If you care about the future of American democracy, make it your business to read Jane Mayer’s new book, “Dark Money.”
For an absorbing sampler, listen to my interview with her today on Fresh Air.
When I sat down to read Mayer’s book, I thought I’d be treading familiar terrain.
I knew about the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch and their organization,Americans for Prosperity, which spends huge sums to buy ads in political campaigns. And I knew the Kochs and others often use nonprofit organizations to hide their contributions from public view.
But Mayer spent five years researching this book, and she unearths a labyrinth of interlocking groups that for decades have been using think tanks, academic posts, and political groups to push a libertarian agenda. The details are incredibly revealing and show that far more anonymous money is being pumped into the political system from wealthy donors than I ever thought.
The Kochs network is sprawling, and, until now, much of it was invisible.
Mayer also uncovered some amazing material about the Koch brothers themselves – how they’re suing and hired private investigators to go after each other – and she detailed a mysterious attempt to smear her reputation after she wrote a 2010 New Yorker piece about the Kochs.
What about the liberals?I asked Mayer in the interview whether one could conclude she’s writing with an agenda, since her book focuses on wealthy conservative donors and mentions billionaire liberal contributors only in passing.
She said big contributions and dark money are a problem throughout American politics in the post Citizens United era, but that wealthy conservative spending far exceeds wealthy liberal spending these days.
She cited a couple of numbers: The Democracy Alliance, a group of heavy-hitting liberal donors, plans to raise $40 million for the 2016 election cycle. The Koch brothers’ network has an $889 million goal.
I want to say that I’ve covered government for years, and conservatives’ suspicion of wasteful, unaccountable government bureaucracies is not crazy.
But a system that allows a relative handful of the wealthiest families to pump unlimited money into politics without leaving fingerprints is so far from our founding principles that it ought to scare all of us.
But don’t take my word for it. Read Mayer’s book.
If you don’t have time for it, listen to our interview on Fresh Air. It airs at 3 and 7 on WHYY in Philadelphia. If you’re outside the Philadelphia area, find a station here.