As David Koch’s family mourns his loss, we are taking a moment to pause and grieve, too. We grieve for the families who lost loved ones due to limited health care access. We grieve for the Black communities living alongside waterways polluted by Koch’s chemical plants. We grieve for the Indigenous nations whose lands were used to build Koch’s industrial wealth. We grieve the destruction of democratic values through Koch’s investments in higher education.
David Koch died with a net worth of $59 billion. There is no doubt that his estate will continue to sow the same evils into the world that he did alongside his brother Charles. When one has this amount of wealth at their disposal, their money buys immortality; so for us at UnKoch My Campus, we will continue to organize against David Koch’s legacy.
The political infrastructure that Koch’s wealth has created exists to uphold cultures of white supremacy and capitalism long after his death. The work of David and Charles helped maintain institutionalized violence and it will continue to reinforce structural oppression. The mainstreaming of right-wing ideology through Koch’s lasting investments in higher education will, unfortunately, continue to bring death and grief to our communities every day. For us, this means David Koch’s death is not a victory for the democracy movement. Any progressive that attempts to lionize him for his pro-choice, LGBTQ contributions, or even his financial support of PBS, conveniently ignores that these actions were a part of a strategy in service of his interests, and were in no way liberatory.
In 1980, David Koch made a failed bid for Vice President on the Libertarian Party’s ticket. From that point forward, he stepped back from direct campaign efforts and instead focused his attention on a strategy that would stealthily shift our nation’s culture and society over the next 50 years. He and his brother Charles even had a name for their grand design: The Structure of Social Change.
Following this covert strategy, David and Charles began investing the wealth they derived from their corporation, Koch Industries, into an expansive infrastructure of political influence, particularly in education. The Koch family’s wealth underwrote the creation and growth of over 300 university programs and 200 think-tanks and advocacy organizations that are still alive and active across the country today. It also bankrolled the careers of many state and federal politicians who are actively shaping state and federal policy. Together, these investments allowed the Koch brothers to pursue their goals of privately-funded policy change without ever having to get elected to office themselves.
The Koch family’s university investments are the most crucial components of this infrastructure. For decades, David and Charles have leveraged colleges and universities as a “recruiting ground” to introduce young people to the “liberty movement,” effectively aiding them in generating expansive consumer support to “build state-based capabilities and election capabilities.” These capabilities in turn allowed them to develop a “talent pipeline” to achieve widespread support for, and adoption of, favorable policies at the state and federal levels.
But the Kochs weren’t just eager to shape the minds of young college students. They also leveraged university investments to educate future lawyers and judges. By influencing hiring and programming at George Mason University’s Law School, Koch’s network of conservative donors has also been able to develop a talent pipeline of future lawyers and judges trained in applying free-market principles to their judicial decisions. The Koch network is then able to activate the other layers of their political infrastructure to advocate for the appointment or election of judges who have been trained in their judicial education seminars to powerful positions nationwide.
By leveraging educational institutions to mainstream the ideas that support an anti-democratic policy agenda, David Koch ensured that his family’s ideological legacy will live on well past his physical end.
This is why UnKoch My Campus will continue to build power locally and nationally to directly confront this infrastructure and develop a better system that our communities actually consent to. We have empowered over 150 campuses across the country with the resources necessary to organize against undue donor influence on their campuses. At George Mason University, we supported students in filing a lawsuit against their university for denying access to gift agreements with the Charles Koch Foundation, resulting in the release of agreements that exposed Koch influence over who is hired within the school’s economics program. Our efforts also empowered faculty to successfully organize for improved gift acceptance policies on campus.
We also worked with the Professional Firefighters of Alabama, a network of 45,000 public employees, to save the state retirement system after our research exposed Troy University’s Koch-funded research center bragging about “tak[ing] over” several departments, “ram[ing] through” curricular changes and produc[ing] research to “take down the state pension system.” We joined community members in Tucson, Arizona, as they organized to prevent the use of a biased Koch-funded textbook in high school economics classes in local school districts. Most recently, we successfully blocked the confirmation of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald as Chief Justice to the New Hampshire Supreme Court via our “UnKoch Our Courts” campaign by exposing his connections to the Koch network and Federalist Society.
But our work is nowhere near finished.
Despite David Koch’s death, we all must continue to support campus and community activists working on the ground to reverse the violent reverberations of Koch’s donations, and commit to building stronger partnerships across different issues to directly confront Koch’s agenda in all of its manifestations.