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Meet the Koch Brothers' Wealthy Right-Wing Grandfather: How His Pro-Corporate Agenda Is Echoed by the Kochs' Assault on Our Democracy

The Koch brothers have bankrolled a broad attack on progressive government programs. Their grandfather's history in Texas helps explain why.

This storywas first published by Texas Observer. You can subscribe to the Texas Observer here.

Charles and David Koch are the most powerful right-wing billionaires of our time. They have spent hundreds of millions bankrolling a broad attack against Social Security, organized labor, financial regulations, environmental protection and public education. The brothers plan to spend at least $200 million trying to elect right-wing, anti-government Republicans in 2012, according to Politico. They seem hell-bent on dragging America back to the dark days of unregulated capitalism. The history of their grandfather in Texas may help explain why.

Little has been written about Harry Koch. He's the least-known member of the Koch family, which has been marching under the same laissez-faire banner for the past three generations. Harry Koch emigrated to America in 1888, settled in a North Texas railroad town and became a newspaper publisher and aggressive corporate booster. He advocated for railroad and banking interests, amassing wealth and helping big business fight organized labor and squelch reforms.

Much of the Koch brothers' ideology can be found in Harry Koch's newspaper editorials of nearly a century ago. Take, for instance, the Kochs' current fight against Social Security. Harry Koch took part in a multi-year right-wing propaganda campaign to shoot down New Deal programs. Grandfather and grandsons employ eerily familiar talking points to bash government pension and welfare programs.

"No political system can possibly guarantee either a national economic security or an individual standard of living. Government can guarantee no man a job or a livelihood," Harry Koch wrote on February 1, 1935, nine months before Charles Koch was born.

Fast-forward 75 years and you can see Charles Koch using the same lines of attack in his company's newsletter: "government actions ... stifle economic growth and job creation, which in turn will significantly reduce the standard of living of American families."

This summer I traveled to Quanah, the dusty North Texas railroad town that Harry Koch called home, to find out more about the life of the man who spawned the two most powerful oligarchs of our time. After spending days hunkered over newspaper archives and rifling through a century's worth of county records in the town's tiny courthouse, I began to see a picture emerge of a man who spent his life learning how to use newspapers and media for ideological manipulation and as a platform for pro-business agendas. As I strained to read the battered microfilm, I was constantly surprised at the degree to which Harry's views--on everything from the economy to the role of government in a democratic society--have been passed on nearly unchanged through two generations, and are now being pushed by Charles and David Koch.


HARRY KOCH WAS BORN in Holland in 1867 to a wealthy German-Dutch family of merchants, farmers and doctors. After apprenticing to a newspaper publisher, he decided to seek his fortune in America. At 21, he set off on a steamer and arrived in New York on Dec. 5, 1888. He spent his first few years in America working for various Dutch newspapers in Chicago, New Orleans, Grand Rapids and Austin until, in 1891, he finally settled down in Quanah, a town that the railroad had established just a few years before. Harry always remained curiously vague and evasive about why he decided to stake his claim in a remote North Texas town, but there is no real mystery to it: he came because of the railroads.

In the second half of the 19th century, America was in the grip of a massive railroad boom. Boosted by eager investors, lucrative subsidies and free land, railroads sprung up connecting every corner of the United States without much thought for demand or necessity. America's rail mileage quadrupled from 1870 to 1900, with enough track laid down by the end of the century to stretch from New York to San Francisco 66 times.

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