NEW YORK, N.Y.—Unitarians are not generally known for their fire and brimstone theology. Last Thursday night, though, the faithful gathered at a church on the Upper East Side to hear about the devil.
He has gone by many names—Lucifer, Satan, Beelzebub—but that night he was known only as "Koch."
Roughly 100 people filled the pluralistic pews of the Unitarian Church of All Souls for "Koch Busting: Ending the Spell," a panel discussion on Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers, conservative megadonors, and progressive boogeymen.
The event was hosted by the church’s Peace and Justice Task Force; the Big Apple Coffee Party, which is the New York City chapter of the national Coffee Party; and the Nation, a little-read left-wing magazine that loves authoritarian power.
"How many of you feel under the spell of the Kochs?" moderator Laura Flanders asked as the program began.
There were murmurs of assent and raised hands from the crowd.
"All of you are pretty aware that the Koch brothers are one of many octopuses whose tentacles extend into almost every part of our political and commercial lives," Flanders said.
The panelists were Center for Media and Democracy executive director Lisa Graves; John Nichols, Washington correspondent for the Nation; and Lee Fang, a contributing writer at the Nation and a close friend of the Washington Free Beacon.
"There are a lot of people who think the Kochs are conservatives," Nichols said. "They're not. They're nutty conspiracy theorists."
The Kochs, Fang said, aren’t much different from other businessmen who use politics "to pursue their own selfish economic interests."
"But the Kochs are unique because so much of that work relates back to their bottom line and is coordinated right from their lobby office in D.C.," Fang said.
Graves said the Koch brothers are linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a public-private partnership of businesses and state-level legislators who craft model legislation to promote free markets.
As previously reported by the Free Beacon, the Center for Media and Democracy was one of the central groups spearheading a campaign against ALEC.
The overriding theme of the speakers was that the Kochs are trying to permanently tilt the political playing field in their direction.
Nichols said the Kochs wage "meticulous campaigns to undermine the organized groups that might challenge them," such as public-sector unions and trial lawyers.
"They've tried to raise the limits on access to democracy," he said.
If so, they haven't done a very good job: Initial fears among liberals of massive campaign spending by outside conservative groups have turned mostly into chuckles of derision after GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s defeat.
Still, while independent conservative groups mostly struck out in federal elections, they scored several victories at the state level. Republican Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his collective bargaining reforms survived a recall attempt. Right-to-work laws were recently passed in Michigan.
With the election now over and conservatives regrouping, progressive groups aren’t resting on their laurels.
"Today, the governor of Michigan took over the city of Detroit," Nichols said, referring to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s emergency takeover over the Motor City following decades of rampant corruption under one-party Democratic rule.
"The end of democracy in Detroit," Nichols declared, lowering his voice for dramatic effect. "They’re not losing. They’re winning."
A generous estimate of the audience’s median age—don't hold me to it—places the figure around 45.
"Why haven't the Koch brothers been arrested and charged with sabotaging our government, treason, even domestic terrorism?" one man asked the panel.
The panelists, to their credit, did not approve of accusing the Koch brothers with domestic terrorism for their involvement in the political process.
"Folks should never stoop to the level of trying to criminalize free speech," Fang said. "There are serious questions, but we never want to act in a authoritarian way."
Attendees were also sore about David Koch’s patronage of the arts, the David H. Koch Theater in New York City in particular. The dance theater was formerly known as the New York State Theater until David Koch pledged $100 million to renovate the facility.
Some at the meeting suggested a public campaign to take back the name of the theater.
"The association of their name with the arts is troublesome," one woman said. "They do not belong in the realm of music or the arts."
Another woman said she intends to remove the Metropolitan Opera from her will because of its association with David Koch.
The audience applauded.
The Big Apple Coffee Party has bigger plans, however. The group is planning to "April fool the Koch brothers" by not buying Koch products this April 1. One of the group's flyers urges consumers not to buy brands of toilet paper, napkins, and paper towels manufactured by subsidiaries of Koch Industries so as not to undermine democracy any further.
"It’s an easy thing to do to not do something," said Chuck Zlatkin from the Big Apple Coffee Party.
Koch Industries declined to comment on "April fool the Koch brothers."