Dark Money by Jane Mayer


Review by Geetha Kulkarni

This is a very alarming, very disturbing book that made me feel that the fabric of American Democracy was being torn apart. The book is full of facts, names, dates, and details. It tells of the influence of big money on American politics and American policy. The ultra rich, ultra conservative network led by the likes of the Koch Brothers use their tremendous wealth to shape American policy for their own benefit; in other words the continued amassing of wealth for themselves.

To begin with, one must understand the basic philosophies of the Libertarians as they call themselves.

First of all, they believe in a completely free market to such an extent that they do not want any government regulation, no oversight of industry. In fact they do not want a government at all. Unlimited liberty is what they seek as a right and yet in their personal lives many of them are very controlling people by temperament. Government regulations they consider “an encroachment on free enterprise”, “a roadblock to initiative and profitability”

They are completely opposed to taxes and therefore as an extension, completely opposed to public welfare programs

They do not support any environmental laws and do not believe in climate change or the effect of human life on the environment. Millions of dollars have been spent by them on campaigns to deny the scientific findings regarding climate change. The goal is to sow doubt in the public’s mind about climate change just as they had done earlier with the tobacco issue. They have gone so far as to publicise spurious arguments like – climate change is actually good for the health because the ozone layer will protect our skin from the sun’s rays and reduce the incidence of skin cancer!! The book is full of examples of their breaking the Clean Air Act, causing harm to local communities. Most of their businesses have several on-going legal battles but it is cheaper for them to pay fines than to comply with regulations. The book has horrifying examples of falsifying emissions reports, employees exposed to benzene not being told about their blood test results, teenagers burnt in their truck because of a leak in a pipe the Koch brothers did not fix. There are many examples of human suffering caused by corporate negligence and irresponsibility.

How does this network of the ultra rich, work towards achieving their goals and change American thought? One method is to contribute heavily to political campaigns. Politicians who win with their assistance are now beholden to support their causes even if the majority of the constituents they represent may not. After the Citizens Unlimited decision, controls on campaign contributions were lifted and billions are now spent by this network on elections, not only at the highest levels of office but at elections at the lower levels of local government as well. So politicians are the first line of infiltration. This would include the judiciary as well. Judges, even those currently in the Supreme Court are treated to a luxurious club med type of seminar and fed conservative ideals like how the labour and environmental laws were actually bad for the country.

Besides politicians and law makers, these ultra conservatives take aim at academia. They donate large funds to educational institutions and then claim the right to influence hiring of faculty members. This way they hope to influence young students and shape their way of thinking.

Other avenues of influence they use are think tanks, news media outlets, authors who write books supporting their viewpoint.

Barack Obama’s election sent shivers down the back of this network. A black president whom they saw as radical was anathema to them. After the 2008 crash when Obama and the democrats started talking about Wall Street reform, this group of ultra rich were very wary; they would have much to lose by such reform. The book dwells on how much effort was put into stopping the Affordable Care Act from passing and after it was passed, how hard they tried to make it fail by defunding it. The anti-tax, free market conservatives were shocked at Obama’s recovery act after the 2008 crash and yet five years later, a group of eminent economists, chosen for their ideological diversity, unanimously agreed that the stimulus had succeeded in reducing unemployment. Their efforts won them the Republican House and Senate, making Obama a lame duck president for the last two years of his office.

Their way of thinking is very worrisome for the future of America and the world. They believe they became successful and rich because of their skills and hard work and others should do the same. It is an attitude of “tough luck” which does not take into consideration birth, circumstances, health. If only life were as easy as developing skills and working hard! Their attitude is “each man for himself” and there is no concern for the general welfare of society and the nation. Such an attitude will lead, as it is already doing, to large inequality of wealth, which in turn will lead to an unstable society, and social unrest. There will be ultra rich people in such a society who will live behind tall walls spending most of their time protecting their wealth. America will become like Russia, a country run by oligarchs.

So who are these anti-government Libertarians? The Koch brothers seem like the leaders but I did recognise a few other names – the DeVos family, owners of Amway, the Coors brewing family. Today, most wealth in these families is inherited “patrimonial capitalism”.

We learn that much of this big money is funded through philanthropy. Institutions like The Heritage Fund, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute and many conservative think tanks are a front so that this dark money flows anonymously and receives tax exemptions to boot.

In the book we see the names of many people who are beholden to dark money, names we would recognise – Mike Pompeo, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz. The book is also made more interesting by the amount of time the author spends on the personal lives of some of these families, especially the Koch brothers. The father of the Koch brothers, Fred Koch, made his fortune working for the Nazis and Stalin’s Russia. He later became anti-communist and a member of the fanatically anti-communist organisation, The John Birch Society, known for its conspiracy theories of Russian plots to make America communist. He was a very strict father who wanted his boys to become “manly”. There was a tremendous amount of sibling rivalry between the brothers as they were growing up, which ended in long legal battles between them.

At the end of the book, I would have liked to read suggestions that the author had to stem this tide. However, I recognise that she is a journalist and her aim is simply to present the facts based on extensive research.

If you are American you must read this book. It seems to me that American democracy is under fire because of the concentration of unimaginable amounts of money in the hands of a few who are taking the country in a direction that the majority of Americans may not support.

If you are not American I would highly recommend you read the book because you will realise how easily democracy can be manipulated. Also, decisions made and trends set in the most powerful country in the world make a difference to the entire world.

I will end my review with the words of Louis Brandeis to Americans

“We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That is the fork in the road before Americans today.