Talk about plutocracy and oligarchy has become commonplace in America, as the billionaire class grows ever richer and seemingly more arrogant. But do today’s super-rich constitute a threat to American democracy?
Jane Mayer thinks they do, particularly when their money is employed by fanatics like Charles and David Koch and other like-minded tycoons to upend the social order. In Dark Money, Mayer describes a sophisticated right-wing political movement, largely operating through individual proxies and front groups, that seeks a kind of coup d’état, albeit one with libertarian objectives designed to reduce the power of the state as opposed to seizing it. So secretive and centrally organised is this reactionary cabal that it invites comparisons with the Marxist left. And indeed, two of its chief ideologues, the late Irving Kristol and Michael S. Joyce, were inspired early in their lives, respectively, by Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci.
It’s true that wealthy Americans have been snarling for a long time about personal income taxes, an issue so contentious that Congress was obliged to pass a constitutional amendment in 1913 to institutionalise the practice. Hatred of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its policies of wealth redistribution added to the anti-tax rancour among the wealthy, yet under Dwight Eisenhower’s pro-business Republican administration, the top marginal income tax rate remained at a historic high of 91 per cent.
Partly in response to the growing welfare state, two important radical fringe groups appeared in the late 1950s, Robert Welch’s John Birch Society and Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School. Fred Koch, the family patriarch, was a charter member of Welch’s group, and he indoctrinated his sons with his anti-government passions. The irony was not lost on Fred that he made his initial fortune helping to build oil refineries in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and there’s some evidence that he regretted it, though his later work in Hitler’s Germany didn’t cause equivalent pangs of conscience.