July 1, 2016
By Laura Quinn

Review of Book: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer, Doubleday, 2016, 449 pages.

Jane Mayer’s copiously researched study of how and why the “one percent of the one percent” has transformed U.S. politics since 1970 argues that this transformation is unprecedented in its scope and stealth. To an implicit counter-claim that big money has historically held bipartisan political sway, Dark Money replies by documenting the newness of a contemporary radical right corporate leveraged buyout of the U.S. political arena.

Most NewPeople readers will be all too familiar with the broad outlines of the machinations of the Koch brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Olins, and Bradleys, and their oligarchic efforts to shape public policy and personnel at all levels of government in ways that preserve and grow their colossal wealth. But the devil is in the details, and Dark Money offers surprises and ironies that make the book a riveting and terrifying read.

The book’s three parts are uneven in time span.  Part One’s 1970-2008 stretch proffers fascinating family histories of the Kochs and Scaife, histories that, in their idiosyncrasies, both explain the political trajectories of these billionaires and confound our understanding of their public impact on our democracy (they should be too far outside the pale of a two-party system that learned the lesson of a Barry Goldwater). The history of Koch corporate environmental transgressions, firing of whistle-blowers, and illegal deals with outlaw states like Iran leads to sanctions, fines, and prosecutions that fuel the growth of what Mayer calls a wealth self-defense industry, a “many-tentacled ideological machine [that] came to be known as the Kochtopus” (58).  One important tentacle penetrated the academy with the establishment of university think tanks, law and economics programs, endowed chairs, fellowships and grants with ideological strings attached. Deft use of the IRS tax-exempt 501(c)(4) social welfare organization category enabled the Kochtopus to “weaponize philanthropy” in incrementally effective (not to mention anonymous, thereby “dark money”) ways; universities become farm systems for the major league challenge of electoral politics that lay ahead after the devastating loss of the White House to Obama in 2008.

Part Two covers 2009-2010 with a cluster of battle trope subtitles, including “Covert Operations,” “Boots on the Ground,” “The Shellacking.” The Kochtopus rebounds from the Obama victory and scores heavily in these two years with Tea Party consolidation, the ideological war on climate change science, Citizens United, and the Midterm triumph of 2010, which saw not just the takeover of the House of Representatives but also staggering gains at the state legislative and gubernatorial level, enabling the REDMAP project of redistricting to protect conservative electoral futures. The language of battle cannot be dismissed as leftist polemic; it reflects the self-description of the billionaire-donors themselves as “freedom fighters” (360).

The looming irony in this section is that conservative triumphs that appear to grow out of grass roots populism—Tea Party local primary efforts, dramatic shifts to the right in what Mayer calls “the most granular level of politics”– are stage-managed by outside big money flows and highly effective Koch-recruited operatives. Even figures like Jim Oberstar, a Democrat, who served the blue state of Minnesota in the U.S. House for 36 years and was thought invulnerable, succumbed to a pricy Koch-engendered ad smear in the shellacking of 2010. Angry white working and middle class populism is, in effect, produced and choreographed by the billionaire-donor class.

Section Three, entitled “Privatizing Politics: Total Combat, 2011-2014” narrates the miscalculations of the radical right in the Romney/Ryan ticket failure to defeat Obama. Dark Money argues, though, that Obama’s 2012 victory did not represent the limitations of Citizens United or the falling off of a radical right surge financed by the Kochtopus. The fury of the radical right billionaires at the reelection of Obama leads to the Senate takeover of 2014 and the willful legislative paralysis that, in effect, defeat a sitting president. The battle on the state level turned the mostly blue state of Wisconsin red and the once-purple state of North Carolina deep red (as seen most recently in HB2) and these states become the models for future incursions into blue/purple territory. The Kochtopus is reframing itself as a movement for the “well-being” of the “middle third” of the electorate, those who still qualify as “makers not takers.”

Dark Money leaves us with two resonant ironies: the first is that the billionaire-donors of the Kochtopus, who see themselves as the consummate “makers” are, in fact, huge “takers” themselves; government contracts, subsidies and tax breaks underwrite the tripling of the Koch family fortune in the Obama era. The gnawing irony that extends beyond the scope of Mayer’s book is, of course, the fact that the maverick billionaire who has secured the presumptive nomination of the Republican Party has refused to bow at the Koch altar. For progressives, the thought of Trump as the much-needed Kochtopus-killer is indeed chilling.

Laura Quinn is a retired professor of English at Allegheny College in Meadville, PA and a fairly recent member of the Thomas Merton Center.