Fox News, according to Brit Hume. In a 1999 interview with PBS, Hume said that the channel, launched in 1996, was still in a position where it “loses money. It doesn’t lose nearly as much as it did at first, and it’s—well, it’s hit all its projections in terms of, you know, turning a profit, but it’s—it will lose money now, and we expect for a couple more years. I think it’s losing about $80 million to $90 million a year.”49
But if Murdoch could help get Republican politicians elected so that he could have billions of dollars in tax cuts and deregulation that would let him expand his empire in ways previously illegal in the United States, then spending a few hundred million to launch a nationwide propaganda operation was chump change. Eventually, it even turned into a cash cow, as had so many of his other media purchases in the US, UK, and Australia.
And if Gingrich’s word list sounds familiar, it’s because it lives on, in daily rants across America from Fox News to hundreds of right-wing talk hosts on radio stations owned by multibillion-dollar corporations.
The Day the Music Died
For years it worked like a charm, at least from the 1980s until around 2016. Even when Democrats did win elections, they had to eschew labels like “liberal” and take positions like Bill Clinton’s infamous “the era of big government is over,” as was “welfare as we know it.” President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, added billions to the coffers of big insurance and drug companies and continued to legally prevent Americans who were under 65 (and not disabled) from accessing Medicare.
And then, in 2015, a real estate mogul and reality TV star burst onto the scene, blowing up the carefully crafted Potemkin village that his fellow billionaires had built over two generations.
The Republican Party was corrupt, Trump said, lying to get Americans into phony wars for political gain, cutting taxes on rich people like himself at the expense of the average guy, and fawning over phony war heroes like John McCain and low-energy hustlers like Jeb Bush and Rick Perry. The Democratic Party was rigged, too, Trump pointed out, sympathizing with Bernie Sanders, who had been almost entirely ignored by corporate media for nearly a year even as he was drawing crowds of 5,000 to 30,000 at nearly every stop.
Trump talked about giving people the universal health care they’d been yearning for since the 1940s (when the GOP first shot down Harry Truman’s single-payer plan) and said he’d do so at a “lower cost” and with “better benefits” than either Obamacare or Medicare. Union jobs were going to flood back into the country. Billionaires were going to be crippled by higher Trump taxes—“I’ll take a huge hit,” he solemnly proclaimed.
Most of the conservative billionaire class was horrified, and the Koch network (which holds a semiannual get-together for billionaires to raise hundreds of millions to spend on politics) declined to support Trump in 2016. But a few, among them Sheldon Adelson and Robert Mercer, threw in with Trump, and with a little help from oligarchs in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, Trump ended up in the White House.
Within a year of Trump’s taking over the Oval Office, and the GOP taking over both the House and the Senate, Americans began to realize that the entire thing was just another Reaganesque scam. Trump was able to hold together his base mostly by using race-based fear tactics about invading brown hordes from south of the border. He kept Republicans generally on his side by threatening to support Republican primary challengers if they didn’t swear fealty.
But it wasn’t enough, and the professionals in the Republican Party knew it. They could see the wipeout of 2018 coming, and it scared them to their core. Demonizing unions and universal health care didn’t work anymore, because candidate Trump had called them both out as benefits. The 2017 tax cut was widely seen as a $1.5 trillion gift to the billionaire class, put on the credit card of the nation’s children and grandchildren.
Even their fear tactics about black crime and invading Mexicans were backfiring, and the Supreme Court had had the gall to end the debate over gay marriage by simply legalizing it nationwide.
There was only one serious path left: figure out a way to prevent the wrong people from voting or, if they voted, to make sure their votes weren’t counted.
Voter suppression and election fraud became the principal method of ensuring electoral success, buttressed by hundreds of millions of dollars in TV advertising and sophisticated online influence operations.
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