Reviews

'Citizen Koch' and the Enduring Effects of Citizens United

What happens when corporate and private monies are allowed to come into a public system of electioneering and propaganda?


Citizen Koch

Director: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin
Cast: Floyd Abrams, James Bopp, Paul Booth, Brian Cunningham, Bob Edgar, Russ Feingold, Dee Ives, John Ives, Jake Jacobs, Mari Jo Kabat, Mike McCabe, Rep. Gwen Moore, Phil Neuenfeldt, Tim Phillips, Trevor Potter, Charles "Buddy" Roemer, Ellen Weintraub
Rated: NR
Studio: Variance Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-06-06 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer
"The fact that one of our most trusted institutions, public television, can be swayed by the power and influence of a billionaire donor, is deeply troubling, and we never saw it coming. If Koch money can corrupt PBS, what can't it corrupt?"

-- Tia Lessin

"What I voted for is not what I got," says Mari Jo Kabat. As she speaks, you see the exterior of the Madison, Wisconsin state house, US and state flags flying against a pretty blue sky. Cut to Kabat, seated in her kitchen, sink and counter behind her, bright light visible through the window. "I did not vote," she goes on, "and this is a harsh word to use, I did not vote for a dictator who would strip me and my colleagues of all our rights."

Kabat is a public school librarian in Wisconsin, a lifelong Republican. After 26 years working in the public school system, you learn in Citizen Koch, she makes $50,000 a year. She's worried in 2011, following the election of Governor Scott Walker, about his efforts to curtail her union's collective bargaining rights. She feels torn, she says more than once, because she shares certain ideals and principles with the Republican Party, or at least, with the party she though she knew.

"I consider myself a fairly intelligent human being and I can figure things out for myself," she says. Kabat believes in the right to life, she says, but is concerned that the party is now, "on both ends of the life span," cutting back on basic support for life, "taking health care away from the children," she notes as well as senior citizens.

Kabat's efforts to understand this shifting logic, vividly manifested in Walker's administration but apparent as well in changes in state laws across the nation, provides an emotional focus for Citizen Koch. Tia Lessen and Carl Deal's film takes up other examples of dedicated Republican specifically in Wisconsin, who also feel betrayed. And it sets as a starting point for this feeling the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United in 2010.

This is the moment, the film asserts in a montage at its beginning, where corporate and other private monies were not only allowed to come into a public system of electioneering and propaganda, but became the system's primary structuring element. "Sometimes it's the check," observes Buddy Roemer, running as a Republican for president in 2012, but never once invited to participate in a Republican candidates debate. "Sometimes it's the threat of a check. Money is a weapon. It doesn't add to the debate, it doesn't increase the number of Americans" involved in the process.

This isn’t to say that such monies were not influential in the past, but previous to Citizens United, they were restricted or had to find loopholes in order to shape any given election. Now, with a legal apparatus that grants anonymity to donors of any amounts of money, the proverbial "floodgates" have been opened, and elections are (more) overtly for sale. This much is underlined in the documentary's use of identificatory titles for subjects, including not only names and job descriptions, but also how money they make, which is to say, how much influence they might be able to buy.

Thus, Kabat is making relatively little money, as is Brian Cunningham who, after serving 21 years in the US Army, is now a Wisconsin correctional officer. After 18 years working at a maximum security prison, his salary is $42,000, meaning that he, like Kabat, relies on the promise of a pension and other provisions that the new Republican Party, along with the Tea Party, want to reduce or eliminate, as state workers are encouraged to find their way without government "support" (that is, payment for labor they perform or have performed).

Even more dire is the situation of Dee Ives and her husband John, both military veterans and both horrified by the situation unfolding before them, currently living on her $40,000 salary. John sees "Millionaires crushing the poor people," and as they watch speeches by candidates on TV, they note the hypocrisy and the deceit. They need the health care benefits they believe they've earned. Like Kabat and Cunningham, Dee Ives and her husband John decide to participate in the campaign to recall Governor Walker. And like them, they are upset to find how much money is coming in from outside the state to support the Governor.

This money is largely a function of the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity (AFP), whose president, Tim Phillips, earns $317,000. He campaigns for Walker and the Tea Pay, insisting that the defeat of Obama is the only way to maintain the American promise. When Lessin asks, from off camera, about AFP's election advocacy, he looks at her and as if she's said something he's never contemplated.

"We don't do election advocacy," he asserts, slightly smiling for the camera. "Really?" she asks, "This is not election advocacy?" And by the way, what about the Kochs' part in this? He ends the conversation. "We don't discuss our funding."

If Citizen Koch doesn’t break new ground with regard to its observations on Tea Party dogma or scary Republican presidential candidates, and if its focus is on a campaign -- the Walker recall -- that is done and gone, this is in part because it was originally supposed to air on PBS, in 2013. It has found its way to theaters now thanks to Lessiin and Deal's dedication and a Kickstarter campaign, following PBS' decision not to show the film.

PBS says the film turned out differently than the company expected. The filmmakers suggest the company's decision was a matter of money. "David Koch, whose political activities are featured in the film, happens to be a public-television funder and a trustee of both WNET and WGBH. This wasn’t a failed negotiation or a divergence of visions; it was censorship, pure and simple.”

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