Why is America living in an age of profound economic inequality? Why, despite the desperate need to address climate change, have even modest environmental efforts been defeated again and again? Why have protections for employees been decimated? Why do hedge-fund billionaires pay a far lower tax rate than middle-class workers? The conventional answer is that a popular uprising against "big government" led to the ascendancy of a broad-based conservative movement. But Jane Mayer argues that a network of exceedingly wealthy people with extreme libertarian views bankrolled a systematic, step-by-step plan to fundamentally alter the American political system. Their core beliefs -- that taxes are a form of tyranny; that government oversight of business is an assault on freedom -- are sincerely held. But these beliefs also advance their personal and corporate interests: Many of their companies have run afoul of federal pollution, worker safety, securities, and tax laws. The chief figures in the network are Charles and David Koch. The brothers were schooled in a political philosophy that asserted the only role of government is to provide security and to enforce property rights. When libertarian ideas proved decidedly unpopular with voters, the Koch brothers and their allies chose another path. If they pooled their vast resources, they could fund an interlocking array of organizations that could work in tandem to influence and ultimately control academic institutions, think tanks, the courts, statehouses, Congress, and, they hoped, the presidency. These organizations were given innocuous names such as Americans for Prosperity. Funding sources were hidden whenever possible. This process reached its apotheosis with the allegedly populist Tea Party movement, abetted mightily by the Citizens United decision -- a case conceived of by legal advocates funded by the network. And their efforts have been remarkably successful. Libertarian views on taxes and regulation, once far outside the mainstream and still rejected by most Americans, are ascendant in the majority of state governments, the Supreme Court, and Congress. Meaningful environmental, labor, finance, and tax reforms have been stymied. Jane Mayer spent five years conducting hundreds of interviews -- including with several sources within the network -- and scoured public records, private papers, and court proceedings to trace the byzantine trail of the billions of dollars spent and to provide vivid portraits of the colorful figures behind the new American oligarchy.
Ms. Meyer shows how the Koch brothers and an assortment of other billionaires greased the wheels of the drang nach rechts with massive and targetted funding. They don't just support right wing candidates, they fund think tanks and academic departments, working to shape popular opinion. And their efforts have met with a great deal of success. Some point to Barack Obama's reelection as an indication that the Citizen's United decision, and hence massive campaign spending, didn't have that much impact. But Ms. Meyer demonstrates that much of the rest of the political structure -- state legislatures, governorships, and Congress -- have been powerfully affected.
This isn't an easy read, but it is an essential one for anyone interested in the political process in the U.S. So many individuals and organizations are mentioned that it's easy to get lost in the "who's on first" at times, and the torrent of facts can be intimidating. .But it is a critical one. Ms. Mayer left me convinced that American democracy has morphed into an oligarchy where the policy preferences of a very few people outweigh the will of the majority. The only way to combat this is to be aware of it, and then to act on it. How? Read the book, vote in local and state elections, and help others to do the same.
This book went to press before the 2016 presidential election, so it does not deal with the curious consequences of Trump’s election on what otherwise would have been a spectacular success story for the Kochs and their small group of fellow libertarians. The Supreme Court gave them Citizens United; the Republican Party was in their pockets; the Democrats seemed hell bent on nominating a compromised, but ultimately controllable, candidate; local congressional districts had been gerrymandered to guarantee Republican control; and their followers were in charge of most state governments. Most Americans were fed up and ready to try just about anything to fix things. The Kochs were supporting people they could easily control (e.g., Walker, Cruz, Rubio) as candidates for president. However, Trump made quick work of them ridiculing anyone who went begging for Koch money.
The only alternatives seemed to be unelectable. Despite having many views in common with the oligarchs, Trump’s distasteful personal traits (e.g., racism, misogyny, chronic lying, narcissism, etc.) and far right ideas seemed to make him unelectable. Alternatively, Sanders’ ideas seemed too far to the left to be palatable to mainstream Americans. So we ended up with a deeply flawed president who seems poised to give the Koch group most of their wish list, characterized by more free markets unfettered by regulation and tax cuts for them paid for by gutting social programs. Unfortunately, this came with a heavy price because Trump ripped off the mask of American polity to reveal ugliness and corruption. As businessmen, fully aware of the importance of a global economy, Trump’s isolationism and jingoism can only be troubling.
Much of what Mayer covers in her book would be familiar to anyone closely following the news, but the historical background is a valuable addition to our understanding of America’s rightward movement. It is appalling how little respect these businessmen display for pollution controls, worker welfare or tax laws. Their self-serving core belief that government oversight of business is an assault on freedom and damaging to the economy is not surprising. Their tactics, however, reveal remarkable sophistication, including adopting innocuous titles that low information voters would accept, like “Americans for Prosperity”; maintaining secrecy of funding sources wherever possible; employing private agents and paid news outlets for marketing and smearing opponents; and aggressively blocking meaningful environmental, labor and tax reforms.
Mayer’s profiles are particularly revealing of people with dubious histories, libertarian visions and the means of achieving political results while simultaneously self-dealing. The Koch fortune was derived from building refineries for Hitler and Stalin. Richard Mellon Scaife had the brilliant realization that political activism could be sold as tax-deductible philanthropy. John M. Olin, whose chemical fortune benefited from weapons procurement, realized that America’s future leaders were being educated by liberals and thus focused his fortune on funding conservative scholars at prestigious institutions and think tanks. The Bradley brothers of Rockwell International fame used their fortune to underwrite various right wing publishing and research ventures. These are just a few of the people Mayer profiles in her book. The list is long and each seems well focused, if not a little sketchy.
Mayer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, spent five years researching her exhaustive investigation. She conducted hundreds of interviews—the Kochs refused to be interviewed—as well as public records, private papers and court documents. The result is a picture of a well-organized and well-funded American plutocracy that is laser focused on fundamentally altering America. The view is often depressing, leaving the reader wondering if it may be too late to rescue America from these people.
Probably the best reason for reading this book is to see how Jane Mayer allows these individuals and groups to speak for themselves. She quotes from statements spoken by fund raisers at their own gatherings, from the literature distributed under their aegis, and from interviews with associates. Mayer also traces the many shell companies through which the money flows to hide its origins. She documents why the groups feel it is necessary to hide the source of the monies and why the folks involved do not want their names to be known.
Many of the families besides David and Charles Koch who most ardently support far right wing causes are not the self-made men of legend. They are heirs of fortunes who seek to retain those fortunes. The tax laws in our country have been such that persons with enormous fortunes could use a portion of it for charitable giving rather than have it taxed by the government. These generous brethren have decided to do the patriarchal thing: to “give” portions of their fortune to like-minded groups they create to influence the populace. I am not suggesting they don’t work hard at it. They do. Lots of effort has gone into creating an empire on the backs of a people they disparage.
What I cannot reconcile in my own mind is how these folks, experienced in the advantages (and disadvantages) of great wealth, don’t come to the conclusion that money isn’t the point. There have been too many studies on the limits of wealth to ensure happiness for these experienced folks to have missed the central point. Money does buy power, but look at the uses to which these folks want to use their power: to perpetuate their own wealth, despite the documented injury to the environment their companies perpetuate and to the continued abasement of their workforces. Even Koch scoffs at the notion that he needs more money. I just don’t get it.
And, it seems, neither do the American public. Despite libertarian donors of like-minded billionaires pooling their capital donations and pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into influencing the last presidential election, their arch-nemesis Obama was reelected. Of course, he was unable to accomplish much in his term because of the groups were successful in filling the House and Senate with politicians they’d supported financially: the darlings of what is still called the Republican party, e.g., Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, among many others. When Mitch McConnell became Majority Speaker of the Senate, he hired a new policy chief who was formerly a lobbyist for Koch Industries. Neither Ohio Governor John Kasich or real estate magnate Donald Trump have a part in the Koch money cabal. But…remind me again, who won in the presidential election primaries in NH this year?
If you have been confused about the obstreperous obstructionism Obama encountered in the House and Senate even after he was elected, twice, to the presidency, you may be interested to learn that the money promised to groups favoring select Republican candidates for the coming presidential election has been estimated to be over $800 million. Apparently the Republican Party itself is the poor step-sister of a shadow organization that dwarfs it in money and reach. These monies have begun in recent years to target local elections and judge nominations. In these arenas dark money seems to have more effect (see the change in the red/blue map of governerships and local districts after 2010), perhaps because national elections get more voters. More voters often translate into more moderate results.
In addition, the money is going to influence academic centers and think tanks. Penetrating academia – a delivery system for the group’s ideology by winning the hearts and minds of college students--has long been on their wish list. Academia is an investment for the Koch’s ambitious designs. Their own literature claims they have funded 5,000 scholars in some 400 universities throughout the country. “Privately funded pro-corporate centers can replace faculty teachings with their own.” The groups are also pouring money into online education, paying lower-income students to take more courses. The intent is to create an “idea pipeline.” I have to say, Bernie Sanders’ proposed free college education sounds better than ever.
But at the end of it all, I am still perplexed. We know the sources of the dark money discussed in this book believe in small government free enterprise. But do they really believe that corporations do not have a responsibility to provide living wages and a non-polluting environment? At the same time company profits and management wages soar. Unfortunately for their argument is the fact that many of the corporate heads financing opposition to regulation are under indictment for pollution, tax avoidance, or other financial irregularities. They are trying to address this also, changing perceptions by calling their investments “wellbeing” grants.
In the end, what I don’t like about the current system of free enterprise and/or payments for work is that corporations have shown that they don’t do very well at controlling themselves. Corporate governance is beginning to sound like an oxymoron. Corporate boards blame their inability to control costs on the need to make profits for stake-holders or investors, but the salaries and bonuses these boards award themselves at the expense of cleaning up pollution caused by their companies or to avoid paying a living wage to workers make them look foolish (and greedy).
I guess it really is so simple as narcissism: the wealthy come to believe they deserve to be wealthy because they are either smarter or more deserving in some other way. If that is the inevitable outcome of the free market system, I think we can state unequivocally that it does, in fact, need regulation. We could, I suppose, just throw away the whole system. Which, do you think, sources of dark money would prefer?
I think everyone needs to read or listen to this book but if you don’t feel you have the time, go to the library or a bookstore and read Chapter 14. While in previous chapters Mayer tells us how the groups began, which groups and donors comprise dark money, and what they have tried to do, in this final chapter Mayer tells us what is happening now. This is important for how we integrate and process any new information we learn. Mayer has also written several smaller articles in The New Yorker, beginning in 2010. A wonderfully informative January 24, 2016 NYTimes book podcast is also available on this title. Get the information piecemeal if you must, but you will definitely want to inform yourselves.
I would have liked a bit more analysis in the book; the writer is a journalist and does a good job of laying out the facts. As a Canadian, I am not so familiar with the ins and outs of American politics and would have liked to get a deeper understanding of the system itself as well as how it is being manipulated. It seems ironic to me that the American Revolution was fought to end the reign of a small group of aristocrats, yet American seems headed back to that very situation.
The ability to keep this money flowing to political candidates and causes secretly is accomplished through so-called philanthropic organizations. These organizations include think tanks, academies, non-profit organizations, and clubs. By donating money to these organizations, they in-turn put money in the pockets of politicians and causes that big business dictates. There are even organizations in which the sole purpose is to hide the money.
While this all runs counter to what the majority hopes and aspires to as a democracy, it became possible after a contentious Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend money to influence elections. While business cannot give money directly to politicians, they can give money to other organizations that give money to politicians. This was a major legal rollback of 100 year law that prevented corporations from funding federal campaigns.
Reading this book a year into the Trump presidency, it is an interesting look back at how we got to where we are. How much Trump has benefited from dark money is unknown, but that big business is reaping the rewards of the changes his administration is making is apparent. The future is certain to involve a lot of money from a small number of actors who are intensely interested in their own corporate interests to the detriment of the well-being of the majority of Americans.
As an Australian looking from the outside into American politics, I've been aware of the ever increasing special interest money that has been building in a slow wave slowly corrupting the political process and essentially buying influence. And yet despite this, I still found the detail of such private donor money and the manner in which it was essentially laundered into the political system both shocking and depressing.
Here in Australia in my state there's currently a lot of hoopla over $100,000 that was delivered in cash to one of our political parties in breach of campaign finance laws, yet recorded here are tens of millions of dollars spent by the Koch brothers on buying influence in American politics. The sheer sums involved boggle the mind.
The erosion of democracy detailed in the book somehow manages to be more disturbing than dystopian fiction, possibly as it has been happening in the last decade whilst everyone watched.
I'd highly recommend this book for people with an interest in America or American politics regardless of politican persuasion.
Mayer is very far left. She has so many assumptions, that the government has a right to the furits of others labor for one, and that the annonymoity is a vice as another.
Let us be clear I am not a fan of the Kochs, however, rather than exposing their great evil, Mayer has done nothing but give me more respect for them than I had had before. They do have a through upbrining in the literature and the ideology. However their willingness to use the laws to their advantage against that of their idology, or even at times to focus on increasing government regulation against their competitors did give me great pride that the Libertarian Party all but kicked them out back in 1983. It is completely missed on Mayer that libertarianism brought to its logical conclusion would have encouraged their political opponents to "expose" what they have been doing as opposed to statist quoe we have now "protecting" them from what they have.
The other thing that was plainly clear here is that Mayer seems to have very little respect for her readers. She repeats information frequently, such as "The 1980 platform of the Libertarian Party that David Koch had ran for Vice President under" she either thinks her readers are stupid and have forgotten, or that she has written it assuming that it is going to be used primarily for quoting by others.
The rest of the rouge gallery has learned from what the Kochs have done to transform the Republican party to move the Party further into corporate interests.
Not once does Mayer even question if what the "Dark Money" is doing may be moral, not once does she investigate the ideology behind the corporatists, she simply assumes its evil and then goes about exposing how they did their evil.
If you want to strengthen your own positions, to pat yourself on the back for being right, this book is for you, if you want to get a historical perspective on the corporate interest in American politics, however; this book is not for you.