The Disinformation Machine

The strategy behind the Koch network’s climate denial campaign

This story is part two of Deny and Delay: Inside the Climate Disinformation Machine, a series on the effects of climate misinformation on democracy. Read part one here. Co-produced with Columbia Journalism Review and guest edited by Sandra Steingraber, Deny and Delay will continue with two more stories in early 2023.

Even in an era of surging inequality and wealth concentration in the top 0.01 percent, the Koch fortune stands out. The climate journalist George Monbiot has calculated that if the wealth of the multi-billionaire brothers Charles and the now-deceased David Koch were held by a single individual, that individual would be the wealthiest on the planet. More arresting, though, are the political ambitions of Charles Koch to transform American governance though the step-by-step imposition of a radical libertarian agenda that is taking aim at a century’s worth of public policy in domains from environmental protection and climate action to public education, social insurance, regulation, and taxation.

From the ground-breaking journalism of Jane Mayer, among others, we know the sheer scale of the Koch network’s operations and how they have used “dark money” to distort public debate and democratic governance alike. The Koch donor network funds an infrastructure of literally hundreds of organizations. It includes dozens of ostensibly separate national bodies: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Federalist Society, the American Legislative Exchange Council, as well as over 150 state level organizations whose work is aligned through the State Policy Network. The organizing enterprises include Americans for Prosperity, Concerned Veterans for America, the LIBRE Initiative, and Generation Opportunity; and includes bases at colleges and universities—George Mason University being the flagship enterprise, but faculty at over 300 campuses now receive funding. We know also, from the research of the political scientists Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, that, in its engagement of the political process, the Koch network is well-resourced enough to rival and sometimes surpass the Republican Party in spending, and has transformed that party in order to further its own agenda nationally and in the majority of state governments.

So, too, the intrepid research of UnKoch My Campus, picked up by top newspapers and online media outlets, has shown how universities became a central node of this project. Koch foundations fund campus centers to obtain vital resources: a talent pipeline of young people to staff operations; intellectual legitimacy for the ideas and affiliates of the Koch infrastructure; and defensive capacity when the network faces exposure and criticism. Numerous investigations have shown how Koch investments lead to violations of academic integrity, including donor-influenced faculty appointments and student research topic selection; secrecy in place of transparency; and, in the case of George Mason University, administrators who have deliberately misinformed faculty and students to protect donor interests. So, when speaking of the Koch network, then, I am referring not to two brothers, but to this exceedingly well-endowed and interconnected set of hundreds of operations and a growing stable of academic grantees.

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These days, the Koch project sails under the false flag of “conservatism” so it can move large numbers of voters, but in the 1970s Charles Koch and his grantees were more honest about that endgame. They proclaimed themselves root-and-branch radicals, albeit radicals of the right, who spurned conservatives. They particularly disdained Cold War nationalists and religious right conservatives. Back then, Koch’s favored thinker was Murray Rothbard, who suggested that his patron read Lenin to appreciate the necessity of cultivating a “cadre.” Koch did, and the Cato Institute became their joint effort to develop one.

After all, they sought revolutionary change: a world in which owners’ economic liberty was protected by the total absence of government coercion in any form—except of those who violated property rights or otherwise broke the law. No one could have mistaken Cato libertarianism with conservatism at the time of the Institute’s 1977 founding. Rothbard instructed readers of the first publication of the newly established think tank that the label should be “despised.” Why? Because “conservatism is a dying remnant of the ancient régime of the preindustrial era”; it was utterly at odds with the radical transformation that libertarians sought. “In its contemporary American form,” Rothbard said, conservatism “embodied the death throes of an ineluctably moribund, fundamentalist, rural, small-town white Anglo-Saxon America.”

Read Part I of this series: Defiant Energy, or how the American electric utility industry pushed climate denial, doubt, and delay

What kind of policies did Charles Koch back in that more honest past? In 1980, he funded his brother David to run against Ronald Reagan as the candidate of a Libertarian Party that called for an end to government coercion in any form, including minimum wages, child labor laws, taxation, and prosecution for drug use or voluntary prostitution. In the view of the cadre of libertarians Koch had built up in the 1970s, the whole “establishment” had to be overthrown, its conservative wing as much as its liberal one. The future, said Ed Crane, the head of Cato, belonged to the only “truly radical vision”: “repudiating state power altogether.” The libertarians proudly proclaimed themselves “the party of revolution.”

To be clear, I am not suggesting libertarians do not have the right to advocate revolution or anything else. As a specialist in the history of social movements, I appreciate vision. All efforts at honest persuasion are legitimate in a democratic society that relies on broad input and open debate to arrive at the best understanding and solutions. And some Koch network grantees engage in reasoned efforts to change minds. But Koch network operations also rely on disinformation where persuasion has failed. This corrosive practice has poisoned our public life.

Koch grantees are not, needless to say, the only source of calculated disinformation today. We know that Donald Trump, for one, lied literally tens of thousands of times while president. Less noticed, because his have been such whoppers, is that disinformation has become a core tool of the contemporary American right. Trump is the strange fruit, but not the sower of the seed. For that, we can look back at least to southern segregationist editors and spokespeople, who developed the trope of the not-to-be-trusted “liberal media” to combat honest reportage on the civil rights struggle from the mid 1950s forward. As it happens, that is where I picked up the trail that led me, in time, to the Koch network.

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I am a historian of social movements and their impact on public life, with a particular interest in the U.S. South. In 2006, on a chance visit to an archive, I came across the tragic tale of Prince Edward County, Virginia, whose white officials answered the U.S. Supreme Court’s call to desegregate their public schools without further delay by, as the county leaders put it, “going out of the public school business entirely.” They shuttered every public school in the community, leaving Black children with no formal education whatsoever while their white counterparts were sent off to a private, segregated academy, their parents secure in the knowledge that they would have state-subsidized tuition grants in the form of vouchers. The county officials kept the public schools shut for five years, taking pride in their defiance, until the courts compelled them to reinstate a public school system.

Shocked, I started to research this history and learned that, without tax-funded school vouchers, this kind of “massive resistance” to Brown v. Board of Education would have collapsed. I also discovered that the University of Chicago libertarian economist Milton Friedman had issued his first manifesto calling for such vouchers to break up the “government monopoly” of education in 1955, the year after the Brown decision, in full knowledge of how it would aid segregationists. I also learned of a subsequent 1959 report, as this Prince Edward County plan to close the schools that fall pended, by two other economists, both trained at the University of Chicago: James McGill Buchanan and G. Warren Nutter. Their report aimed to undercut a movement of moderate whites—led by mothers and liberal clergy—who were trying to save Virginia’s public education system from segregationists. How did the economists fight? By making a case that moderates had the math wrong: that if the state sold off its facilities to private operators, it could break up the “government monopoly” in schooling and provide better education at less cost. The economists’ report, in effect, called for privatizing the South’s schools, before that verb even existed. And they did so in the full knowledge that the schools thus funded would be white segregation academies because those were the only private schools in question. Black parents and their organizations opposed the vouchers to a person, seeing them for what they were: a tool to perpetuate racial injustice.

It stunned me, as a professor myself, to see two university faculty members making a case for what their state’s most arch segregationists were seeking. (Two cosmopolitan faculty, I might add, not racists from central casting: Buchanan read in five languages and had just returned from a fellowship in Italy; Nutter, a student of the USSR’s economy who challenged Cold War verities about its strength, would go on to work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department.). It also intrigued me that they advocated the diehard whites’ policy not in racial terms, but, in economic terms, self-consciously leveraging the authority of their discipline to back up the state’s right-wing elite.

Buchanan and Nutter knew they were exploiting the rage of white supremacists to move their libertarian economic agenda, one they referred to as “the free society” even as they showed no sympathy whatsoever for the civil rights activists whose mantra was “Freedom Now.” Their cover letter to legislators with their report said that they were speaking out, “letting the chips fall where they may.” The professors were fully aware, in other words, of the harm these actions would inflict. As an educator myself, I wondered how anyone could do such a thing—not in irrational frenzy, but in cold-eyed calculation, to move an otherwise unpopular neoliberal agenda.

Curious, I began seeking more information about Buchanan. I learned that he had gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1986 for having pioneered a new way of thinking called public choice economics, which also became influential in political science and law. Also, I later learned, among activists and elected officials on the Right. What Buchanan did that was new was, in his phrase, the economic analysis of politics.

As a thinker who specialised in public finance and who identified with the political right, Buchanan made it his mission to find ways to reduce taxes, curb regulation, and shrink the expanding public sector, then in its heyday of expansion. In 1963, he and another colleague, Gordon Tullock, founded what became the Public Choice Society (a society to which Charles Koch now contributes, by the way, and whose journal has been edited by many Koch-funded academics since its founding). With public choice economics, Buchanan turned new attention to what he liked to call “the rules of the game of politics”: the taxing and spending incentives of the political process.

To a libertarian like Buchanan (and his later patron Charles Koch), there is no common good. Any such notion of shared purpose will lead the government to coerce those who do not agree with the majority. Democracy, Buchanan argued, violates the individual liberty of the minority—by which he meant wealthy taxpayers; the government all but steals their property if it taxes them for purposes they do not share. In what he viewed as his magnum opus, The Limits of Liberty, written during the 1970s crime panic, Buchanan compared government “coercion” of the unwilling taxpayer to “the thug who steals his wallet in Central Park.”

We should not be our brothers’ keeper, Buchanan insisted—or at least, we should not be able to use government to transfer tax revenues from one citizen to another. In a 1975 article called “The Samaritan’s Dilemma,” he argued that the ethics of Jesus produced perverse results in the modern world. “We may simply be too compassionate for our own well-being or for that of an orderly and productive free society,” Buchanan argued. To make his case, he presented a game theory thought experiment (never empirical research, which he spurned), the “hypothesis” for which was that “modern man has become incapable of making the choices that are required to prevent his exploitation by predators of his own species, whether the predation be conscious or unconscious.”

It was a perverse revision of the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a kind resident of Samaria comes to the aid of a Jewish traveller who has been stripped, robbed, beaten, and left to die—a victim, in other words. Jesus told the story to teach his followers that one should love every person as himself, even when the person was a member of a despised out-group, as Samaritans and Jews were. But in the view of the libertarian economist, Jesus was a sop for weak minds. What society needed (and Charles Koch would ultimately supply) was the “strategic courage” to turn a deaf ear to the suffering and arguments to act for social justice.

What seemed to be the ethical thing to do—help someone in need—was not necessarily the right thing to do, according to Buchanan, because the assistance would encourage the recipient to “exploit” the giver rather than to solve their own problems. Buchanan used as an analogy the spanking of children by parents: it taught “the fear of punishment that will inhibit future misbehavior.” “The potential parasite” needed harsh discipline, he explained, to prevent future efforts “to live parasitically off and/or deliberately exploit” society’s “producers.” This is the grim morality of libertarianism.

This corrosive practice has poisoned our public life.

Over the ensuing years, Buchanan came to talk about all this in very stark and foreboding terms, which are now widespread on the Right, owing to decades of inculcation by Buchanan’s students and the think tanks with which they worked. A case in point: when Mitt Romney, campaigning for the presidency in 2012 at a $50,000-a-plate dinner, spoke disdainfully of what he called “the 47 percent” of Americans whom he said would never vote for him because they were too “dependent” on government as net tax recipients, it was Buchanan who gave scholarly imprimatur to such thinking. Decades earlier, he spoke of net tax recipients as “parasites on the productive”; warned of “predators and prey.” His very vocabulary made fellow citizens appear as menaces, not even truly human. It is a vocabulary that is disinhibiting, one that licenses hostility. For those who think this way, social justice is a mirage, a contradiction in terms. As Walter E. Williams, Buchanan’s economics colleague at George Mason University, put it on the Conservative Political Action Conference circuit: “Let me offer you my definition of social justice: I keep what I earn and you keep what you earn.”

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It took me years to discover the connection between James Buchanan’s ideas and the Koch network’s operations—and another coincidence. I happened to move to North Carolina just as a radicalized Republican Party, dominated by Koch-backed Tea Party figures, won majorities in both houses of the state legislature. And suddenly, the prescriptions I was reading in Buchanan’s work that still seemed so abstract became frightfully concrete as the General Assembly’s lead donor, Art Pope (a Koch ally of such longstanding that some now call him the Koch Cousin), boasted of the “Big Bang” the beneficiaries of his political contributions were delivering to make this once-moderate state “a laboratory” for the cause, using measures derived from public choice thought.

To appreciate the nature of this big bang, a public policy variant of the “shock and awe” strategy of warfare, it helps to know that Buchanan had long urged his teammates on the Right to stop focusing on who rules, and instead study the rules. He explained to like thinkers and those who funded them—including Charles Koch—that if you did not like the outcome of public policy over a long period of time (as libertarians despised the policy outcomes of twentieth-century democracy) and wanted to achieve, instead, the kind of radical U-turn that libertarians did, you must focus laser-like on changing the rules of governance to get the outcomes you want within the law as written—as you also change the law. Forget candidates: the existing rules and incentives were what needed replacement.

What unfolded in North Carolina in 2010 was a stunning barrage of radical rule changes, including the most extreme and sophisticated gerrymandering in U.S. political history to misrepresent the will of the electorate; new measures to undermine workers’ ability to organize in unions; attacks on public education at all levels and radical cuts in funding for it; refusal to accept the Medicaid expansion of Affordable Care Act despite a crying need for health care subsidies in this low-wage state; and rolling back measures to protect the environment and reduce global warming.

The new majority also shattered norms. Its members broke with customary practices like public hearings before passing legislation and transparency about the process; instead, they worked with breakneck speed and often secrecy. And then, to cap it off, they passed what came to be known among critics as “the monster voter suppression bill.” In some fifteen different ways it tried to keep from the polls those least likely to support the corporate libertarian agenda—African Americans, Latinos, and young people. “Getting dramatic economic change at the federal level is very difficult,” Tim Phillips, then President of the Koch organizing enterprise Americans for Prosperity, later explained of the strategy. “The idea we had was to create model states.”

His very vocabulary made fellow citizens appear as menaces, not even truly human.

The new Republican majority, pushed to brinkmanship by big donors, was applying James Buchanan’s strategy to achieve what they otherwise could not, certainly not if they had campaigned openly for the policies they were rushing through. Indeed, at the very same time, Scott Walker, the Koch-allied Governor of Wisconsin (where, in yet another coincidence, I had attended graduate school), was running a similar operation. Under the false pretext of a “budget repair bill,” he took collective bargaining rights from public sector workers to destroy the labor movement there, saying privately to a prank caller he believed to be David Koch, “We dropped the bomb.”

Critics of all this—progressive activists and other good people who had helped make the once-poor state of North Carolina a beacon to the South—had no way of knowing the deep operational strategy that unified such far-flung measures. They could not see that the men (and occasional women) driving this agenda were not misinformed about the likely consequences of the agenda they were pushing: they fully understood that it would inflict harm on many of their fellow citizens. Critics also did not see that this agenda was backed by an ethical system that gave the new-style Republican elected officials confidence and let them feel heroic enough to weather criticism and opposition.

But it is an ethical system, one that has its own harsh coherence, which must be understood to deal with the crisis that Buchanan’s ideas and Koch’s money have created. To wit: the libertarian morality deems it better to have people die from lack of health care than receive it from the government, from taxes paid by others. This, really, is what they mean, ultimately, by personal responsibility: you should be on your own, for all your needs. And if you fail to anticipate and save for those future needs, you deserve your fate. Your suffering will have instructive value for others in the new world the libertarians are ushering into being: what happens to you will teach others that they must save. What they seek, in short, is a world in which we are kept from using the government to help ourselves and one another—let alone take action on the climate crisis—by ironclad new rules.

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In 2013, James Buchanan died at the age of 93, and I was able to gain access to his unprocessed archive at George Mason University (GMU), his last institutional home. In his records going back to the 1940s, I found my developing understanding of all this confirmed—in a way that had me again and again reminding myself to breathe. Just one example: in his private office, I found a pile of documents stacked on a chair that exposed how Charles Koch and some of his most trusted operatives—GMU economics faculty, the dean of the law school, the president and provost, and a politically appointed Board of Visitors presided over by Ed Meese III, Ronald Reagan’s long-time ally—had collaborated to establish a basecamp for a political project at a public university, just across the Potomac from Washington, D.C.

This was in 1997, when Koch gave his first $10 million gift to GMU to support a big new center for political economy. (He has since become the university’s top donor, having given well over $100 million to support individuals and units useful to his purposes.) Koch made it clear in the speech that accompanied his money that he wanted bold steps. Buchanan’s theory and implementation strategies were the right “technology,” to use the favorite phrase of this MIT-trained engineer. But the professor’s team had not employed the tools forcefully enough to “create winning strategies.”

The operatives Koch put in place on campus would. One of them was Buchanan’s former colleague, the aptly named Richard Fink, who by that point had become Koch’s chief political strategist. Fink made clear that establishing beachheads in higher education was crucial because, as he explained to donors: “It’s an integrated strategy that uses universities, think tanks, and political spending for the implementation of policy change.” With a respectable base secured at GMU, a short ride from the nation’s capital, Koch would turn to assembling what he said he sought when he gave that first multi-million-dollar 1997 gift, with the proclamation that he wanted “to build the kind of force that propelled Columbus to his discoveries.”

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Why did Charles Koch feel the need to build such force? Perhaps above all because of the existential crisis threatening the profitability of the fossil fuel industry as scientists and governments recognized that its products and practices were warming the planet and thus posing an imminent threat that demanded concerted action. Fossil fuel was, after all, the core of Koch Industries and its most reliable cash cow. Majority opinion was becoming a big problem for the industry and libertarian zealots by the 1990s, as Americans came to embrace the need for government action to protect the environment and endangered species. While oil corporations such as Exxon Mobil had withheld information to protect their investments and future profits, they could not hold the fort alone, with so many voters and elected officials awakening to their products’ impact upon the planet. Koch network operations would not be alone in aiding the fossil fuel industry, but they provided leadership with outsized—and continuing—impact.

In 1997, as the global climate negotiations got underway which would lead to the Kyoto Protocol of 1998, the Koch-founded front group Citizens for a Sound Economy warned corporate allies that 76 percent of Americans thought of themselves as environmentalists. Sixty-five percent told industry pollsters that they “do not trust business” to take action against pollution. And 79 percent believed “current regulations are about right or ‘not strict enough.’” That was a seemingly insuperable obstacle for a cause committed to radical deregulation. The lesson the cadre took from such findings was that they could not win majorities for their true goals.

Caught between citizen support for environmental action and its members’ own resolve to protect corporations from such interference, the Koch-funded libertarian cause began to deny the findings of science rather than concede the need for federal action. The problem is an inescapable one for their ideology: the pollution that produces planetary warming confirms the downside of capitalist enterprise—what economists call market failure. This is a conclusion the ideologues cannot tolerate, because it shows the value of government intervention. Donald J. Boudreaux, then the chair of the Economics Department at George Mason, thus proclaimed that “sound skepticism of government action to prevent global warming is itself based on science”—the science, that is, of public choice. “It might be hard to admit,” he said, but because a government cure would be worse than the disease, global warming “is best left alone.”

But that was not a persuasive proposition with the public, so Koch-funded organizations also sponsored climate change denial using donor funds to expand efforts to make the citizenry believe the science was inconclusive and controversial. These efforts have been directed at Republican voters—most of whom, even conservative ones, had wanted action on global warming. The Koch cause aims to ensure that they do not get it—indeed, that they are systematically deceived into not wanting it. The Cato Institute, which Buchanan helped Charles Koch launch, and the Independent Institute, on whose board of advisers the economist sat until his death in 2013, are among the circle of libertarian think tanks driving what Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, historians of science and co-authors of Merchants of Doubt, describe as systematic “misinformation campaigns.” Nearly all the ostensibly separate but connected nodes of the Koch apparatus have participated, from Citizens for a Sound Economy, to the Capital Research Center, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and affiliates of the State Policy Network.

Disinformation has become a core tool of the contemporary American right.

As on other issues, vastly wealthy people are paying operatives to prevent the political process from acting on the will of the majority. Just as it enlists the threat of primary challenges to force Republican elected officials to pledge not to support taxes that the majority approves, so does the cause use the same bludgeon to secure pledges of inaction in this area. And the coercion worked. Senator John McCain was but the best-known Republican to flip his position after a Tea Party primary challenge. By 2014, only 8 of 278 Republicans in Congress were willing to acknowledge that man-made climate change was a reality. Today, none would.

That pattern of Leninist-like discipline in denial of the scientifically indisputable has no counterpart elsewhere in the world—which makes sense, because no other nation yet has an apparatus like the Koch network in America. “We’re looking at a party,” Paul Krugman pointed out well before Donald Trump appeared on the political stage, “that has turned its back on science at a time when doing so puts the very future of civilization at risk.”

To say all this another way: if the Koch-funded scholars, institutions, and elected officials were not in the conversation, the public would know that the evidence of science is overwhelming and that government action to prevent further global warming is urgent. Stop the flow of libertarian corporate cash, and the nation might just turn overwhelmingly to an honest reckoning with the economic model and energy sources that have wrought such havoc.

So determined is the Koch network to stop action on climate change, however, that a cause which presents its subsidized scholars on university campuses as “classical liberals” has turned to schemes that defame and intimidate professional scientists, with efforts to discredit their findings, smear individuals’ reputations and bully them into silence. Invoking public choice thinking, Koch-subsidized organizations argue that climate scientists are seeking personal monetary rewards, and not doing honest research in the public interest. “All Aboard the Climate Gravy Train,” a typical headline read.

The amounts being spent are astronomical, it bears mention. According to Greenpeace research, “Koch Family Foundations have spent $145,555,197 directly financing 90 groups that have attacked climate science and policy action from 1997 to 2018.” And those contributions have continued. After even Exxon gave up denialism, Koch Industries persisted. Koch dominance in denialism and obstruction is so overwhelming that DeSmog, created in 2006 “to clear the PR pollution that is clouding the science and solutions to climate change,” now features a Koch Network Database with detailed information on the organizations and leading players involved, among them Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

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This is not the first time in U.S. history that we have seen disinformation campaigns, nor are members of the Koch network the only practitioners on today’s right. But what we are seeing now is worse, I believe. This is partly true owing to changes in media and technology, including the Reagan administration’s termination of the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting and the subsequent surge in rightwing talk radio, the huge profitability of the Murdoch media empire with its misleadingly labeled Fox News, and the massive disinformation possibilities of the Internet.

What is driving it, in the Koch network’s case, is a new ruthlessness from a particularly ideological and threatened fraction of the capitalist class: an extremist minority, anchored in fossil fuels, that is breathtakingly well-funded and determined to win at any cost—and to make the transformation it seeks permanent. Through radical rule changes in law and governance, they aim to lock in the unpopular program of a tiny, messianic minority. And to stop action on the imminent climate catastrophe. They seek changes radical and encompassing enough to constitute a slow-motion revolution below the radar, changes they can only achieve through systematic disinformation to pollute public debate.

This story is generously supported by The Fine Fund.

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Nancy MacLean is the award-winning author of several books, including Democracy in Chains, which won the Lillian Smith Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is the William Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and lives in Durham, North Carolina.