The very name of a Washington conservative conference this weekend is the height of subterfuge. It's called the "Defending the American Dream" conference, which is not about defending the actual American dreams of most Americans (the focus of our own "Take Back the American Dream" conference), sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, which is not an organization that promotes what is needed for broad American prosperity.
This actually is the latest effort by the billionaire Koch brothers, founders and key funders of Americans for Prosperity, and their corporate and political allies to hijack our democracy and pillage our economy. It's their attempt to perpetuate an American nightmare of continued income inequality and a government held hostage to the whims of elites. It is thus a perfect target for the latest Occupy-style protest.
The Other 98% and Health Care for America Now are sponsoring a "Koch Brothers Guerrilla Drive-In" Friday evening at the Washington Convention Center, where the conference is being held. The plan is to have an outdoor showing of a documentary on how the Kochs are using their fortune to pursue their grotesque mangling of American democracy.
The conference itself brings together many of the players in and elements of their grand scheme. For example, there is James O'Keefe, the person who dressed up as a pimp in a scheme to get damaging video footage for his scurrilous slander of the group ACORN, doing a lecture on "investigative journalism." There's Grover Norquist on a panel on "pro-growth tax reform." (He's lately been championing Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "flat tax" plan, which would allow the wealthy to slash their tax payments and would explode the federal deficit, forcing Norquist's longtime shrink-government-and-drown-it-in-the-bathtub objective.) There's Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo, a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, on a panel on the Environmental Protection Agency's "job-crushing regulatory assault"; he will be speaking on behalf of the Koch brothers, his leading campaign contributor, and the oil and gas industry, his biggest source of campaign cash. At least two Republican presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, are also scheduled to appear.
No conservative conference is complete without the deification of Ronald Reagan, and there will be plenty of that going on at the Friday night "Tribute to Ronald Reagan" dinner, which will be followed by a screening of "Atlas Shrugged." (No, I am not making this up.)
But what makes this conference significant is not the tired repetition of right-wing bumper-sticker slogans, the over-the-top characterizations of Obama administration policy or the pathetic preening of presidential candidates to show off how extreme they can be. It is the very real damage that the Koch brothers and the forces that this conference is assembling are doing to our economy and to the 99 percent of us for whom the American dream of economic security is becoming increasingly out of reach.
Consider what the Koch brothers have actually been "defending":
- Their $45 million effort to buy control of Congress. That's the amount of money Forbes magazine says Americans for Prosperity spent in the 2010 elections. That money helped Republicans control the House with the most extreme group of conservatives elected in modern history. With this group firmly in control, every effort by the Obama administration to move legislation to revive the economy has been thwarted and previous successes in health care and financial reform have come under unrelenting attack. The stream of anti-regulation, anti-labor legislation passed by the Tea Party-besotted House is pretty much lifted straight from the Koch brothers legislative agenda.
- The destructive efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council to co-opt state and local governments. Rather than promoting state and local governments as entities that are particularly equipped to respond to the public interest because of their proximity to the people, ALEC mounts campaigns that leave state and local governments facilitating private greed rather than serving the public good. In August The Nation's Lisa Graves explained that "of all the Kochs’ investments in right-wing organizations, ALEC provides some of the best returns: it gives the Kochs a way to make their brand of free-market fundamentalism legally binding." Examples include legislation that allows energy companies to avoid fines for polluting, that push privatization of public education, and that prevent states and localities from regulating the rogue behavior of financial institutions.
- ALEC's efforts to suppress voter turnout. The Koch brothers' fingerprints are all over the efforts by various Republican governors and legislatures to pass voter ID laws that use trumped-up allegations of voter fraud to deliberately disenfranchise voters most likely to oppose their agenda. "It was ALEC’s draft legislation that inspired a spate of recently passed voter ID laws that, if allowed to stand, are expected to marginalize the impact of students and people of color at the polls in Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Kansas," Adele Stan reported for the AFL-CIO blog. Patrick Caldwell at the American Prospect wrote that "the rules are often configured specifically to favor the Republican base at the expense of excluding likely Democrats."
- Their assault on public workers. Scott Walker won the governorship of Wisconsin and the ability to execute his attack on public workers there with the help of $43,000 in direct contributions from the Koch Industries political action committee and indirectly through the $1 million that Koch's PAC gave to the Republican Governors Association. The Kochs are also major supporters of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who earlier this year credited "the strong support" of Americans for Prosperity for his now faltering attempt to strip Ohio state workers of their bargaining rights.
- The dominance of extremist candidates in the 2012 presidential race. Koch bothers money can be found in the pockets of at least three of the most extreme Republican presidential candidates: Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and, especially, Herman Cain. Rachel Maddow reported that the Cain connections include a campaign manager from the Wisconsin chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a now ex-spokesperson from another Americans for Prosperity affiliate, and the economic advisor who came up with Cain's infamous "9-9-9" tax plan, who was a member of Americans for Prosperity's advisory board. This is no surprise, because, as the Associated Press has reported, Cain has historically been a shill for the Americans for Prosperity legislative agenda. The Kochs have said they will pour at least $200,000 into the 2012 presidential campaign. "At least" is the operative phrase; expect the Kochs to funnel millions of dollars into the 2012 campaign through a variety of channels, most of which—thanks in part to the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling—will be unrestricted and largely untraceable.
- Their ability to violate the law with impunity, and to punish those who hold them accountable. A Bloomberg Markets magazine investigation published in October calls it "the Koch method," in which employees of the brothers' oil and gas companies "were shown by their managers how to steal and cheat." The stealing and cheating, according to Bloomberg, ranged from not paying royalties for oil extracted from federal land to bribing foreign officials to win contracts—and firing the company compliance officer who discovered the bribes and called them to the attention of top corporate officials. "For six decades around the world, Koch Industries has blazed a path to riches -- in part, by making illicit payments to win contracts, trading with a terrorist state, fixing prices, neglecting safety and ignoring environmental regulations. At the same time, Charles and David Koch have promoted a form of government that interferes less with company actions," the magazine wrote.
Unregulated, unaccountable corporations. Extremist elected officials who disdain the concept of a government serving the common good. Workers stripped of the ability to negotiate collectively for fair pay, working conditions and benefits. Hundreds of millions of corporate dollars drowning out the voices of working-class and middle-class people. Voters forced to jump over ever-higher obstacles to vote for candidates who represent them, assuming those candidates can even get on ballots. This is the Koch brothers' dystopia. What they are defending is indefensible.
For at least a few hours on Friday evening, the Washington Convention Center should be the focus of Occupy movement and its allies, for the Koch brothers embody just about everything the Occupy movement is against—members of the 1 percent who act as if our economy and our democracy should be their personal servant, and that the 99 percent should feel satisfied with the crumbs off their table.
It is time for us to declare that we are the real Americans for prosperity, those of us who believe that workers should receive a fair wage for a fair day's work and be treated with dignity; that companies should be accountable for the harm that they do to people and the environment; that health care is a basic right for every person; that the education of our children shouldn't be turned into yet another corporate profit center; that government can and should work for all of the people, not the privileged few; that our democracy is the property of the people and cannot be owned by those with the most money.
We cannot allow the Koch brothers' so-called "American dream" to continue to be our national nightmare.
Sean McMartin contributed to this article.