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Review of Dark Money by Jane Mayer

The White House - David Everett Strickler

Pub. Scribe, Melbourne and London, 2017

Jane Mayer is a well-known American journalist who wrote The Dark Side, a book dealing with the negative effects on American life of the conduct of the so-called war on terror, and has co-authored two other books. She says, “In many ways, the research on this book began three decades ago when I arrived in Washington to cover Ronald Reagan’s presidency.” This is a very well researched account of the influence of ultra-rich individuals on the American political process. The influence of money in American politics has existed in some form or other since the Declaration of Independence, there was strong opposition from business leaders to Roosevelt’s New Deal, and political corruption has long played a part in American life, a fact too often overlooked by non-Americans.

However, Jane Mayer documents the extraordinary rise of the influence of a small number of very wealthy people, including the Kochs, the Mellon family and their friends and associates. She describes how money was poured into right-wing think tanks, academic institutions, lobbying groups and what she describes as Astroturf mass movements, that is movements created by the ultra-wealthy, to have the appearance of popular support. In many cases, the example of the tobacco industry, which had created false “smokers’ rights” groups, was used as a template for such activities. According to the author, the Koch brothers have been far and away the largest “investors” in such activities. Most of the money poured into these activities, was passed through tax-exempt, or charitable organisations, and those paying these vast sums, regarded this as a very effective investment, which would reduce levels of taxation on themselves and on their organisations. The doctrines disseminated by the institutions supported by these right-wing businesspeople were basically anti-government, anti-regulation and anti-tax. They came to their zenith during the eight years of Obama presidency, and eventually dominated the Republican Party. As Jane Mayer says, “if in 2012 the Kochs had rivalled the Republican Party, by 2014 they had in many ways surpassed it. ‘They’re building a party from outside to take over the party-they’re doing it by market segments-it’s like a business plan,’ observed Lisa Graves.”

There were many groups supported and established by these wealthy donors, such as Americans for Prosperity, Generation Opportunity, the LIBRE initiative, and Aegis Strategic, but perhaps most well-known and successful were the Tea Party groups set up and encouraged by the Kochs. As she says, “The Kochs and their ultra-wealthy allies on the right had become what was arguably the single most effective special interest group in the country.” Jane Mayer adds that, “Few of the sponsors of this radical reorientation of American thinking unknown to the public.” She says but they like to define themselves as patriots motivated by public or private game and in many cases these views were honestly held, but she adds, “it was impossible not to notice that the political policies they embrace benefited their own bottom line is first and foremost.” Their policies included, lowering taxes, maintaining tax exemptions, and rolling back regulations and regulatory agencies like the EPA, slashing the welfare state, and obliterating the limits on campaign spending. The author quotes Fred Wertheimer, “We have two unelected multimillionaires who want to control the US government and exercise the power to decide what is best for more than 300 million people, without the voices of these people being heard … There is nothing in our constitutional democracy that accepts that two of the richest people in the world can control our destiny.”

Jerry Kiesewetter, Washington DC protest

Gilens and Page[1] found that, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” They concluded that the results of their research provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism.[2] One of the surprising results of their research was the finding that, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.”[3] In other words, America is an oligarchy.

Jane Mayer has described the mechanisms used by the Kochs and their associates to overwhelm American democracy, and in particular cripple the Republican Party. Without their destruction of traditional Republicanism, it is impossible to envisage the election of President Trump.

One of the unanswered questions that the reader inevitably asks, is how did the Kochs and their friends influence the election of Donald Trump, the fact that the book ends before the 2016 Presidential Campaign is unfortunate, and it is surprising that the author did not include a note, inserted prior to publication, addressing some of the issues. It is the only significant omission in the book.

This is an important book, one that anyone with an interest in American political life should read. However, it is a dense book, full of research and facts, it is not something just to dip into before bedtime, but it is an essential book, The Guardian called it “Indispensable”, which is true. It is well-written, well-edited and should be on your bookshelf, and should be read.

© Andrew Palmer, 2017 – do not republish without permission.

[1] Gilens, Martin, and Benjamin I. Page. 2014. “Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups, and average citizens.” Perspectives on Politics 12 (3): 564-581.

[2] (Martin Gilens 2014).

[3] (Martin Gilens 2014).

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