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50 People Who Matter 2011 | 45. The Koch brothers

Tea despots.

In March, Charles G Koch, who, together with his brother David, owns most of the gargantuan US conglomerate Koch Industries, published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. "For many years," he wrote, "I, my family and our company have contributed to a variety of intellectual and political causes . . . Because of our activism, we've been vilified by various groups." The piece ended with Koch calling for "smaller, smarter government". The firm would continue to defend "economic freedom", he said, even though doing so "affects our business".

The brothers inherited their loathing of big government and all its works from their father, Fred, a founding member of the right-wing John Birch Society. "It's something I grew up with," David said in 2007, "a fundamental point of view that big government was bad and imposition of government controls on our lives and economic fortunes was not good."

If the Kochs' activism has, as Charles alleges, affected their business, the damage done has been to the company's reputation rather than its bottom line. They now maintain a website,, devoted solely to rebutting or correcting media stories about their political advocacy. Nevertheless, in 2010, Forbes placed Koch Industries second on its list of the largest privately held firms in the US. David's and Charles's combined personal wealth is $44bn.

The scale of their attempts to buy political influence is astonishing. A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity showed that the Kochs had, over the past two decades, donated $11m to candidates for political office, at both state and federal level. The brothers have also funded a number of not-for-profit organisations, including Citizens for a Sound Economy, which received $13m of the Kochs' money over the two decades up to 2004, and, latterly, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec).

After the CNBC anchor Rick Santelli's infamous on-air rant about the Obama administration from the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange in 2009, AFP stoked popular discontent by creating Facebook pages and organising events around the country. This was the birth of the Tea Party, whose candidates later swept the board in the 2010 Congressional midterm elections. AFP, which now has more than a million members across the US, was also involved in protests against President Obama's health-care reforms.

Meanwhile, Alec is behind a Republican drive to disenfranchise Democratic voters in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election - principally by using state-level legislation that requires voters to carry government-issued ID.

As Obama's adviser David Axelrod put it: the Tea Party is a "grass-roots citizens' movement brought to you by a bunch of oil billionaires". The latest beneficiary of these particular billionaires' largesse is the Tea Party presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann. In May, the Koch Industries Political Action Committee gave $10,000 to Bachmann's election campaign. There's sure to be more where that came from.

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Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The fifty people who matter