September 5, 2017

Finished Reading: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

Dark, indeed. Dark, depressing, daunting, diabolical. This book is a tome of the big, ugly names behind the big, ugly money machine that over the past 40 years re-defined American politics, and in doing so has re-shaped our nation. It would take me several re-reads to really grasp everything in this well-researched, incredibly detailed book, and there is no way that’s happening. Here are a few of my takeaways.

Dark Money starts with Fred Koch, a nasty sonofabitch whose “willingness to work with the Soviets and the Nazis was a major factor in creating the Koch family’s early fortune,” and whose cruelty spilled over into his parenting. Koch and his wife, Mary, had four sons who ended up so twisted they viciously fought each other for decades over money after they each inherited hundreds of millions. Charles—and to a slightly lesser extent, David—in particular, emerged as libertarians whose goal was to “tear the government out ‘at the root.’”

Charles began with actively attracting and recruiting youth, “funneling millions of dollars into educational indoctrination, with free-market curricula and even video games promoting his ideology pitched to prospects as young as grade school,” but it didn’t end there.

The lengths Koch and his associates went to is nearly unthinkable. Leonard Ligio, a Koch think tank associate, supported using the Nazi’s model of creating of a youth movement that was key to their capture of the state, and George Pearson of the John Birch Society and Charles Koch’s political lieutenant, suggested influencing academia by funding private university institutes “where influence over hiring decisions and other forms of control could be exerted by donors while hiding the radicalism of their aims.”

“It would be necessary to use ambiguous and misleading names, obscure the true agenda, and conceal the means of control. This is the method that Charles Koch would soon practice in his charitable giving, and later in his political actions.”

By the 1970s, Koch’s conservative think tanks achieved unheard of power in Washington and beyond, an insider stating, “We’ve become money launderers for monies that have real specific policy agendas behind them.” A former Koch employee adds that the Kochs “never did play by the rules. They had their own playing field. They just didn’t abide by anything. Not the EPA or anything else. They constantly polluted. If they got fined, it didn’t matter because they made so much money doing it…They got that money dishonestly…made it off the girls and boys in the trenches, through their deceit…They just did it by breaking the rules all over the country.”

Seemingly endless chapters illustrate the Kochs’ dogged ambition to dismantle government. And it worked. Even as the Kochs cheated, stole, lied, and avoided paying taxes or shareholder dividends, Wall Street investment banker, Roger Altman, described the Koch’s phenomenal revenue growth and reach (earning the moniker “The Kochtapus”), as “just gigantically successful. It is in everything.”

Other wealthy families, including the DeVos family, got on board as well, and even did away with secrecy. In a guest column in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Betsy DeVos defended unlimited campaign contributions (permissible as of the 2010 Citizens United ruling that overturned contribution restrictions), and stated she had “decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

What they expect, of course, is absolute rule over a government whose only function is to protect their riches, and in the not-really-joking words of a young Charles Koch, “assure my share, which is all of it.”

A single component of hope finally emerges toward the end of book. The Koch plan did not win the “Mother of All Wars,” as Charles Koch described the 2012 presidential election, the first since the Citizens United ruling. Beginning with Koch summoning hundreds of wealthy donors, nearly $700 million dollars was spent by Republicans in the quest for Mitt Romney to beat President Barack Obama, “to win the fight between a tiny, privileged clique and virtually everyone else.” So what went wrong?

It’s what went right: Democrats showed up and voted in far bigger numbers than the Republicans expected, and President Obama won re-election.

Let that sink in.

Voting beat $700 million dollars.   

Of course, the 2016 election was a whole other book that is still being written. But looking forward, is dark money still depressing, daunting, and diabolical? Incredibly so, not the least of which is it being so successfully poisonous at the state and local levels. Yet, this is where we—We, the People, especially those of us determined to actively, relentlessly fight to rescue our battered democracy—must be clear: We will never beat them with money. But we can—we must—beat them with votes.

We must look right now toward the midterm elections of 2018, and the 2020 presidential election. We cannot allow another national disaster like the one of November 8, 2016. We must protect the integrity of voter registrations and polls. We must work to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons, who are statistically more likely to vote Democrat. We must support strong candidates who possess the moral fortitude to resist dark money. And more than anything, we must get out the (Democratic) vote, and turn things around from the inside out, and from darkness, claw our way back to light.

This is our generation’s crisis, and the whole world is watching. We are the ones. Fight for light.