THE PUBLIC EYE: The War on Democracy: Art Pope and the Rich Bullies

By Bob Burnett
Friday February 28, 2014 - 04:33:00 PM

Out here on the Left Coast, we’re not opposed to capitalism. But we believe it needs constraints. You’ll hear two arguments for curbing capitalism. One focuses on poor kids and the other on rich bullies, such as North Carolina’s Art Pope. 

Americans share the myth of the “rugged individual” who pulls him, or herself, up by their bootstraps and becomes a success. What undergirds this myth is the notion of the level playing field; belief that all American children start with the same resources and, therefore, whether they succeed depends upon their character. 

Sadly, most of recognize that poor children are not offered a level playing field. For a variety of reasons they have inadequate nutrition, housing, education, and health care. While there are stories of poor children becoming very successful, most do not. In my life I’ve seen that poor kids have a different experience with the police and the court system than rich kids do; if you’re a poor kid caught with a joint, you’re much more likely to go to jail than a rich kid. If you are a poor kid, you’re much more likely to grow up in a home where no one reads and there is no one to encourage you to do your schoolwork. 

As important as the plight of poor kids is, the problem of rich bullies has become more disturbing. Of course, there have always been wealthy folks in America. Thomas Jefferson was rich, as was Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Most Americans would like to be wealthy, but don’t actually know any rich people. Nowadays, most member of the one percent live segregated secluded lives. 

There have always been a few rich Americans who used their wealth in an attempt to subvert democracy. We saw this with the 19th century robber barons and in the 1930’s with the liberty league. Each generation has had to deal with these bullies. In the modern era, they are the Koch brothers and their wealthy allies, including North Carolina’s Art Pope. 

Spending millions of dollars, America’s 21st century bullies have reshaped the Republican Party and are threatening representative democracy. The Koch brothers and their allies have four objectives: replace all elected officials with those amenable to their program (the “Tea Party”); shrink the size of government; reduce taxes and regulations; and, advocate the conservative Christian agenda de jour. 

Behind each of their objectives is an ideological and a personal rationale. The capitalist bullies want to replace Democrats and moderate Republicans with politicians that will support their agenda; in 2012, radical Texas Republican, Ted Cruz, supplanted moderate Republican senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Since 2010, in North Carolina, conservative businessman Art Pope has spent millions moving the state government to the right. Now, for the first time since reconstruction, Republicans control the governorship and the legislature. One observer noted, “Democrats running for office in North Carolina are running against Art Pope.” 

In order to increase the power of conservative Republicans, Pope-sponsored groups led the movement to gerrymander North Carolina congressional districts and suppress Democratic turnout by limiting early voting and requiring display of government-issued voter ids. 

Pope and the other capitalist bullies want to dramatically reduce the size of government. Their lobbyist, Grover Norquist, famously quipped, “We want to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” (Typically, however, they don’t want to diminish the military or the national security establishment.) Ultra-conservative Republicans seek to eliminate Federal domestic agencies and the social safety net. In North Carolina, Art Pope has led the push to lower taxes and to reduce funds for public education – particularly higher education, which he regards as a “boondoggle.” 

Less government inevitably means fewer regulations and looser enforcement of existing laws. The Koch brothers want less government oversight of Koch Industries because that would increase the profitability of their fossil fuel and chemical companies. Art Pope’s family business, Variety Wholesalers, is a discount retail chain with thin profit margins; therefore Pope is opposed to measures such as the Affordable Care Act and an increase in the minimum wage. 

While capitalist bullies are not necessarily conservative Christians, they embrace them as allies and, therefore, support their radical agenda including homophobia (opposition to gay marriage), misogyny (opposition to women’s rights), and racial segregation (voting rights restrictions and opposition to school integration). 

Since 2010, the Koch brothers and their rich allies, such as Art Pope, have waged a stealth war on American democracy. Through a variety of channels, they’ve used their millions to alter the government of state after state. In Washington DC, they’ve tilted the House of Representatives far to the right. In 2014, they’re spending more millions to seize control of the Senate. In North Carolina, Art Pope and friends have already spent more than $7 million to defeat centrist Democratic Senator Kay Hagan. 

Where’s the outrage? When are Americans going to wake up to the capitalist bullies’ war on democracy? 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at