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cover artIf U.S. politics, especially in this election year, don’t make your blood pressure rise and your hair fall out from stress, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by award winning writer and journalist Jane Mayer might not even make you blink. But if you are like me and think that for the most part elections are fair, your vote really matters and democracy always wins even if it might wobble sometimes, then this book will cause you all kinds of distress. I am not so naïve as to think that money doesn’t have influence, but wow, the amount of influence money can buy is ridiculously frightening.
Mayer’s book focuses on the radical right because that is where all the money is coming from. Not that rich people on the left don’t make huge donations and expect favors too, or that they don’t play the system to their benefit, they do and Mayer acknowledges this. But there is no far left group of radical billionaires working to change the entire government to work in their favor in the highly networked and extremely organized manner that the radical right is going about it. It all started back in the 70s, which surprised me. The billionaires are playing the long game and they have regular secret meetings to talk strategy.

At the helm of this billionaire network are the Koch brothers, Charles and David. You may have heard of the “Kochtopus”. Mayer takes us on a tour of the Kochs and their tentacles. She gets her information from a variety of sources including interviews, public documents, family, friends and inside sources who ask not to be named. She follows the money trail as best she can and shines a light into the darkest corners of the network.

I won’t go into all the details, there are just too many and besides, I couldn’t do it as well as Mayer does anyway. So if you want the full ugly, read the book. I will however, note a few things that surprised me.

The Tea Party movement that the media led us to believe was a grassroots upwelling from Joe the plumber types, actually began at one of the Koch secret meetings. The radical right is big into creating fake activist groups, hiring people to show up at “protests” and to make sure they get interviewed by the media. The Tea Party began as a fake activist group. It was never a grassroots common people thing, it was and continues to be driven by big money. That real people have jumped onboard only helps the Kochs and the others get what they want without making as much effort. It has also escaped their complete control but that is ok too, the damage they wanted to do has already been done and they don’t care what else might happen.

What the Kochs and the other radical right billionaires want is to severely restrict government so that its basic role is shrunk down to protecting business, wealth and private rights of ownership. They believe the government should have no role in environmental regulation, worker’s rights, support systems for those in need, Medicare, social security, or anything else that might threaten the free market and their ability to make money.

Before the Kochs and company created think tanks that began publishing “studies” that said climate change is not human created, something like 85% of Americans had no doubts about the reality of climate change and what needed to be done. Once the media began to be bombarded with fake studies, the seeds of doubt were sown and suddenly the 85% has dropped to somewhere around 57%.

The way these billionaires use think tanks and foundations and other nonprofit organizations, they are able to scam the system and basically buy politicians and get a tax write-off for their efforts while making it look like they have donated to worthwhile charitable organizations. The system is very much a borderline legal money laundering operation that allows the wealthy radical right donors to contribute millions of dollars towards lobbying and political campaigns that cannot be traced back to them. This allows Charles Koch to say he has never paid a lobbyist or contributed to a political campaign when the reality is quite different.

Dark Money is a terrifying book for anyone who believes the government has a role to play beyond making sure people with money make even more money. It is an important book that everyone should read. However, I recommend having lots of chocolate on hand to help counteract the effects of learning about the soul-sucking Dementors.