CriticalBook Review: Jane Mayer’s Dark Money
In2016, investigative journalist Jane Mayer launched DarkMoney, abook that seemed to expound on her earlier famous article “CovertOperations” appearing on the New Yorker in August 2010. The bookhas been written in a rather straightforward way, not to mention itslack of emotion and high presence of quiet anger. Clearly, the bookmakes its debut just as the United States is geared towards anotherelection seen to be ideologically polarized. The book which drawsinformation from public records, hundreds of interviews and recentlyrevealed documents recounts years of efforts made at reshaping thepolitics of the United States, finally culminating in the most recentKoch brothers’ construction of an integrated political network. Asrevealed, the network has been largely fueled with hand-outs sourcedfrom hundreds of wealthy American conservatives. According to Mayer,the Koch-led magnates finally received their prize in 2014 when theRepublicans won the Senate by enlarging their House majority, andconsequently taking control of majority states. However, the ultimateprize is still far way off and shall only be won when they take thepresidency. The network is not taking this lying down and this isevidenced by the already ongoing plan to spend $900 million onadvertising, public education, as well as plans to acquire voters’data while taking the initiative to personally contact them.
DarkMoney alertsthe public to the numerous aspects of the secretive and unaccountablemachinations that the political integrated network is putting upbehind the scenes.
Thenewest revelations by Mayer emerge in the earlier section of the bookwhere the history of the Koch family is traced. This section explainshow the brothers’ father, Fred Koch, launched a petrochemical firmthat later became the centre of the huge multi-industrial andfinancial corporation led by Charles, while at the same time beingthe source of the immense fortune deployed in U.S. politics by himand David, his brother. Fred was also the co-founder of a Societyknown as John Birch, a radical right group that advocated the hatredfor government while instigating the fear of American communism onhis two sons. The history also sheds more light on the reasons behindCharles and David’s libertarian Leninism, a character that grewtheir determination for use of centralized managerial authority toadvance their beliefs on freedom.
Theauthor also puts major focus on other like minded wealthy right-wingfamilies, in particular the Bradleys, Olin’s and Mellon Scaifes.Alongside the Koch’s, the families were also implemental in thebirth of conservative manipulations of American tax laws, especiallythose applicable to charitable no profit organizations. If non-profitorganizations and family foundations claimed to devote at least 51percent of their activities to non-electoral and educationactivities, the law allowed them to fund political advocacy. Theauthor brings this out with a hidden outrage and a non-existing senseof irony.
However,the irony of the entire saga is the fact that liberal foundations andnon-profit organizations, for example, Ford were at the leadingpositions in a majority of American social movements and policyinnovations between the 1960s and the 1980s. Gains in the protectionof the environment, civil rights and regulations at the workplacetroubled conservatives who within no time, devised methods to utilizesuch resources in more open ideological and strategic ways. Of alladvanced nations, the American tax laws continue to make it easierfor the wealthy in society to use the subsidies in pushing forwardtheir personal values.
Mayermakes a formidable argument, albeit a circumstantial one when shestates that in line with all political funding and resources, it israther difficult to draw the line between the end of ideology and thebeginning of self-interest and corruption. She gives the example ofthe founding fathers who were often accused of drafting aconstitution whose intention was to protect their wealth. However,subsequent research has largely disputed the allegations. However,some of the allegations are as light as day. At the onset of the 20thcentury, Mark Hanna’s closely knit network of manufacturers andrail tycoons invested large sums aimed at procuring high tariffs andrepublican governments that favored their businesses. At the end ofit all, their efforts were rewarded. In the 1950s when Sam Rayburnwas made House speaker, he stashed his office desk with large bundlesof cash from the oil companies, doling it out in a bid to secure theloyalty of Democrats. Such unregulated and loose cash sourced fromwealthy donors constituted the dark money that made Watergatepossible.
Thedeath of Fred Koch saw the two brothers, David and Charles purchasetheir shareholding in the organization thereafter building it intoone of the performing private corporation in the United States. Mayerstates that “Astheir fortunes grew, Charles and David Koch became the primaryunderwriters of hard-line libertarian politics in America. Charles’goal was to ‘tear the government out at the root’”(Mayer, 32)
“Anotherman who studied Charles thought that he was driven by some deeperurge to smash the one thing left in the world that could disciplinehim: the government”(Mayer,54)
TheAEI was one of the many think-tanks that were bankrolled by Kochs’and allies hundreds of millions of dollars. However, such forums werepresented to the public as quasi-scholarly enterprises despite thefact that their actual function was the legitimization of the rightsto pollute by coal, gas and oil companies. They also argued foradditional tax cuts for those that created them. An heir to theMellon fortune, Richard Scaife, donated a whooping $23 million over a23 year period to the heritage Foundation. This was despite havingbeen the single largest AEI donor.
Later,John M. Olin launched the Olin Foundation, spending close to $200million for the promotion of free market. free market ideologiesalongside other conservative notions in campuses across the nation.This saw the foundation bankroll an entirely new strategy tojurisprudence dubbed “law and economics” that saw severaluniversities benefit as follows “$10mto Harvard, $7m to Yale and Chicago, and over $2m to Columbia,Cornell, Georgetown and the University of Virginia”(Mayer, 231).
In2013, the Kochs increased their efforts by hosting two yearly“seminars”, which were otherwise donor summits aimed at educatingthe wealthy conservatives about the politics of free-market ideology.Mayer states that the initial purpose of these seminars was raisingadditional funds to for the lobbying efforts. However, this fact maynot be entirely true owing to the fact that the earlier seminarsrecorded low turnout numbers. One may be compelled to assume thatbuilding a moral solidarity and spreading the ideology amongst fellowwealthy conservatives would have been more crucial for the Kochs atthat time as opposed to raising funds. Mayer says little about theKoch’s efforts between 2003 and 2008, only resuming in 2009 for theObama elections. She states that “Obama’selection stirred such deep and widespread fear among the conservativebusiness elite that the conference was swarmed, becoming a hub ofpolitical resistance”(Mayer, 434). Koch and their associates update their strategies overa period of time in fighting the government. Some of these includefighting Obamacare, winning mid-term elections in 2010 and waging thebig wars of winning the presidency by pledging hundreds of millionsfor the campaigns.
Acareful analysis of the book brings out the notion that Mayer’sobjection to the Kochs is the fact that their influence on politicsis in pursuit of their personal objectives. Their fight to encouragefree market ideologies are, therefore, designed to benefit theirbusinesses. With this in mind, the big question arises as to what arational individual would expect them to do. This is due to the factthat it would certainly be perverse expecting them to campaignagainst their personal interests. The extensive history of realismdating back to pre-historic period, Greece sees politics as deeply amatter of pursuing own interests. In a democratic setting, though,the political sphere should avail a forum whereby the competinginterests of concerned parties can be amicably resolved. Despiteexplicitly bringing out her preferences, Mayer fails to spell out analternative in DarkMoney. Thisis evidenced by her numerous reference to disinterested views fromexperts on major subjects ranging from climate change to economics,despite the fact that they are disliked by the public for goodreason.
Conservativessuch as the Kochs, David Trump, and the Olins among others enjoysuccess politically due to the fact that their opponents fail tooffer alternative inspiring visions. With this in mind, it is crucialthat critics reflect on own failures to project such alternatives tothe people in a bid to counter the negative influence of thesuper-rich individuals.
MayerJane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind theRise of the Radical Right. Doubleday. 2016. Print