Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer
An overused term these days in publishing is “Hidden History.” but in this case, I believe, it is quite justified. While the Koch brothers have received a good deal of mention in the press, much less attention has been given to the enormous size and power of their network of associated foundations. The great appeal of their organization is that the Kochs are willing to accept the public attention while the other foundations are shielded from view, thus “dark”, by the provisions of the tax code that the Democrats first discovered and the Kochs have exploited. The result of this dark appeal is that the group’s funds have grown enormously since 2008. It is acknowledged by them that they would spend $889,000,000 nationally in 2016. This makes them, in effect, an independent political party, and it is causing seismic shifts under the American political landscape. We see this daily in the news.
This deeply researched study of big money in modern American politics is essential to understanding the enormous political changes we are experiencing today, locally and nationally. It is a big and detailed work, but it is quite amenable to skimming, according to one’s area of interest. A good compact review of the book’s more tasty highlights can be found at the Washington Post by Tom Hamburger. He covers revealing incidents of Koch family history, such as the father’s flirting with Stalin and Hitler, strange and harsh childhood discipline, and intra-family feuds. But Mayer spends great effort to document a persuasive account of the long and tireless efforts of the Kochs to accomplish their political ends, which is nothing less than to establish libertarianism as a new American creed. This entails telling the stories of the gathered right-wing family foundations making up their network, and their efforts to inject their economic views at the university level with endowments and even the right to blackball appointments. At one of their conferences, it is claimed that they have 5000 scholars installed in over 200 colleges.
The book’s most compelling bit, for me, is in the last chapter when the Kochs’ fifty year project, building quiet anonymous political dominance, is temporarily frustrated by Obama’s reelection. As related, at recent Koch sponsored network conferences; a great deal of rethinking of their methods has taken place. As a result, some very revealing statements of their true motives are openly expressed, while the need to conceal them is discussed, in a search for a way to appeal to politically uncommitted voters in the next elections.
The book could be characterized as second in a series on the history of U.S. political affairs in the 20th Century and forward, because it deals with another of the fundamental facts of American politics: money. My review of the Dulles Brothers’ careers (see “book reviews” at our website), dealt primarily with power, but also power backed by wealth, of course. The two, power and money, seem practically identical twins. But on closer inspection, I believe, the dominant players in each sphere are not identical. There is the very old money from the slave trade, furs and rum, pretty old money from the robber barons’ oil, steel and railroad monopolies, and big modern money. This modern money seeks influence just as the earlier moguls did. The difference in the use of this new foundation money seems to be its scope and that it is focused on the very practical methods and means of moving the current domestic political climate to the far right, using the most sophisticated methods of modern polling, focus group opinion analysis, and penetration of university economics departments. Also, it is being done outside of the formal Republican Party structures. This is starting to provoke concern and even organized resistance by powerful sectors of the economy, which have characterized dark money as “crony capitalism.”
This new right is definitely different from any we have experienced before. It is national in scope, pervasive from the school board level to Washington D.C., and based on a philosophy that seems to believe that a society can be run based on no principle other than the proposition that the money power rather than organized government should rule in resolving all matters of civil dispute. Its origin, in the case of the Kochs, father and sons, is traced directly to the John Birch Society and the economists Hayek and von Mises. Its foreign policy is based on a suspicion of globalist economic and diplomatic agreements and a resistance to involvement in foreign wars, while supporting a large defense budget. The continuing power of American conservative interests might have been foreseen as the inevitable result of the era of monopoly, when the great fortunes of the 19th Century were amassed, corporate law was created to protect the major owners and executives of the great firms from lawsuits, and political power was concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. But the rise of the countervailing power of unions and progressive mass movements slowed the progress of the move to the right. The FDR era’s forced sharing of the profits of WWII and advancing technology brought relatively golden years of industrial peace and prosperity and the unprecedented growth of the middle class. Then, in the 1980’s, the Reagan reductions in government regulation and corporate and top bracket income taxes began and the offshoring of jobs. This set the stage for the renewed growth in confrontation between left and right in domestic affairs that we are seeing today.
With the elimination of practically all constraints on political donations by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, and backed by greater concentration of accommodating power in the conservative mass media, the years of libertarian think tank planning is coming to fruition. A great enticement to join in the effort has been the benefits of the provisions of the tax code, especially in 501(c) (4) and (6). These sections were meant to foster educational, social welfare and other non-political projects and allow unlimited donations. But with the courts’ forced complacency, the IRS has allowed them to be used to provide tax sheltering for political action groups with the donors names concealed. This attraction brought more money into the network for the 2016 presidential election, when, at the last minute, the Trump campaign attracted Koch network money including money from one of the wealthiest hedge fund managers and super-PAC sponsors, Robert Mercer. This came as a complete surprise to many, though Trump had campaigned on elimination of Mercer’s beloved retained interest tax loophole. Thus, big money continues to exercise its dominance in political affairs.