Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

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Five stars, read from November 2016 to January 2017.

Well. If you want to know why the United States looks the way it does in 2017, this is your book. (All emphasis in quotes is mine, and all the sources are named in the book.)

Charles and David Koch. Richard Mellon Scaife. John Olin. Richard Fink. Randy Kendrick. The DeVos family. For the past fifty years, to varying degrees, these people have been using their astronomical wealth to manipulate public policy. In a very real sense, they have been gaslighting the entire country by inventing “public support” for their extremist views, pretending they are things the American people want when in fact they’re often directly opposed—then just changing the vocabulary they use to talk about it, in order to trick people into supporting something that will actually hurt them.

In Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, the journalist Chrystia Freeland describes how those with massive financial resources almost universally use them to secure policies beneficial to their interests, often at the expense of the less well-off. In the United States, a number of studies have shown that in recent years this tendency has distorted politics in very specific ways. In a study he conducted for the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, the political scientist Lee Drutman found that increasingly concentrated wealth in America resulted in more polarization and extremism, especially on the right. Very rich benefactors in the Republican Party were far more opposed to taxes and regulations than the rest of the country. “The more Republicans depend upon 1% of the 1% donors, the more conservative they tend to be,” he discovered.

For the life of me, I will never be able to understand why conservative Americans are so desperate to defend the privileges of the ultrarich. But they have been doing it on the basis of a worldview fabricated by those multimillionaires, a worldview that disguises their real intentions and pretends to have the average person’s interests—or “Freedom,” in American terms—at heart.

For example: Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which we all heard about endlessly a couple years ago. It was incredibly strict, and its targets were the social programs Americans have considered non-negotiable for several decades.

For several years, [Paul] Ryan had been advocating radically deep cuts in government spending, including to Medicare and Medicaid . . . His ideas were wildly popular with most of the wealthy donors. As the country’s highest taxpayers, they would be the biggest beneficiaries of the tax savings produced by spending cuts. Moreover, none of them needed to rely on government social services for their health or welfare.

But many of Ryan’s ideas were anathema to much of the middle class. When President George W. Bush had tried to privatize Social Security, a plan pushed by the Cato Institute, he had been forced to retreat in the face of overwhelming public opposition. The reality was that despite mobilizing the Tea Party, the big conservative donors had a number of different priorities from the less affluent followers. Tea Party leaders had deliberately “fudged” their agenda on Social Security in order not to alienate the followers, according to one study. They talked in vague terms about keeping America from “going broke” but avoided specifics. Meanwhile, not one grassroots Tea Party supporter encountered by the study’s authors argued for privatizing Social Security. Entitlement programs aiding the middle class were in fact so popular with most Americans that they were virtually sacrosanct . . .

To popularize his radical budget plan, Ryan would need help, and Noble soon came up with a way for the donors to deliver it. He suggested they pay for expensive private polling and market testing to help Ryan fine-tune his pitch, as well as a campaign by “Astroturf”* groups to create a drumbeat of public support . . .

Ed Goeas, the president of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling company that worked on the budget project, said that the challenge was to minimize political damage from cuts to entitlement spending. “It wasn’t about developing policy,” Goeas said, “it was about selling it.” The solution, it appears was to avoid the frank use of the word “cut” when talking about Medicare or Social Security. “There was discussion that you could deal with it as ‘getting your money’s worth out of the government’,” said Goeas. “You could talk about it as ‘more effective’—but not as cutting it” . . . Public Notice, which paid for the research, also mounted a public advocacy campaign describing the deficit as a looming catastrophe. “Public Notice was one of the Koch Brothers’ groups,” Goeas confirmed.

*Astroturf refers to “a new kind of weapon in the arsenal of several of America’s biggest businesses—a fake populist movement secretly manufactured by corporate sponsors.” This comes up a lot in the book, particularly in reference to the Tea Party. Oh, yeah—that spontaneous, passionate “popular uprising” was super contrived.

Even more influential than the budget campaign, probably, was their attack on Obamacare using the same methods. In this case, a multimillionaire named Randy Kendrick turned her own personal obsession into a national issue, creating the opposition to Obamacare before it was even invented.

When Barack Obama took office, Kendrick (co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks) was convinced that he was planning to institute universal government healthcare. She believed that if not for the choice of private health care, she would have been dead or confined to a wheelchair after a leg injury—so despite the facts that (1) her doctor “dismissed this as nonsense,” (2) Obama never attempted to take away private health care, and (3) there are many people other than Kendrick in the United States, she decided that preventing Obama from overhauling the healthcare system must be a priority. She was one of the largest donors to the Koch brothers’ group, and at their secret donor meeting in January 2009, she gave an impromptu speech asking what they were going to do about it.

The Kochs of course opposed the expansion of any government social program, including any potential universal health-care plan. But [two sources familiar with the meeting] said they hadn’t focused much on the issue. They had assumed the health-care industry would fight its own battles, in its own interest, so they hadn’t thought they’d need to step in. Instead, the Obama administration had cut deals with much of the health-care industry, winning much of its support . . . Despite their later reputation for orchestrating opposition to Obamacare, it was actually Kendrick, not the Kochs, who first led the way.

And then we know what happened.

Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster and pitchman . . . was one of a long succession of “policy entrepreneurs” who served to popularize the agenda of wealthy backers by “framing” their issues in more broadly appealing language.

Luntz used polls, focus groups, and “instant response dial sessions” to perfect the language of health-care attacks and then tested the lines on average Americans in St. Louis, Missouri. Out of these sessions, Luntz compiled a seminal twenty-eight-page confidential memo in April warning that there was no groundswell of public opposition to Obama’s health-care plan at that point; in fact, there was a groundswell of public support. By far the most effective approach to turning the public against the program, Luntz advised, was to label it a “government takeover” . . .

Most experts found the pitch patently misleading because the Obama administration was proposing that Americans buy private health insurance from for-profit companies, not from the government . . . Luntz’s phrase was so false that it was chosen as the “Lie of the Year” by the nonpartisan fact-checking group PolitiFact. Yet while a rear guard of administration officials tried lamely to correct the record, Luntz’s deceptive message stuck, agitating increasingly fearful and angry voters, many of whom flocked to Tea Party protests.

Which is how we ended up with people insured under the Affordable Care Act celebrating the demise of “Obamacare,” unaware that they are in fact the same thing. Because of Randy Kendrick’s personal obsession, the Koch network blatantly deceived the American public into hating something that was helping them.

At the time, few thought that Obama’s health-care plan could be derailed. Conservative opposition was focused more on other issues. [Randy Kendrick’s political consultant Sean] Noble needed to generate “grassroots” pressure on the potentially persuadable senators, but constituents weren’t yet engaged . . . For help, he turned to an old friend in Arizona, Doug Goodyear, whose controversial public relations firm, DCI Group, had truly professionalized the modern use of phony “Astroturf” campaigns on behalf of big-money interests, starting with the industry that really set the standard for deceptive advertising, tobacco . . .

That summer, traditional town hall meetings held by Democratic congressmen and senators returning to their districts and states exploded in acrimony. The anger appeared entirely spontaneous. But the investigative reporter Lee Fang discovered that a volunteer with FreedomWorks was circulating a memo instructing Tea Partiers on how to disrupt the meetings . . . Some of the outside agitation was professional, paid for by the Koch network. Noble later admitted, “We packed these town halls with people who were just screaming about this thing.”

And that’s what they do. FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Cato Institute, Freedom Partners, the Institute for Justice, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Institute for Energy Research, the Reason Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Job Security, the Center to Protect Patient Rights (now called American Encore), Generation Opportunity, the American Future Fund, 60 Plus Association (apparently the conservative version of the AARP): these are just some of the groups the Koch brothers are involved with. These are some of the groups that pay for political ads, lobby for special interests, create stealth-ideological programs and influence hiring in universities, and do the research that informs public policy.

And that’s just the Koch brothers—but they’re not the only ones exerting this kind of influence.

For almost four decades, a tiny coterie of ultrarich activists who wished to influence American politics by spending more than the laws would allow had been chafing at the legal restraints. One family had been particularly tireless in the struggle, the DeVos clan of Michigan—

who are extreme religious conservatives and the founders of Amway, a company designed specifically to avoid paying federal taxes, and with enough political influence that after a long private meeting with President Gerald Ford (who was also from Michigan), the FTC conveniently dropped its investigation of the charge that Amway was an illegal pyramid scheme.

In their zeal to implement their conservative vision, few issues were more central to the DeVos family’s mission than eradicating restraints on political spending. For years, the family funded legal challenges to various campaign-finance laws. Ground zero in this fight was the James Madison Center for Free Speech, of which Betsy DeVos became a founding board member in 1997. The nonprofit organization’s sole goal was to end all legal restrictions on money in politics . . .

[That same year,] Betsy DeVos explained her opposition to to campaign-finance restrictions. At the time, there was a national outcry against the way both the Democratic and the Republican parties had evaded contribution limits in the 1996 presidential campaign by paying for what they claimed were “issue” ads rather than campaign ads, with unlimited funds that came to be known as soft money. There was a bipartisan Senate push for reform. But in a guest column in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, DeVos defended the unlimited contributions.

“Soft money,” she wrote, was just “hard-hearned American dollars that Big Brother has yet to find a way to control. That is all it is, nothing more.” She added, “I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party.” She said, “I have decided, however, 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. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment; we expect a good and honest government. Furthermore, we expect the Republican Party to use the money to promote these policies, and yes, to win elections. People like us,” she concluded archly, “must be stopped.”

Um—yes, they must be. Because making a billion dollars should not entitle you, in a democratic country, to decide what sort of philosophy guides our government. You do not get to “expect a return on [your] investment.” That is not how this country works.

Except that apparently, it is. And now, as I have been finishing this book and typing the review, every thinking person in the United States has been fighting to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination as a member of Donald Trump’s Cabinet of Horror, to a position for which she has absolutely zero experience or qualifications.

For decades, the Koch brothers and this handful of incredibly wealthy conservatives has been workingand by working I mean spendingto spread their ideology. That’s actually been their stated goal, not just a byproduct of their normal business, as far back as the seventies. They have spent countless millions of dollars creating university programs, think tanks, and organization after organization to subvert campaign finance laws and funnel their money into politics from every imaginable angle. (And I do actually mean countless—that’s the point of all those “nonprofit” organizations, so we can’t see exactly where the money went. I put “nonprofit” in scare quotes because these organizations, while not for profit themselves, generally focus on issues that financially benefit their founders.)

I had so many more quotes saved, including pictures I snapped on my phone when I didn’t have time to sift through an entire page and decide what the most important sentences were. There is so much information here, all of it cosmically depressing. But in a way, it’s a relief, too—because at least now we can see what’s been happening to us. For the last fifty years, the new robber barons have been fucking with our government and our minds. But if we can at least see what’s happening, we can fight back. Essentially, what the book boils down to is this:

“Total liberty for wolves is death to the lambs.”
Isaiah Berlin

(From the title page of chapter two, Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009-2010)

Somehow, that is what conservative Americans don’t understand. And unless they all decide to read a book like this, I suppose they never will.

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3 thoughts on “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

  1. Sounds frightening yet eye opening. Unfortunately people are reluctant to give up their power. Why? My theory is that they think deep inside they will be seen as weak by new elite, or that they will be mistreated just like they mistreated those weaker than they are. Most will not be able to cope with new changes where they are no longer the top dog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Everyone should read this book. I keep mentioning it to people, but they often seem to find it too depressing to read — before the election, I would probably have been one of them. Now, I just want to see what is going on and understand it to the best of my ability. Otherwise, how can anything change?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most things are too depressing for me right now, but I am always interested in books like this, and Dark Money is a particularly great one. I wish we could make everyone read it.

      Liked by 1 person

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