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Prof. Theda Skocpol discusses how Republicans in Congress have adopted the agenda of the Koch brothers in a lecture Tuesday.

April 14, 2016

Harvard Professor Explains ‘Koch Effect’ in Politics, Republican Party

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Cornell’s A.D. White Professor-at-Large Prof. Theda Skocpol, government and sociology, Harvard University, presented early results on the “Koch Effect” — the network of big money controlled by the billionaire Republican donors, the Koch brothers — in a lecture Tuesday.

The Koch network describes the coordination of “big money funders, idea producers, issue advocates and innovative constituency-building efforts” in an attempt to move American politics to the right, according to a paper by Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez — a doctoral candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University.

Skocpol said Republicans have increasingly adopted the Koch network’s agenda “even if those positions are unpopular with most Americans or even if they are unpopular with most Republicans.”

“On the policies that we see Republican politicians espouse with increasing unanimity — tax cuts to the wealthy and business — the Koch network is a powerful force that is pulling and pushing the Republican party to extreme and often unpopular positions,” Skocpol said.

Unlike previous scholars who considered the Koch network as a “maze of money,” Skocpol explained that her team is taking an organizational control perspective on the influence of the group.

“In our group, we are approaching things differently,” Skocpol said. “We want to know about the specific subset of organizations founded by the Koch brothers and their immediate associates and the organizations that are run by the people they install.”

Skocpol added that she and her researchers traced the evolution of Koch core political organizations. She described the evolution of the Koch network’s investment in five phases: ideas, policy advocacy, donor coordination, constituency mobilization and utilities.

Skocpol drew particular attention to the “superstar” of constituency mobilization — Americans for Prosperity — calling the organization “an important part of American politics [which] rivals the Republican party itself.”

After analyzing the careers of state directors within Americans for Prosperity, Skocpol said she and her team found that the Koch network both mirrored and intertwined with the Republican party.

“In many ways the Koch network is a parallel of the Republican Party,” she said. “It helps to inject a certain amount of resources and spine and backbone into an ultra free market. But it’s intertwined with the Republican Party in that it moves people back and forth in key positions in the Republican Party itself.”

Study of the Koch network helps political scientists seeking to understand recent shifts and “asymmetric polarization” in the political landscape, according to Skocpol.

“The unresponsiveness of many politicians to the mass public that political scientists have increasingly documented,” she said. “[The Koch network] certainly helps us understand why many new public policies have been enacted that increased economic inequality in an era of already galloping economic inequalities.”