Dark Money by Jane Mayer

28516427Nonfiction — Kindle edition. Anchor, 2016. 464 pgs. Library copy. 

Subtitled “The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, Mayer expands on her 2010 article for The New Yorker on the Koch brothers’ “war against Obama” and follow how the Kochs and other billionaire families in the United States, including the family of the current Secretary of Education, have reshaped the political landscape of America through campaign financing.

“Presidents might surround themselves with Secret Service agents and phalanxes of lawyers and operatives, but Scaife proved how hard it was to defend against unlimited, untraceable spending by an opponent hiding behind nonprofit front groups.” (pg. 86)

Beyond campaign financing, these families and their allies have set up to reshape higher education, funding centers that teach and push their particular beliefs in small government and deregulated economies. Beliefs that conveniently align well with their financial interests.

In this particular edition, Mayer includes a foreword that explains how the election of Donald Trump is an outcome — not a rebuke — of the system that the Koch brothers and other billionaires have pushed. Despite the Koch network withholding financial support for his candidacy (and dismissing him as a buffoon), Trump has aligned his presidency with the wishes and desires of the Kochs.

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Mike Pence and others in his administration have a long history of being financially supported by the Koch brothers. Yet it can also be attributed to the fact that their campaign to dismiss government as the problem rather than the solution, to scream that regulation rather than corporate greed is keeping wages suppressed has been highly successful among the American public.

I knew Citizens United was a terrible decision by the Supreme Court; one only needs to visit the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana to know what happens to our environment and workers when corporations buy politicians. And I was familiar enough with her original article to know why the Koch’s are vilified for their contributions to politics.

It is the second aspect — the secret funding of think tanks and endowed chairs at colleges — that I found most illuminating about Mayer’s book. For example, George Mason University, a public research university located near Washington D.C. in Virginia, was financially struggling and carried a lower reputation than the flagship University of Virginia system. Since the Kochtopus (as the Koch brothers and their network is called) began pouring millions of dollars into a research center on public enterprise, the prestige of the university has begun to climb. Their graduates have disseminate throughout the country, interning in the federal government with me back in 2012.

This situation, though, also calls into question about the motives of people pushing for neo-Nazis, alt-right, and other right wing groups to be able to speak on college campuses. Is it truly in the interest of free speech? Or, is this another effort of people like to Kochs to push their particular worldview on college students?

Mayer’s book certainly gives the reader a lot to think about, and she provides well-documented and well-researched examples to show why and how Citizens United endowing corporations with the right to free speech has corrupted our political system. Unfortunately, the book becomes rather repetitive — sometimes within the same chapters — and it isn’t as tightly written as her original article was. I found it became a slog to finish; the hopelessness infused throughout certainly didn’t help encourage me to pick it up. But it does go a long way in explaining understand why America is in its current predicament and why our politicians seem incapable of doing anything about it.

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