Americans for Prosperity: How the Koch Brothers Make Workers Poorer and Put Republicans in Power—Report

A group of Columbia- and Harvard-based researchers have shone a light on the covert ways the billionaire Koch brothers have worked to remake American politics through an influential conservative advocacy group known as Americans for Prosperity.

In an in-depth investigation published by The Guardian on Wednesday, academics Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, Caroline Tervo and Theda Skocpol describe the successful strategies of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), set up in 2004, in its quest to push U.S. politics to the right. The institution's aims reflect the libertarian, free-market agenda of its founders and funders, the billionaire brothers David H. Koch and Charles Koch, who between them command over $110 billion through their ownership of Koch Industries.

"For all the groups the Kochs have created and funded, there is just one group that sits at the center of their network: Americans for Prosperity," the authors write.

"Expanding across US states since 2004, AFP installs paid staff at the national, regional, and state levels, and gives them the money and resources needed to influence elections and deploy lobbyists and volunteers in major policy campaigns," they write.

"In recent years, AFP has quietly pushed behind the scenes for many of the most important conservative victories across the nation, including the anti-union bills that passed in former union strongholds such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio."

At the heart of their strategy is a "laser-like focus" on anti-union legislation. The motivations are manifold and long-term. Not only do unions limit the power of businesses to set wages but also, more strategically, the AFP sees them as being integral to the success of progressive candidates and causes.

"In presidential elections, Democrats lose around three percentage points after the passage of anti-union legislation, and turnout dips by around two points," the authors note.

In somewhere like Wisconsin, where the AFP was heavily involved in passing anti-union legislation that, since 2011, has reduced union membership by almost 40 percent, such shifts can be decisive. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump defied expectations to win Wisconsin by a mere 23,000 votes.

For the AFP, weakening unions is thus a way of cutting off the Democrat Party's power at the source. Having fewer members means receiving less money and having less power, diminishing its ability to elect a candidate that reflects members' interests.

As a top AFP staffer explained, reported WBUR News: "We fight these battles on taxes and regulations, but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees, so they don't have the resources to fight these battles."

In public, Trump and the Koch brothers enjoy a hostile relationship, largely because the latter refused to endorse his candidacy for the presidency. "If I had to vote for cancer or a heart attack, why would I vote for either?" Charles Koch famously quipped in 2016. Earlier this year, in July, Trump tweeted that the "globalist Koch Brothers" were "a total joke in real Republican circles."

But this animosity conceals a deeper harmony of interests. The AFP were integral in making the Tea Party a political force, a movement that in many ways paved the road for Trump's success. The Koch network boosted the profiles of politicians like Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, who worked closely with the AFP to prevent lawmakers from tackling climate change, reported The New Yorker.

Meanwhile, Trump's $1.5 trillion tax cut, signed in December, and his broader program of deregulation, is backed by the Koch brothers and aligns perfectly with the AFP's aims. "We've made more progress in the past five years than I've made in the previous 50," Charles Koch told donors in July.

But despite the name, Americans for Prosperity's aims do not appear to align with the interests of most Americans. At the national level, only about 40 percent of voters believe that public sector bargaining rights should be curbed, while, according to a Gallup poll in 2017, about two-thirds of voters believe that corporations and the rich are taxed too little—a sentiment contradicted by AFP's agenda.

For workers, the correlation between union membership and wage growth is increasingly clear, according to The New York Times. Union workers earn about a fifth more more than nonunion workers in similar jobs. In his book The Great Divergence, America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It, Timothy Noah observed that when unions were at their strongest, between 1944 and 1977, incomes in the U.S. were at their least unequal. As The New York Times reported in July, drawing on a new academic study, mounting evidence "demonstrates that the decline in union power since the 1960s... has contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor."

This suggests that the Koch brothers' agenda means Americans working for the prosperity of the Koch brothers, rather than Americans themselves.