Political Animal


May 30, 2012 3:00 PM Behind the Struggle for Cato

By Ryan Cooper

The Washingtonian has an interesting look behind the curtain at the vicious cloakroom backstabbery going down as the Brothers Koch try to take control of the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank). It’s got a lot of great background (I particularly liked the bit about Charles Koch’s nutty “market-based management” scheme), but the meat of the piece is how the Kochs, the co-founders and longtime financial backers of Cato, became estranged from, and eventually tangled in an all-out fight with, Ed Crane, their former friend and longtime director of the place:

In December 2010, Charles Koch called the first meeting of Cato’s shareholders since 1981. Cato now had four shareholders: Charles and David Koch, Ed Crane, and William Niskanen, Cato’s aging chairman emeritus. The Kochs used their shares to appoint two new directors to Cato’s board: Nancy Pfotenhauer and Kevin Gentry.
Crane and Niskanen were stunned. Pfotenhauer was a former spokesperson for Republican John McCain’s presidential campaign. She had supported the Iraq War and the Army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy—positions that run counter to libertarian ideals. Kevin Gentry was vice chairman of the Virginia Republican Party and a top executive at the Charles Koch Foundation.

Crane responded with board-packing of his own; there are suits and counter-suits, angry recriminations, and the like. It’s a good piece, and worth a read, but the larger story behind this will play out when a victor emerges. It seems the Kochs want to turn it into a right-wing political machine, churning out papers in support of whatever is on the conservative agenda:

David Koch also said Cato should do more to turn “esoteric concepts” into “concrete deliverables.” He suggested that Cato “serve as a source of intellectual ammunition” for the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity, Levy says.

As John Quiggin says, Cato is easily the most credible of the right-leaning think tanks. Given the board-packing with Republican hacks, the widely-respected staffers who have promised to resign if the Kochs end up winning, a Koch victory would probably be the end of Cato’s reputation. They’ll go into the “amoral hack” box with the American Enterprise Institute and its brethren.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • paul on May 30, 2012 3:51 PM:

    Among other things, this pretty much shows the bankruptcy of the idea that rich wingnuts are actually smart businessmen (yes, men). They're working in the standard modern-management vein of throwing away longterm viability in search of a quick bankable profit.

  • jheartney on May 30, 2012 4:11 PM:

    Cato wasn't seen as a hack outfit already? Is this one of those things where old reliable right partisans (think Alan Simpson or Dick Lugar) get treated as elder statesmen because they're being replaced by full-on lunatics?

  • LaFollette Progressive on May 30, 2012 4:22 PM:

    I think, contrary to the linked piece from Quiggin, that the Cato takeover is just one of the final steps in a long-term takeover of all the institutions on the Right that aspired to engage with academia and be taken seriously by academics, and their transformation into nakedly partisan propaganda machines.

    From the 1970s to the early 1990s, winning the war of ideas required organizations that could create compelling narratives and buttress them with evidence, in order to be taken seriously by media gatekeepers who generally leaned toward the left, culturally, but saw themselves as stewards of bipartisan fairness and were all too happy to lend column space to conservative ideas. So, the Right created such institutions.

    But the world has changed. Conservatives have constructed their own mass media propaganda outlets and instilled rigorous message discipline, viciously enforced by their own customers. The trappings of academia have become increasingly irrelevant to a world of 24-hour news-ish entertainment that thrives on manufactured drama and controversy. Marketable conservative narratives have been long since been weaponized and deployed, and publishing new independent research only runs the risk of demonstrating those narratives to be limited or misguided.

    So instead of think tanks driving the talking points, the talking points now drive the think tanks.

  • SecularAnimist on May 30, 2012 4:26 PM:

    Ryan Cooper wrote: "As John Quiggin says, Cato is easily the most credible of the right-leaning think tanks"

    Cato employs the notoriously dishonest global warming denier Patrick J. Michaels as their "Senior Fellow in Environmental Studies", in which capacity he has produced a steady stream of fossil fuel-funded propaganda.

    Cato has also employed other prominent global warming deniers and disinformers, including Fred Singer, John Christy and Richard Lindzen, and in addition to its support from the Koch brothers has received well over $100,000 from ExxonMobil.

    Cato has ZERO credibility and is not a "think tank". Cato is, and has always been, nothing but one more corporate-funded propaganda mill and a fountain of pseudo-scientific, pseudo-ideological bullshit.

  • LaFollette Progressive on May 30, 2012 4:27 PM:

    Also, what jheartney said.

  • Hedda Peraz on May 30, 2012 4:52 PM:

    Ah, for the Good Old Days, when rich men entertained themselves with mistresses and golf!

  • cmdicely on May 30, 2012 6:36 PM:

    As John Quiggin says, Cato is easily the most credible of the right-leaning think tanks.

    Asking which of those is the most credible is like asking which of the following dice is most likely to tell the current day of the week:
    1. one with sides labelled "Friday", "March", "2012", "France", "Blue", and "?"
    2. one with sides marked "Red", "Yellow", "Orange", "September", "October", and "December".
    3. one with sides all marked "No".
    4. one where all the sides are blank.

    The first is the most likely to tell you the current day of the week, but its still not any good for that purpose. Likewise with the "most credible" right-leaning think-tank -- there might be some distinction there, but not one that makes any practical difference.

  • TCinLA on May 30, 2012 7:27 PM:

    As the "real" conservatives who thought they could ally with and control the Nazis in Germany found out, "crazy" will trump "intelligent" every time since the intelligent don't figure out that the crazies are crazy till it's too late.

    Further proof if proof was needed that the only "good Republicans" are indeed pushing up daisies.