“Citizen Koch” comes prepackaged with the kind of behind-the-scenes tale that instantly raises all kinds of flags and attention. The story goes that the production lost $150,000 in funding from public broadcasters, over fears of offending David Koch, a major financial backer of PBS and trustee for WGBH and WNET. But the secretive billionaire needn’t have worried. While Carl Deal and Tia Lessin‘s documentary “Citizen Koch” does deal with the Koch brothers’ manipulation of the political sphere to suit their various motives, it’s not really about the siblings in particular. It’s a film that endeavors to be a shocking exposé on the growing corporate interest in politics, but for anyone who has even been half paying attention, it’s not all that surprising.
The documentary swirls around two defining events: the 2010 midterms, which saw the rise of the Tea Party, along with the most expensive campaigning in history, and the 2011 Wisconsin protests. The latter is the more intriguing tale, with governor Scott Walker using his war chest of financing from major corporations along with donors from out of state, to spin a narrative that unions were crippling the state’s economy and unfairly influencing his recall election. And behind both the Tea Party and the events in Wisconsin are the Koch Brothers, who dance in the lines of the rulebook, setting up PACs and various organizations to legitimately funnel money to politicians whose advancement would serve their various interests.
And while it’s certainly worth being concerned when two people, worth tens of billions of dollars, can put such a firm imprint on the election process, they are merely continuing a tradition that no one in American politics wants to talk about: that corruption and disenfranchisement goes back decades if not hundreds of years, and continues to this day (see the rise of voter ID laws in countless states across the country). The real question is not who is taking part in a democratic system that is already rigged in many regards, but why it’s allowed to continue to happen, and how we got here. And it’s in this regard that “Citizen Koch” often comes up short.
While the Koch brothers secrecy and immense wealth makes them an easy target for speculation, as the documentary itself notes, there are plenty of other corporations, who also benefit from Koch backed policies, that usually involve pushing for open markets, deregulation and dismantling worker rights. Deal and Tessin would have done well to go further with their film, and ask these other companies directly about the political initiatives they quietly support behind-the-scenes. The alarm bell the filmmakers want to ring is about the unhealthy sway the 1% are able to have thanks to their bank accounts, but the real cause for concern is that it’s merely part of a larger system that is not working. When “Citizen Koch” spends its time trying to underscore how the core values of Republicans have changed, it misses the point that the differences between the two major parties, is merely a matter of semantics (except on a few key issues like abortion). Both are responsible for putting corporate interests first (is it any shock that Tom Wheeler, appointed head of the FCC by President Barack Obama, was a former lobbyist for the telecommunications industry? wonder how those net neutrality talks will go….).
Certainly, “Citizen Koch” does at least accomplish shining a light into a corner of the political system that needs much more attention, but you want that illumination to be even brighter. Coming in under ninety minutes, that feeling of wanting more substance from the doc is underscored by its repetitive nature and a focus so narrow it often loses sight of a bigger picture that requires much needed context. For those who didn’t know how flawed and manipulated the act of casting a ballot has become, “Citizen Koch” is a decent enough primer, but for everyone else long past the tipping point, this is just more evidence for a problem that currently has no solution. [C]