A new documentary makes the controversial case that a political cocktail of big corporate money and racially charged sentiments has helped fuel the rise of the tea party. And squarely behind that movement, the film argues, are the Koch brothers.
Co-Directors Carl Deal and Tia Lessin sat down with “Top Line” to discuss their film, “Citizen Koch,” and why they say the GOP’s deep-pocketed donors, the Koch brothers, are such figures in American politics today.
“Money – $100 billion now,” Deal said in explaining the Kochs’ influence. “When we started out making this film, their net worth was about $68 billion combined, and we have to keep going in and changing the film and updating it, because it was just recently reported they're up to $100 billion.”
While the Kochs have been players in conservative politics for decades, Deal and Lessin show how their reach was greatly expanded with the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which unleashed an unrestricted flow of corporate dollars to political campaigns.
Riding the wave of the Court’s ruling, Deal and Lessin said, the Koch brothers began reaching into their coffers to fund the budding tea party.
“They did a lot of funding early on in seeding these tea party movements,” Tia Lessin said of the Koch brothers. “A lot of people, I think, have been duped, and they don't realize that the big money of the Kochs is behind a lot of these small patriot gatherings around the country.”
Deal and Lessin also make the controversial case in the film that the tea party was fueled by racist sentiment that pervaded in the wake of the election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, and was used to “rally working peoples around some of their inherent fears around a different agenda.”
“We saw the rise of Fox News and Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity,” Deal said of the months following Obama’s election. “They'd been around but all of a sudden they were the most watched 24 hour news station. I couldn't believe they were saying things that they were saying and getting away with it. There was a lot of coded racism being used.”
The Koch brothers have fired back at both the filmmakers and congressional Democrats, who have shown so much interest in the forthcoming film that they’ve tried to arrange special screenings on Capitol Hill.
“It is troubling that senior Democratic Party leaders are using taxpayer resources to publicize this dishonest, partisan propaganda,” Mark Holden, General Counsel to Koch Industries, said in a statement. “With this type of irresponsible behavior and targeting of private citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights by the senior Democratic leaders, it is no surprise that Congress’ approval ratings are at all–time lows.”
Though the film focuses squarely on the Republican Party and the Koch brothers, Deal and Lessin acknowledge that the Democrats are also pouring their fair share of money into politics in the post-Citizens United era.
“The Democrats are certainly opening the floodgates with their money,” Lessin said. “They're falling in line with the Republicans and it's a trans-partisan issue. The problem is who loses when all this money gets pumped into the political process. I think we do.”
For more of the interview, including the why public television pulled out of the project and who ended up funding the film, check out this episode of “Top Line.”
ABC News’ Gary Westphalen, Tom Thornton, Brian Haefeli and Ed Jennings contributed to this episode.