Inventing the Right’s ‘Metanarrative’

For decades, the Koch Brothers have funded a massive propaganda operation to disparage what democracy can do when a society pulls together and to glorify a “greed is good” narrative promising great benefits if capitalism reigns free. But the results have been good only for a privileged few, as Michael Winship describes.

By Michael Winship

Gather round for the word of the day: metanarrative. Definitions vary but let’s say it’s one big narrative that connects the meaning of events to a belief thought to be an essential truth, the storytelling equivalent of the unified field theory in physics.

Now use it to define what’s being done to America today — our Big Story. Journalist and activist Naomi Klein did just that a couple of weeks ago when she and I talked at Finger Lakes Community College in upstate New York about the Koch brothers’ resistance to the reality of climate change.

Oil billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Oil billionaires David and Charles Koch.

“The Charles Koch metanarrative, and he’s said it explicitly, is that he is challenging collectivism, he is challenging the idea that when people get together they can do good,” she said. “And he is putting forward the worldview that we’re all very familiar with that if you free the individual to pursue their self-interest that will actually benefit the majority. So you need to attack everything that is collective, whether it’s labor rights or whether it’s public health care or whether it’s regulatory action. All of this falls under the metanarrative of an attack on collectivism.”

In other words, Koch and his brother David and the extraordinary machine they have built in cahoots with fellow billionaires and others, have spent hundreds and hundreds of millions to get their way, “the great wealth grab” in the words of Richard Eskow, all part of one long story told in pursuit of a specific end: to make the needs of the very, very few our nation’s top priority and to thwart or destroy any group effort among the poor and middle class to do or say otherwise.

The Kochs have spun their tale with a singular, laser-like focus, carefully taking their time to make sure they get it right. Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, recently wrote in Politico Magazine that “Charles Koch might claim that his entry into politics is new, but from its secrecy to its methods of courting donors and recruiting students, the blueprint for the vast and powerful Koch donor network that we see today was drafted four decades ago.”

Mayer reviewed papers, including one written by Charles Koch himself, presented at a Koch-sponsored Center for Libertarian Studies conference in 1976 and concludes, “It’s not hard to recognize the Koch political movement we see today, a vast and complex network of donors, think tanks and academic programs largely cloaked in secrecy and presented as philanthropy, leaving almost no money trail that the public can trace.

“And it’s these techniques Charles first championed decades ago that helped build his political faction, one so powerful that it turned fringe ideas William F. Buckley once dismissed as ‘Anarcho-Totalitarianism’ into a private political machine that grew to rival the Republican Party itself.”

And so we see their creation of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council posing as a non-profit while entertaining state legislators and plying them with templates for laws that favor restrictions on voter eligibility, public sector unions and the minimum wage while supporting freedom for the gun lobby and deregulation.

The Kochs shower cash on candidates and elected officials who do the bidding of the Right, fund programs at historically black colleges and universities that preach free-market economics and deregulation, bankroll the Libre Initiative that hands out holiday turkeys and Easter baskets to Latino families while, in its own words, “informing the U.S. Hispanic community about the benefits of a constitutionally limited government, property rights, rule of law, sound money supply and free enterprise through a variety of community events, research and policy initiatives that protect our economic freedom.”

As Naomi Klein said during our conversation, “The Koch brothers set out to change the values, to change the core ideas that people believed in. And there is no progressive equivalent of taking ideas seriously.”

She then asked, “So what is the progressive metanarrative? Who funds it? Who is working on changing ideas that can say, ‘Actually, when we pool our resources, when we work together, we can do more and better than when we only act as individuals.’ I don’t think we value that.”

In fact, there is a progressive metanarrative, one that needs to be valued and not obscured by arguments over who is or is not sufficiently progressive or who did what to whom and when. The metanarrative’s lead has been buried in divisiveness, by trolling from every side and by despicable, old-fashioned redbaiting. What’s more, goals and purposes have been diffused with a scattershot approach when we should be vectoring in on what really counts.

The progressive metanarrative is the opposite of the fight against collectivism: it’s the struggle against inequality.

The Harvard Gazette reports, “Though the wealthiest 20 percent earned nearly half of all wages in 2014, they have more than 80 percent of the wealth. The wealth of the poorest 20 percent, as measured by net worth, is actually negative. If they sell all they own, they’ll still be in debt.”

Labor organizer and Harvard Kennedy School lecturer Marshall Ganz tells the Gazette, “I think the galloping inequality in this country results from poor political choices. There was nothing inevitable, nothing global. We made a series of political choices that set us on this path.”

He continues, “Inequality, it’s not just about wealth, it’s about power. It isn’t just that somebody has some yachts, it’s the effect on democracy I think we’re in a really scary place.”

But it’s not a place from which escape is impossible. To make our metanarrative come true, we must embrace both community and government that effectively can protect and provide for all.

In a 2014 article at the website, philosopher T.M. Scanlon wrote, “No one has reason to accept a scheme of cooperation that places their lives under the control of others, that deprives them of meaningful political participation, that deprives their children of the opportunity to qualify for better jobs, and that deprives them of a share of the wealth they help to produce

“The holdings of the rich are not legitimate if they are acquired through competition from which others are excluded, and made possible by laws that are shaped by the rich for the benefit of the rich. In these ways, economic inequality can undermine the conditions of its own legitimacy.”

And so it can, if progressives work together, mobilize, dare to take risks and keep the faith in the face of cynicism and weary resignation. Such a metanarrative could have a different, and happy, ending.

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship. [This story previously appeared at] 

14 comments for “Inventing the Right’s ‘Metanarrative’

  1. J'on Doe II
    February 11, 2016 at 15:37

    Some of us have minds like arid deserts. Made up minds with stultified beliefs that cannot change. – This is a huge problem in America where, past is present, and some cry “Let’s Take Our Country BACK!”

    How can we ever escape our past and grow as a nation – move forward or be “united”?

  2. Brian
    February 10, 2016 at 15:47

    I think cooperation is more effective when that cooperation is based on mutual self interest. While the current system is broken, there may be a system in which profit motive can be directed through regulations that best serve the people. That way we are basing our actions on rewards that everybody will respond to (i.e money) instead of a feeling of community.

    This may be more or less what this article is trying to say, but I think it’s important for us to recognize that in an effective economy, inequality is a good thing. Inequality is the result of some people choosing to contribute to society more than others. By abolishing an unequal distribution of resources we also abolish the incentive to be a productive member of society.

    • J'hon Doe II
      February 10, 2016 at 18:48

      Brian > “Inequality is the result of some people choosing to contribute to society more than others.”

      Syrian migrants/refugees – Afghans/Somalians – N.Africans/The Palestinians

      what contributions to – society – are you talking about! ?
      By abolishing
      an unequal distribution
      of resources
      we also
      abolish the incentive
      to be a productive member of society.
      what unequal distribution of resources?
      what incentive where known NNA prevails?
      Equal Opportunity Employer is Joke
      in the face of Holden Caulfield’s EEOC
      or MLK’s “I want to live” self-eulogy.

      • Brian
        February 10, 2016 at 22:19

        I’m having trouble understanding exactly what you mean J’hon Doe…

        “Inequality is the result of some people choosing to contribute to society more than others.”

        What I mean here is that in an efficient economic system, your standard of living will be a direct reflection of how valuable you are to society. Your value to society is a combination of how many people can do what you do, and how many people need you to do what you do. Doctors for example should be rewarded with a high standard of living because very few people can practice medicine, and very many people need doctors.

        As far as the second half of your comment goes, I am completely lost.

        • J'hon Doe II
          February 11, 2016 at 11:12

          As far as the second half of your comment goes, I am completely lost. >Brian

          what unequal distribution of resources? what incentive where known NNA prevails?

          NNA equals Need Not Apply — It’s an implied injunction stamped on the minds of the majority of minority job applicants outside minimum wage fields.

          Equal Opportunity Employer is Joke in the face of Holden Caulfield’s EEOC

          In every ‘equal opportunity’ risk Holden turned out to be his own worst enemy. His character is a NYC Don Quixote flummoxed by failure upon innocent failure. Such is the plight of many minority aspirants seeking a foothold into independence.

          or MLK’s “I want to live” self-eulogy.

          “I want to live” were the words he spoke during his last speech in Memphis Tn. where he was murdered the very next day. In that sense, it was his self-eulogy.
          In that speech he spoke of wage inequality and of the Poor Peoples March which was planned for all low wage workers, White and Black/Brown and Red/Yellow.
          They murdered him the next day —
          His murder essentially took the heart out of that campaign.

          • J'hon Doe II
            February 11, 2016 at 11:28

            In the face of King’s selfless humanitarian efforts, which cost him his life, — we have these billionaire bigots writing legislation to make life bleaker for the poor and lower-middle class.
            If my outburst seems disturbed, IT’S BECAUSE I AM DISTURBED AT THE BULLSPIT THAT THRIVES IN — this “land of the free”!!!

    • Uncle Sam's comeuppance
      February 11, 2016 at 22:09

      There is another kind of inequality that’s come to play a major role in the US economy as well as playing a role in the majority of citizens finances. That is equality of opportunity.

      Lots of people work harder than they used to for a lesser amount of pay — this is not by choice, it is forced on them by a shortage of opportunities.

      The idea that each and every American can rise to the level of financial success they desire is one of the most blatant pieces of propaganda ever floated.

      Limited resources on a finite earth, means limited jobs and opportunities — it’s that simple and a few simple math equations will leave no room for argument.

      • Brian
        February 15, 2016 at 00:05

        Well said.

        The best solution to the “shortage of opportunity” is to create an environment where businesses can make profits. Then they will be able to pay for new jobs. It is absolutely essential for the job market to teach the under-qualified.

        Today, we have a massive number of average, relatively unskilled people seeking work and the jobs are not there for them. Over-qualified people are taking those jobs because they can’t find work either. If businesses are only hiring over-qualified applicants then where are people learning new skills? Isn’t that what an economy is all about?

        This is the land of opportunity, not equal opportunity. It’s not going to be fair but a thriving economy is better than this mess of a tax code that’s resulted from us attempting to level the playing field. The problems with mobility of wealth can probably be attributed to political negligence, stupidity, or corruption more than anything else.

  3. February 10, 2016 at 12:21

    there are two types of people;
    those who have a thrill from manipulating, controlling, having power over others, and;
    those who wish to live and let live.
    the latter make up the majority.
    it is necessary to equip the next generation with the tools to protect themselves from the former by teaching them to think.
    take in multiple points of view, consider them, think on them, question the sources, and formulate one’s own point of view.
    children are taught to accept all which the authority figure sais. to memorize it, and regurgitate it.

    • J'hon Doe II
      February 10, 2016 at 16:52

      Think Tank Narrative/ children are taught to accept all which the authority figure sais. to memorize it, and regurgitate it.
      Open letter to a daughter;

      I’m sorry for my offense to you with the line that mentioned “older sister shipped off to collage”
      after re-read i realized that info had no place in the monologue.
      Below is an improved version which I hope to place in the LA Times obit section on Nov. 19th this year
      — the 10th year of Joy’s goodbye.

      Stuff I write springs out of deep thought, recollection and reflection.
      Thinking about Joy, my mind took me back to that trip to Glacier Lodge.
      I saw the whole scene again. My 8 hour hike in the snow.
      My return to witness Mom GRILLING YOU like some police interrogator,
      we find out about what Saul did to you — that hit like a BOLT from the sky, and really hurt.
      Somewhere in the mix of reflection thoughts of your promiscuity laughed down at me
      and I mistakenly inserted that shocking revelation into the prose.

      The line that mentions ‘recognition of some purpose in life’ IS PIVOTAL
      It turned out that that trip, our very last as a family unit had Great Bearing
      on the ensuing direction of all our lives.- think about it…

      I’m now at the age where I Look Back, a lot. I just remember stuff and see mistakes I made
      I see mistakes we all made — but we all make mistakes in life – it’s a part of being human.

      I deeply regret having brought all that candy on that Christmas trip to Glacier Lodge
      It HAUNTS me to this day because I know that Joy ingested an Overwhelming volume of sugar
      when she ate up ALL THOSE BAGS OF CANDY.
      I also harbor a sense of resentment against Mom for

      When i got back from my hike, Mom had you sitting in a chair, yelling at you.
      After changing clothes and looking in the little kitchen I asked

      A few days later Joy needed her checkup for school and that’s when they declared her diabetic.
      My first thought was “All That Candy!!!” —— Sugar Overload!

      I’ve never stopped holding a grudge against Mom for her Singular/One Dimensional Focus that day.
      I thought she’d also driven you away for good with her incessant badgering.

      anyway —— the poem was a distillation of that reverie/daydream plus thinking of Joy.

      What I wrote of her at the end, same goes for you,
      I will always love you and none of your choices will destroy my love.

      Below is the revised poem.
      Please call me,
      Love, Dad

      • February 10, 2016 at 18:41

        J’hon Doe II
        whatever you were attempting to communicate was lost.
        “children are taught to accept all which the authority figure sais. to memorize it, and regurgitate it.”
        I will revise this line.
        PEOPLE/STUDENTS are EDUCATED/TRAINED to accept all which the authority figure sais. to memorize it, and regurgitate it.
        EDUCATING/TRAINING a society to gather multiple points of view, or differing opinions and analysing them, while forming their own opinions, or ideas will lead to a society of co-operators.
        the mob of collectivist group-thinkers can only exist in a society where the majority of people are afraid to ask, “hey … where are we going with this?” the mob simply follows where the torch-bearer leads.

        • J'hon Doe II
          February 11, 2016 at 10:17

          whatever you were attempting to communicate was lost. – Think Tank
          The lengthy soliloquy had to do with looking Back, making corrections and admitting wrongs. That is the gigantic elephant in the room vis-a-vis the American inability to admit and correct WRONG THINKING.

          In the new century, we, as a nation are actually in a state of regression. – Moving backward in regard to equality of opportunity. – Moving backwards in the dissimulation of True Facts – propaganda rules in our airwaves. Cities are crumbling as The Rich write our laws through lobbyists and PACs. The education system is under attack by Revisionist school boards Changing Historical Facts and implementing scatter-brain curriculum standards.

          The Letter is merely an example, an exercise in the art of looking back and all that can be accomplished with a bit of soul-searching and self-revelation.

          The art of story-telling has a place in the arena of Political Opinion — if only to step back, take deep breaths and do a bit of reflection.
          There is a way to get along despite the difference of opinion.
          As humans, we have a more in common than we may realize… .

  4. Tom Welsh
    February 10, 2016 at 11:34

    Surely the very fact that there is a “Koch political movement”, backed and driven by a powerful bureaucratic organization, demonstrates that cooperation is essential even for the rich and powerful. Indeed, if the Koch brothers really believed their own propaganda, wouldn’t they split up and go their own separate ways?

    They must be extremely cynical and extremely contemptuous of the rest of us, to try to pass off such a threadbare and obviously nonsensical idea.

    • JWalters
      February 10, 2016 at 20:21

      Excellent points. I would add that individual initiative has an essential place in the whole. But corrupt, dishonest, unfair individual initiative belongs in jail.

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