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OpEdge: “Dark Money” and the Hijacking of Democracy

Marc Jampole
February 7, 2016

by Marc Jampole

Discussed in this essay: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer. Doubleday, 2016, 461 pages.

kochtopusJANE MAYER’S recently published Dark Money does a thorough job of dissecting the 40-year campaign of a small coterie of billionaires to change the American political agenda for their own selfish ends. She explains the process by which our country has reached the point at which it is overwhelmingly centrist-looking-left but controlled by rightwingers, especially at the state level. It explains how the Democrats could outvote the Republicans by millions and still not have a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. It explains why the mass media focuses on inessential issues such as the deficit or promulgates ridiculous myths such as the social value of lowering taxes and the idea that science is unsure about global warming.

The ultimate reason for the current state of American politics and public life is money. In this case, money spent over the past 30+ years by a small number of billionaires who wanted to lower their taxes and end regulation that cost their businesses money. The main organizers of this group have been Charles and David Koch, two of four sons of industrialist and rightwing funder Fred Koch, an original founder of the John Birch Society.

These rich folk have included among others Richard Mellon Scaife; the DeVos, Bradley, and Olin families; Phillip Anschutz; Peter Singer; and Sheldon Adelson; but most of the organizing has come from Charles Koch.

According to Mayer, their long-term game plan, hatched in the mid-1970s, came partly from a memo by Lewis Powell before he joined the Supreme Court and from a white paper put together by William Simon after he was Secretary of the Treasury. It started with the launching and financing of think tanks that churn out position papers supporting rightwing political views, e.g. that government is always bad, that the free market solves all problems, that a minimum wage leads to unemployment, that unions constitute restraint of trade, that taxes should be lowered on job creators — the entire package of lies still peddled by Republican candidates, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and a horde of think tanks. Universities were also invaded and fed with money with which to study economic, political and social phenomena from a rightwing perspective. Mayer does an especially good job of showing how Koch money has turned George Mason University into a center of phony rightwing research. One of the more successful think tanks has been the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the organization that writes all the anti-union, voter suppression, gun rights and shaft-the-poor legislation that Republican legislators have passed in recent years.

For years Koch has held secret seminars for his billionaire pals in which he outlined issues, discussed strategies and shared information on how to establish layers of nonprofit organizations to hide the names of donors and how much they have given.

FROM THE THINK TANKS, rightwing ideas spread to the general public through the news media, especially the rightwing media which used to consist of a few hundred radio stations but now includes the vast Fox broadcasting empire. At a certain point, the “Kochtopus” (a descriptor created by the International Forum on Globalization to identify the Koch network of fellow billionaire contributors) began to invest millions in supporting specific candidates. After Citizen’s United, the they ratcheted up candidate investment. Along the way, they found it easier to control local and statewide elections than national ones.

The 30 or so rich individuals or families Mayer mentions as part of the Dark Money network fall into one of three categories:

  1. Their business interests have depended either primarily or substantially on government contracts, which explains why they hate government but love military contracts and subsidies for oil and gas.
  2. Owners of companies that have gotten into trouble for not following environmental, financial or other regulations and owe or have paid the government a ton of money or are involved in litigation with the government.
  3. People who are both, which include the Koch brothers, who are the closest people to being pure evil as I have ever encountered in reading or real life.

In other words, these billionaires will often wrap themselves in a flag and say they are trying to preserve and enhance our freedom, but their desire is to create a government that bows to their selfish interests. For all of the billionaires, the only thing that matters is money and power, but others are motivated by their religiosity, racism, or love of guns, which partially explains the alliance these plutocrats have made with the religious right and the gun lobby.

WHILE MAYER does an excellent job of shedding light on all of this dark money, she doesn’t put the experience of the last 40 years of rightwing insurgency financed by a handful of the ultra-wealthy into the context of U.S. history. Around the time of William Simon’s call to action, the progressive sociologist William Domhoff laid out in great detail how to control American policy decisions in his public-policy model. Domhoff constructed a complicated flow chart that describes in advance exactly what the Kochtopus did: Start by controlling research and universities, then public policy, and finally legislation and legislators. Domhoff was illuminating a process that has been used to control American policy since at least the turn of the 20th century. The controlling interests have always been the ultra-wealthy and have always skewed to the right. What differs with the current bunch of oligarchs is the vastly larger sums of money involved today, that they have concealed so much of their activity behind multiple layers of organizations, and that so much of the ruling elite has turned its back on the compromises made during the New Deal.

Mayer doesn’t mention it, but I believe that the massive tax break that Reagan pushed through Congress early in his first term led to the great increase in the money that these billionaires have contributed to controlling the American political process. The tax cut freed up more money for them to throw around, made them richer, and gave them more incentive to fight against social welfare programs and for lower taxes. I believe Thomas Piketty made a similar argument in Capitalism in the 21st Century as to why incomes for chief executive officers skyrocketed after the Reagan tax breaks.

Dark Money is a depressing book, but one I recommend that everyone who cares about the future direction of our country read.

How do we fight the forces of Dark Money? To my mind, progressives, liberals, and centrists must vote for the Democratic candidate this year, no matter who it is, and more important, vote Democrat in every off-year election. A mildly progressive president won in 2008 and 2012, but his victory was neutralized to a large degree because of the election of 2010, which determined who was going to set the boundaries of Congressional districts.

Like Obama and Hillary Clinton, most Democrats tend to be progressive on domestic issues and hawkish on foreign policy issues, but much less so than the Republicans. The loud cry of people like Elizabeth Warren drives the more mainstream Democrats even further left. Voting for Democrats, but driving the party further left is the only way we can stop the United States from becoming a land of rich and poor with fake elections controlled by a handful of selfish and very wealthy people.

Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. He blogs several times a week at OpEdge.