Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Of Conspiracies, the Koch Brothers, and Individuals

with one comment

by Weiner

My old buddy Ezra Klein has great post on how the power of the super wealthy libertarian Koch brothers has been greatly exaggerated. Klein writes:

in much the way that conservatives became unusually and incorrectly obsessed with George Soros between 2004 and 2008, I worry that a lot of liberals have become overly fixated on the influence and power of the Koch brothers…. There’s an impulse on both sides of the political divide to attribute losses and unhelpful shifts in political opinion to shadowy, all-powerful organizations and financiers.

He concludes with this description of David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch’s importance:

Influential political players court them for their money, work with them when it suits their purposes and ignore them otherwise. That makes them a lot more powerful than you or me, and certainly worthy of attention. But it doesn’t make them into a grand unified theory of conservative politics,and people should be skeptical when they’re presented as such.

Ezra is right on the money here, but this got me thinking about an earlier post I wrote on the role of the individual in history. In that post, I noted that while earlier historians attributed considerable heft and agency to individuals in driving history forward, be they “good guys” like Martin Luther King Jr., or “bad guys” like Adolf Hitler (and yes, they were almost always guys). When the individual became super important, things like Hitler’s gas problem become crucial (I’m talking about flatulence, not Zyklon B). But then social historians in the 1960s looked to larger structural patterns that shaped historical events, along with granting agency to large masses of people: frequently workers, women, minorities (or some combination of the three) creating history “from the bottom up.”


The interesting contrast here, though, is when it comes to political commentary, there seems to be a tendency, on the left and the right, to revert to the “great man” theory of history when assigning blame. So liberals and leftists blame the Koch Brothers, or figureheads like Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin, and conservatives blame George Soros, and hatch conspiratorial theories about Barack Obama being a secret Kenyan Marxist Muslim.

On the flip side, though, when praising their own cause, everyone becomes a social historian, and usually attributes a broad base of support to their views. The Tea Partiers claim that their movement is widespread and “grassroots,” just the like the people and union leaders and others on the left. Both sides cite polls that says the masses agree with them.

I’m not saying the right’s causes are equally valid to those of the left: they’re not, and it’s not even close. But I am saying that it seems everyone wants the power with the people, left or right, fighting evil, conspiratorial individuals, left or right. Where is the truth? As usual, the classical grad student answer is probably correct: it’s a little bit of both.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 19, 2011 at 15:42

One Response

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  1. This strike me as true not only of politics but also in situations like the financial crisis: rather than seeing the whole system as corrupt, and fraud as just one symptom if the disease, people focused on prosecuting individual Ponzi-schemers or individual CEOs, while the defense of the bonus pool (at least here in the City) has been that it includes bonuses for every level of employee and that the majority of RBS/Barclays/HSBC’s employees who would be harmed buy a reduction in the bonus pool are just your average bank tellers.


    March 21, 2011 at 05:29

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