About the film
"America -- they're coming for you next."
That’s the warning from a Wisconsin state employee after her union rights were destroyed by a Republican governor funded by corporate and billionaire donors whose ultimate goal is to break the unions nationwide -- and cripple the labor-backed Democratic party. Citizen Koch explores what the Wisconsin playbook and the U.S. Supreme Court decision that unleashed a new era of unbridled special-interest spending mean for us all. And it poses a crucial question: Who owns democracy in America?
Money has long played a starring role in politics. But the Supreme Court’s 2010 landmark ruling in Citizens United v. FEC marked seismic shift in how America’s elections are fought and financed. The ruling was engineered in part by corporate and far-right interest groups that had long sought to undermine the influence of unions and small donors. Their state-by-state campaign to reshape elections found its test market in Wisconsin – birthplace of progressivism, the Republican Party, and government unions.
From Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the Oscar-nominated filmmakers who made Trouble the Water, winner of the 2008 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for best documentary, comes Citizen Koch, a story about money, citizenship, and democracy.
Citizen Koch features three Wisconsin state employees whose staunch Republican loyalty is challenged when newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker moves to take away their union rights, while simultaneously bestowing tax breaks on large corporations. When the Tea Party takes root in their state, these lifelong Republicans must confront the fact that the policies their party is pushed to advocate are cutting the economic ground out from underneath them and their families. They come to see the political drama unfolding in their state as a GOP strategy to drain union resources and, by extension, the Democratic Party.
Growing recognition that losing their unions will impoverish not only their wallets, but also their citizenship, leads these public employees to a grassroots movement to recall Gov. Walker. That effort collides with a juggernaut: the Tea Party-aligned Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a 501c4 ideological “corporation” founded and lavishly financed by billionaire industrialists David and Charles Koch. The Virginia-based AFP becomes the biggest political spender in support of Gov. Walker and a vehicle for wealthy individuals and corporations to back candidates—without leaving a paper trail.
As political groups anonymously pour money into Wisconsin on Gov. Walker’s behalf, former Louisiana governor and congressman Buddy Roemer takes a principled stand on the national stage and makes campaign finance reform the centerpiece of his 2012 GOP presidential bid. Citizen Koch follows Roemer as his campaign fizzles on his refusal to accept donations over $100. Outspent and drowned out by SuperPAC-funded opponents, Roemer posits the crucial question: Should money determine who even gets heard in our democracy?
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision renders that question naïve. Equating unlimited campaign donations with free speech, the court reversed longstanding restrictions on corporate election spending. The decision effectively limits who is deemed a viable candidate, and reshapes how political campaigns are waged. Through interviews with participants in the case and audio of the arguments, the film reveals the partisan origins of the case, and exposes how two justices with the appearance of conflicts of interest tipped the court’s decision--raising questions about the legitimacy of the ruling and the integrity of court itself.
By detailing the personal and political consequences of a broken electoral system, Citizen Koch lands the issue of the influence of money in politics squarely on the kitchen table of all Americans. The film asks who really has the power in America, the wealthiest donors or the voting public? The answers call into question the very meaning of citizenship.