When thinking about the role of money on the United States political stage, I am reminded of a joke a Hungarian art dealer told me recently:
The Pessimist says: “Nothing can get worse than this!”
The Optimist says: “Yes it can! Yes it can!”
As Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s new film Citizen Koch lays out in lurid detail, the role of money in our already tenuous political process has only increased in tangible and pernicious ways. While the manipulation of politics by cash is not a new phenomenon, the film uses largely moderate Republican voices to outline what the consequences of rolling back campaign finance reform looks like for swaths of the middle class.
Using the narrative of Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s ultra-conservative agenda and the struggle for an attempted recall (where Walker outspent the opposition 8 to 1), Citizen Koch tells the story of how billionaire industrialist money—in this case the Koch brothers and their organization Americans for Prosperity—was able to essentially purchase political power and squash alternative voices by massive spending. These themes are not only in the content of the film, but were part of the travails of getting the film made.
Having the “Koch” name in the title led to a now infamous situation (at least in the documentary film community) where a P.B.S. funding body that had committed money insisted that the name Koch be taken out of the title of the film. As detailed in this New Yorker article suspicions were that this happened because David Koch was a trustee of WNET and WGBH, both powerful entities in the P.B.S. network and, according to the filmmakers, P.B.S. executives told them that the inclusion of David Koch in the narrative was “extraordinarily problematic” and that the title of the film made it “unbroadcastable.” This situation led to Lessin and Deal losing that committed funding and, after making up what they lost in a wide-reaching Kickstarter campaign, deciding to roll out the film theater by theater across the nation accompanied by an outreach campaign and a comprehensive website.
Since the film’s festival premiere at Sundance in 2013 and the debacle with P.B.S., the role of money in politics has only gotten more explicit. The landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission increasingly opened the door for large donations to candidates, political parties, and political action committees (PACs). But, more recently, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (which the Republican National Committee joined as a co-plaintiff) has increased the deregulation to the point where politically motivated rich people (that, so far, has largely manifested on the Republican and Tea Party side of the spectrum) have virtually no limits in regards to donations.
“The release of Citizen Koch couldn’t be better timed,” say Lessin and Deal, “With 36 state governorships and hundreds more state legislative seats up for grabs this coming November, political spending is already on pace to triple the record spending in the 2010 midterms.”
So while the Pessimist can surely decry the state of politics, stay home and get all their news from Alex Jones, the Optimist should see this film, help the grassroots movement supporting campaign finance reform, and use the name Koch often and disparagingly.
Citizen Koch opens at IFC Center on June 6th. To get more information and see the trailer visit: www.citizenkoch.com