Tea Party fortunes fertilize grassroots

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Back in 1980, when Ronald Reagan launched his campaign for a right-wing revolution in America, David Koch was a disgruntled billionaire who thought Reagan wasn't far enough to the right.

Today, Koch is still a disgruntled billionaire and still convinced the Reagan revolution hasn't gone nearly far enough in cutting taxes on the rich, dismantling the welfare state and gutting government controls on business.

But today, as Americans vote in their mid-term elections, Koch is no longer in the political wilderness. After pumping more than $100 million into arch-conservative political organizations over the past 30 years, he (and billionaire brother Charles) now appear close to pushing U.S. politics significantly further to the right -- even though the wealthy elite is already richer and more powerful today than it's been since the 1920s.

Through their Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Koch brothers have micromanaged the rise of the purportedly grassroots Tea Party movement, as documented in a recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker.

Although the Kochs prefer to remain in the shadows, David Koch was captured on film last year addressing a massive pro-Tea Party summit. "Five years ago, my brother Charles and I provided the funds to start Americans for Prosperity. It's beyond my wildest dreams how AFP has grown into this enormous organization," said Koch, in a clip seen in the new film (Astro)Turf Wars by Taki Oldham.

The stunning rise of the Tea Party -- which seems to have had spillover effects here with Rob Ford's victory -- shows how the wealthy have manipulated the anger following the devastating 2008 financial crash, and turned it into a battering ram for their own causes.

Tea Party activists like to portray themselves as warriors taking on the elite, like the Boston Tea Party revolutionaries who helped overthrow the British colonial establishment.

But today's Tea Partiers are fighting for the elite. It's hard to get much higher up the establishment food chain than the Koch brothers, who through their ownership of oil giant Koch Industries, have a combined fortune of $35 billion.

All this is a sharp departure from the upheaval that followed the 1929 financial crash. Spurred on by a furious public that held Wall Street responsible for that crash, Franklin Roosevelt's administration introduced sweeping changes that significantly reduced the power and wealth of the very rich.

Signalling a new labour-friendly era in 1935 with the far-reaching Fair Labor Relations Act, Roosevelt also brought in tough laws on banking and pushed up the top marginal tax rate on very high incomes, eventually to 88 per cent.

Unions flourished in the decades that followed, as gains made by the leading union, the United Auto Workers, helped push up wages across the country, creating a prosperous and politically influential middle class.

Today the right is managing to direct public anger against unions and government social programs.

Rob Ford swept to power promising to "stop the gravy train," by which he meant replacing uppity garbage workers with more submissive non-union ones. Premier Dalton McGuinty, jumping on the right-wing bandwagon, promises to freeze public-sector wages, hitting workers making near-poverty wages in nursing homes and hospitals.

Meanwhile, living in splendour befitting kings, the Koch brothers quietly supervise an incoherently angry army that promises to gut what's left of benefits for the poor while adding to the bonanza of billionaires.

Linda McQuaig is author of It's the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet. This article was originally published in The Toronto Star.

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