Americans are their most charitable at year’s end. But even on Giving Tuesday, billionaire donors crowd out the impact of small-dollar gifts.
When I heard about Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, I thought to myself, “What more do I need to know about the Koch brothers?” For over a decade, I’ve followed their philanthropic and political activities, the history of their Libertarian Party dalliances, watched the documentary, “Citizen Koch,” and read accounts of their powerful donor network. It’s an old story of self-interested billionaires using their wealth and power to protect and expand their wealth.
I read books to learn new things, not just reinforce the bad news I already know. Fortunately, veteran journalist Ross Gelbspan gave me a copy with a “Must Read” proviso. I devoured it over a long weekend, with apologies to my friends and family, and I’m now passing the “must read” tag on to you.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is riveting journalism and required reading to fully understand the hijacking of U.S. democracy and the rise of the tea party infrastructure. While you probably know many pieces of the story, Mayer has constructed the master narrative of the unequal times we are living through.
Mayer chronicles the rise in right-wing philanthropy –and the exploits of Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin, and the Bradley brothers, pioneers in “weaponizing philanthropy” to advance a neo-conservative agenda. The Kochs picked up the baton, organizing hundreds of other donors.
Driving much of the Koch network are the energy magnates, the honchos of extractive coal, gas and oil industries. They have much to lose should our captured Congress meaningfully respond to the climate crisis. Koch network funders have aggressively spent billions to attack environmental regulation, fund sham science, and paralyze the political system’s ability to respond.
Reading Mayer you fully appreciate how irresponsible it was for Obama Democrats in 2009 to demobilize their youthful volunteer and fundraising apparatus just as the Koch network was investing hundreds of billions to build the Tea Party, block health care and climate change legislation.
The Koch influence network has channeled billions for think tanks to advance the “war of ideas,” funded advocacy groups to mobilize constituencies, communications and messaging experts, and donations to candidates and campaigns. Mixing tax-exempt philanthropy at the legal edge of charity, with electoral contributions to “dark money” institutions, a small cabal of billionaires have captured Congress and over twenty state houses.
The dark money networks are momentarily disoriented in relation to the 2016 Presidential Race. While half the campaign funds in the first phase of the campaign came from 153 donors, Trump has been largely self-financing. Much of the billionaire funders are now focused on retaining GOP control of the House and Senate—and continuing to gain control over state legislatures.
While devastating to read, Dark Money is also oddly empowering to understand the vulnerabilities and possibilities for social change. It underscores the importance of maintaining a permanent “political revolution” of engagement. The immediate antidote to the Dark Money cabal is the “Transparent Money” of the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. With over $200 million raised from several million small donors, Sanders has shown us what a movement looks like that is buffered from right-wing billionaire influence. As one of another one of my “must read” books reminds us, The Rich Don’t Always Win.
Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.