It is unlikely that our founding fathers could have anticipated the effect that money would have on politics 200 years after they drafted the constitution. For anyone still unaware of that impact, Citizen Koch will be an eye-opener. The documentary will be shown at the next Salem Progressive Film Series presentation.
“This film uncovers the real story, behind the scenes, of how money and power is unraveling our democracy,” says Kate Titus, Executive Director of Common Cause Oregon, who will be one of two speakers to appear after the screening. “This is not just a documentary about the Koch brothers. This is our own story as everyday people, fighting for our future.”
Co-directed by an Oscar-nominated team, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, Citizen Koch is anchored on the 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, which essentially declared that corporate money equals free speech. Since that decision, in which the five conservative judges overruled their four more liberal brethren, corporations are free to donate unlimited amounts of money to political action committees (PACs) who are not required to disclose the identities of their contributors.
Joining Titus will be David Delk of the Portland Alliance for Democracy. “This is a great movie,” Delk says, “to grow the public’s awareness of the magnitude of the threat to democracy when we fail to control money in the politic system. This movie demonstrates how unlimited money in the political system is a clear violation of the principle of one person, one vote, because it allows those with the money to shout while the rest of us just get to whisper. And shouting determines who gets to run for office, who gets elected, what issues become “issues” and which get suppressed, and ultimately who benefits and who is harmed.
The film’s title is a reference to the billionaire founders of one PAC, Charles and David Koch, whose organization Americans for Prosperity has bankrolled many campaigns in support of their conservative agenda. Their father, Fred Koch, founded the extreme right John Birch Society, which conflated African-Americans with a communist plot to take over the country.
But the Koch brothers themselves are not truly the focus of Citizen Koch (which was originally to be titled Citizen Corp). They remain a shadowy presence behind the scenes as we see some of the effects of their influence. Much attention is paid to the union-busting actions of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who with support from Americans for Prosperity succeeded in eliminating the right of collective bargaining by Wisconsin public employees. We meet some disenchanted Republican voters who believed Walker’s campaign promises to balance the state budget but had no idea he intended to remove their collective bargaining rights. Soon there is a massive recall effort to remove Walker, which is finally defeated with the help of a campaign fuelled by millions of dollars from the Koch brothers’ PAC.
The film spends time with some of these unhappy Republicans, including a schoolteacher and a prison guard who don’t understand why they are now being portrayed as the enemy of the people because they belong to unions. One teacher’s 60-ish husband is compelled by the recall effort to vote for the first time in his life.
Another section of the film is devoted to Tea Party Republican presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, who would take no PAC money and wanted to get money out of politics. He says “The politicians don’t run the country. The major corporations do.”
One reason you may not have heard of Buddy Roemer is that he was never allowed to participate in any of the Republican debates, apparently because he was unable to raise enough campaign cash to qualify.
“My concern,” says Delk, “is that attacks on democracy…which have said that corporations are people with constitutional rights, decisions limiting the ability of people to sue corporations for bad actions, limiting class action lawsuits, [mean] that we are losing our ability to make decisions challenging corporate power. How long can democracy last, when corporations have controlling influence over all three branches of government? My concern is that we will have the formal structure of a democracy while we in fact have a plutocracy and a corporatecracy.”
Citizen Koch examines these issues. There are appearances by right wing stalwarts such as Sarah Palin, who credits President Obama with causing the birth of the Tea Party movement, in front of a crowd holding signs naming Obama a communist, and Karl Rove, who advises supporters who want to exceed their individual campaign donation limits to just donate as much as they want to his PAC, American Crossroads.
Presented without narration, the film entwines these disparate elements into a cohesive whole which flows smoothly and paints a picture of the corrosive effects of money on politics. It was originally planned to be aired by PBS, but that plan was scuttled for unknown reasons, which some speculate may have had to do with the fact that David Koch is a large donor to PBS. It’s completion funding was raised through a Kickstarter campaign.
Citizen Koch was filmed during Obama’s first term, and much of the talk is centered on “taking back” the country. If there is any silver lining to be found in the film, it is that despite the free spending by PACs to defeat Obama, he still got re-elected.
“There is great hope for democracy in America,” Delk argues. “We as a people still do believe that we should be the “deciders” and we are organizing to resist the demise of democracy. We organize in rallies and demonstrations. We organize in unions. We organize in the streets in support of policy changes to address climate change, to oppose LNG plants and the transport of coal… We organize local communities via efforts to pass local community rights ordinances. We organize to oppose corporate trade deals like the NAFTA inspired Trans Pacific Partnership. And with all these efforts we draw the connections between all these issues. And we not only organize, we also win, even when confronted by all the elitist moneyed interests.”
But Citizen Koch shows that the unrestricted flow of money into the political world, made possible by the Citizens United ruling, remains an effective force which shows no sign of diminishing.
Salem Progressive Film Series
Featuring live conversation with Kate Titus of Common Cause Oregon
and David Delk of the Portland Alliance for Democracy
Thursday, November 13 7 p.m.
Grand Theater 191 High St. NE