Book: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

Last week I was on vacation and off the grid. Amy and I decided to stay home, rest, just hang out, and read.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right was first on the list. I have a very cynical attitude toward politics, especially in the context of big money, so I was fascinated by this book. I’d read snippets about it and had read the New Yorker article Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama by Jane Mayer in 2010 that was the inspiration for her to write this book.

After 450 pages, my cynicism had evolved from significant to profound. I kind of knew what I was getting into when I started reading the book, but the rabbit hole is very, very, very deep. I know that there are many people, especially in politics, who don’t care about the truth and that one person’s truth is not necessarily “the truth.” But the extent of the manipulation, strategies surrounding it, lies supporting it, and the money financing it were extreme even for my already cynical perspective.

I’ve never really engaged financially in politics. While I’ve contributed here and there to candidates that I support, I’ve always done it in the context of personal contributions to the campaign. While I’ve supported specific issues like patent and immigration reform, I don’t think I’ve ever given to a candidate through an organization designed to support one of these issues, but instead I have always given my gifts directly to activities around the specific issues.

With the emergence of Super PACs, it’s gotten more confusing, but I’ve tried not to support PACs, Super PACs, or bundlers. I’ve fallen into the trap of this several times, but always made sure that what I did wasn’t tax deductible or characterized as a charitable gift. I’m not trying to be a goody two-shoes, but rather just follow the rules and play by them.

While Mayer’s book focuses on the Koch’s, a bunch of their friends in their extended network, and the rise of the radical right, she alludes to similar dynamics going on now on the liberal front. While it’s easy to paint it as extremes of the Republican party, label it the rise of the libertarians, or describe it as a takeover of the Republican party, it’s clear to me that the financial dynamic described covers the entire political spectrum.

But that’s not the disturbing part to me, as money, influence, and power have always been wrapped up together. Instead, I ‘m bothered by the characterization of the activities as charitable, the blatant tax evasion from the contributors, the disingenuous behavior by the principles and their proxies, and the fundamental disrespect for a system that is supposed to be representative of the people.

Regardless of your political leanings or attitude, this book is worth reading, if only to have a perspective on how far we have gone into some alternate reality that now is driving how things work. Or maybe it’s always been this way, and we are just now noticing how much money is, and can be, involved.

  • I am glad you mentioned billionaires on the left too and I share your cynicism.

    I was a director at CME’s PAC for a number of years when I was there. I raised and donated money. As a group, we made decisions about who to donate to. For us it was always about 50/50. Incumbents were favored and PACs of this nature almost never ever give money to a non-incumbent.

    Campaign Finance reform has so many rules in it. It was really not reform-except in the misuse of the word “reform”. Sort of a sci-fi Ayn Rand use of the word. What it really did was create a system where it is impossible to raise money to beat an incumbent so only the independently wealthy can run-or people backed by big money. It doesn’t surprise me since the people that wrote the law don’t want competition.

    In this day and age, it should be possible to have an online ledger of every donation of individuals and corporations–ending Super PACs etc. If George Soros wants to donate to every hard left wing Democrat and pay to organize protests we ought to know about it.

    I don’t have a problem with an individual donating to a campaign, or even a corporation doing it (remember, unions spend significantly more dollars than companies)-but I want to see a line item on their expenses for lobbying including the Washington office, firm they used and who they supported. Transparency to shareholders, and the general public would make things a lot better.

    Remember the lessons of Economist George Stigler. Bigger government helps big corporations because they have the power to influence and write the rules. The bigger government becomes, the more incentive big companies and unions have to make more donations.

    • Why don’t we have those ledgers available online, you think?

      • Hmmm, what’s an online distributed ledger that is viewable by everyone? Gee if only someone would invent that.

    • Whenever I hear a government phrase for a bill or initiative, like “Campaign Finance reform”, I immediately expect it to be the opposite of what it says.

      • Yes! Reminds me of the fire departments in Fahrenheit 451.

  • mark gelband

    Money and privilege has always protected itself and the status quo. To then have this behavior proclaimed and protected as “charitable donation” – even greater self-interest – is abhorrent.

  • Aashay Mody

    Any documentary recommendations that go into similar issues?

    • Nope – I’m clueless.

  • Andrew Parker

    What is interesting is that if America were indeed controlled by big money and inside the Beltway influence, this election would have been locked up between Hilary and Jeb many months ago. The fact that Trump and Bernie have done what they’ve done proves that the American public, when provoked enough, can have a significant impact. It’ll be an interesting election

    • I don’t think we actually understand the real long game. This is something I got from the book. The presidential election matters, but much of the process, especially the primaries, are a sideshow. The real game has been in Congress so far in this cycle, and Mayer explains that pretty clearly.

  • Dave Abajian

    I’m just finishing the book. Mayer makes a number of summary conclusions about motives and the like that may or may not be right, but those quibbles aside, she got my attention.

    There are a number of issues with how money is used to influence campaigns, public opinion and even educational institutions. The fact that much of this money comes with a tax deductions is just one of the galling and glaring problems.

    I second pointsnfigures comment about transparency. At a minimum that’s what we need. If people can give huge sums of money to gain influence; and if they can get a tax deduction while doing it; at a very minimum the public is entitled to know who is doing what.

  • Really?

    The book is overly critical of the Koch brothers, the money they provide is almost always to enable a grass roots effort. Seed money and yes targeted at ideals not parties or people. Free market, level playing field, Principled foreign policy issues.
    Personalities have made them the boogey man as part of a communications strategy that requires a personified target but if one does research into what the Koch Institute stands for it is easy to see a direction that diverges from both parties. Just the one party is moving more clearly toward more Regulatory control and the Libertarian direction is people over regulation.

    • Russell

      Anything specific in the book that you disagree with?

  • Lawrence Lessig took a fairly deep dive into the subject of campaign finance with “Republic Lost” and made its lessons a mainstay of his Presidential campaign. A campaign that was doomed from the beginning because it could never tap into the fears of the average person.

    The book generated as strong a feeling of helplessness as reading “Overthrown” that documented America’s addiction to overthrowing foreign governments.

    I’ll add Dark Money to my list.

  • Rosey

    My only eye-witness interaction with the Koch Foundation is their benevolent investment in the Youth Entrepreneurs Organization ( I have been a student’s ‘Business Plan Advisor’ for the last five years. The foundation funds entrepreneur classes in high schools that have a significant portion of the student body in the subsidized lunch program, like Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas. The best business plans are judged and cash prizes won. It’s rare, but occasionally an entrepreneur in a student-suit shows up and it’s a wonder to behold — but most are simply sensory-deprived to anything entrepreneurial. They not only ‘Don’t know what they don’t know — they don’t have the functional literacy to grasp entrepreneurial thinking if it bit them on the nose — but when they do, it’s just ‘Wow!’

    So that’s the Koch brother’s culture I’m exposed to, face-to-face. Charles Koch’s book “Good Profit’ is on the shelf alongside Brad’s “Start-up Life’ works.

    Along these lines, has anyone read Peter Switzer’s “Clinton Cash”, and how (If it understand the thesis) a charitable foundation appears to be an influence peddling facility?