WORTH REPEATING: The Empire Strikes Back

Dark Money


NEW YORK TIMES: Nineteen eighty was a year of hope for conservatives in America, but it was a hope diminished by decades of consistent failure at the grass roots. Republicans hadn’t controlled either chamber of Congress, or a majority in state legislatures, for a quarter-century. Most governors were Democrats, as had been true since 1970. Not only was the Republican Party overmatched at winning elections, but those with the strongest ideological convictions — “movement conservatives,” as they liked to call themselves — were a faint voice even within Republican ranks.

But at the end of that year two things happened. One, as we all know, was the election of Ronald Reagan as president. The other was an utterly private event whose significance would not be noticed for years. Charles and David Koch, the enormously rich proprietors of an oil company based in Kansas, decided that they would spend huge amounts of money to elect conservatives at all levels of American government. David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, but when the campaign was over, he resolved never to seek public office again. That wouldn’t be necessary, he and his brother concluded; they could invest in the campaigns of others, and essentially buy their way to political power.

Thirty years later, the midterm elections of 2010 ushered in the political system that the Kochs had spent so many years plotting to bring about. After the voting that year, Republicans dominated state legislatures; they controlled a clear majority of the governorships; they had taken one chamber of Congress and were on their way to winning the other. Perhaps most important, a good many of the Republicans who had won these offices were not middle-of-the-road pragmatists. They were antigovernment libertarians of the Kochs’ own political stripe. The brothers had spent or raised hundreds of millions of dollars to create majorities in their image. They had succeeded. And not merely at the polls: They had helped to finance and organize an interlocking network of think tanks, academic programs and news media outlets that far exceeded anything the liberal opposition could put together. […]

One is tempted to say that since plutocrats have been pulling political levers since the start of the American Republic, the current concentration of ideology, money and power is not a uniquely dangerous development. But that may be to dismiss Mayer’s warnings too quickly. Hanna bought the votes of politicians, but he didn’t have a collection of think tanks, a nationwide network of pressure groups or a collection of subsidized university programs to propagandize on his behalf. The business lobbies of the postwar years knew what they wanted and generally got it, but theirs was a limited agenda that stuck to a relatively narrow set of demands. And for parts of the past century, wealthy players were restrained, however imperfectly, by campaign finance laws aimed at keeping the process open and aboveboard. Sinister as much of the system was, one could entertain the idea that a new regulatory regime might someday bring it under greater public scrutiny and control. In the aftermath of the Citizens United decision, that no longer seems a realistic prospect. MORE



FRESH AIR: In January 2015, at a private conference in Palm Springs, Calif., the political network led by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch announced plans to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections. The organization consists almost entirely of groups that don’t register under the campaign finance laws and therefore don’t publicly identify their donors. Journalist Jane Mayer traces the growing influence of the Koch brothers and other wealthy conservative donors in her new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. According to Mayer, the Kochs and other conservatives have created philanthropic entities that enable them to aggressively pursue a libertarian agenda of lower taxes, deregulation of business and the denial of climate change. Because they are considered charities, the philanthropic groups “don’t need to disclose the names of their donors,” Mayer tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies. “These are the groups that are called ‘Dark Money Groups,’ and they thus become kind of secret banks that affect American politics in a huge way without most people understanding who is behind them.” It’s very worrisome to many Americans to think that the whole ideal of one man, one vote, might be overwhelmed by 400 of the richest people of any political persuasion picking the next leader for them. Mayer warns that such influence and secrecy undermines democracy: “It’s very worrisome to many Americans to think that the whole ideal of one man, one vote, might be overwhelmed by 400 of the richest people of any political persuasion picking the next leader for them. That’s just not how democracy is supposed to work.”