Dark Money – Book Review
Author: Jane Mayer
Publisher: Doubleday, Penguin Random House LLC, New York
Copyright: 2016, ISBN: 0385535595
Cover: George Nazlis/ Alamy
Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, March 3, 2017
Summary: Is it really money in politics or politics in money? From the Koch bothers to George Soros, the first impression you get of these people is that you would not want them to marry your sister.
What can be more boring than the subject of money in politics? Well, a partisan Democratic or Republican Party discussion about money in politics would be boring. Republican Party money in politics and Democratic Party money in politics should be the same subject. Excessively boring if the party is yours. A completely fair discussion of the subject would concede the guilt of both parties. The discussion would go on to examine exactly why the subject should be discussed in the first place. DARK MONEY comes close to achieving this. Close but not perfect.
The chronicles how David and Charles Koch infused themselves into the American political system. They were by no means the first. As Mayer points out, John D. Rockefeller became a concerned citizen philanthropist in the early 1900s in order to hold onto his wealth. Rockefeller and the other multi-millionaires setting up philanthropic trusts did not immerse themselves in the political process. The Koch brothers, Frank more so than David, pioneered the way for others of their wealth to steer the political system. The book ends up being coincidentally an indictment of the Republican party through no real fault of the party. The party was susceptible to the influence of Libertarian ideas. More importantly, like its counterpart the Democratic Party, the Republican Party was and is in constant need of money. The entire exploration could be boring just based on this mundaneness alone. Then however you run across tidbits of biographical information on the millionaires and billionaires. This nuance makes things get interesting real fast and there is more to the story than just money.
It would be pathetically immature, in the name of fairness, to equate Democratic Party dark money with Republican Party dark money. The Republicans are far ahead on the balance sheet and light-years ahead on putting the money to use. The Democrats do not appear to be playing in the same arena, even on the same planet. Republican oriented organizations simply make better use of dark money. Democratic Party dark money appears to flow exclusively to issue oriented organizations. Hence, DARK MONEY is an exploration of the strategic and tactical use of money in shaping our political dialog. The book is amazingly effective in exposing the details. Because it does delve into the minutia, the snippets of biographical information on the super-rich is a refreshing respite.
In 1995, Rachel Ehrenfeld, in her book EVIL MONEY, set the standard for books detailing the mass scale ebb and flow of money. Mayer’s DARK MONEY does not rise to this standard but there are vignettes of insight rising above the mundane.
While the Koch brothers (David and Charles) and their money largess dominate the pages of DARK MONEY, we are introduced to a few other super rich. Jan Van Andel and Betsy DeVos of Michigan; Richard Mellon Scaife of Pennsylvania; William Simon and his (John M. ) Orlin Foundation; Lynde and Harry Bradley of the Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin; John Menard Jr., and Diane Hendricks also of Wisconsin; and Sheldon Adelson of Nevada. These are the money folks manning the conservative money machine mentioned.
Aside from George Soros, who warrants only a brief mention because of his contribution to the $185 million liberal-Democratic Party effort to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004 (page 236), the liberal money machine is not examined in depth. The largest donor to Democratic Party politics mentioned in DARK MONEY is “hedge fund magnate turned environmental activist Tom Steyer.”
The most stark realization to come out of DARK MONEY is not the money itself, nor the amount of money, but the effective and ineffective ways it is put to use. For instance, while conservatives rile against “liberal” institutions of higher learning, conservative organizations like the Olin Foundation poured money into “the country’s best law schools” to advocate libertarian ideas. According to Mayer, “nearly eighty law schools” across the country had established courses promoting “free markets and limited government”. This one example goes to the heart of how pragmatically conservative organizations approach the strategic objectives of promoting conservative ideas. To be sure there are liberal organizations doing the same, but they seem to lack both the focus and determination.
The bottom line on politics and money is that money buys political office. In 2014, the Public Broadcasting Service reported that in 94% of congressional House races in which candidates spent the most money won their elections; it was 82% for Senate candidates. A curious realization growing out of the 2016 election is that money does not guarantee winning. Consistently being in front of voters is probably a greater boost to election victory than money alone. Of course media face time requires money. Mayer’s book suggests that laying a solid ideological foundation in the body politic makes candidate-face-time an accoutrement to political success, not a necessity.
If you are an amateur political junkie, DARK MONEY is a good spreadsheet starter.