Citizen Koch | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Citizen Koch

A documentary looks at the increased influence of mega-money on political campaigns

click to enlarge "Reagan Republican" and registered nurse Dee Ives works to recall Gov. Walker.
"Reagan Republican" and registered nurse Dee Ives works to recall Gov. Walker.

What hath Citizens United wrought? That's the central question explored in Tia Lessin and Carl Deal's documentary Citizen Koch, about the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that, among other things, opened a path for huge amounts of private money to be funneled, often without explicit disclosure, into political campaigns.

By way of example, the filmmakers focus on Wisconsin in the wake of Republican Scott Walker's 2010 election to governor, and his early decision to take on public-sector unions. On one side, various outraged nurses, prison guards and schoolteachers, armed with sit-ins, poster-board signs and leaflets; on the other, extraordinarily wealthy and well-connected businessmen, like the state's Koch brothers, who generously funded "advocacy" groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Much of the film centers on the movement to recall Walker, but the filmmakers also spend time on Buddy Roemer's quixotic presidential campaign. (Needless to say, now is not a good time in American politics to run against candidates with huge cash piles from corporations, or to refuse to accept such donations.) And running throughout the Walker/unions battle is the dismay of lifelong Republicans, who as ordinary citizens, feel their interests are subsumed by those of mega-donors.

If you're a policy nerd, plenty of Citizen Koch will be familiar to you, but the film is a good précis of a tumultuous time in American politics, a series of rifts and adjustments that is still ongoing.

And if the film feels like something one might watch on, say, Frontline, you're not wrong. The filmmakers claim that the film was being developed for PBS, but that interference from David Koch, who is a major donor to the network, resulted in the withdrawal of funding. The film was subsequently funded partly through a Kickstarter campaign, in perhaps a victory for the little guys.

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