Dark Money

Sunday May 29, 2016

Dark Money is a both a roller coaster tale and an effective playbook of political influence. It tells the story of the Koch brother’s legacy on both the dialogue of American politics and the platform of the republican party. It made me realize that significant changes to our political landscape (e.g. rise of the Tea Party, Citizens United case) were not random developments in our nation’s history, but were events engineered to occur. It made me realize the impact of these and similar events is much more devastating than I previously thought. Above all else, it made me realize strategic action can and does have enormous impact on our nation’s path. That influence is easier with large pockets, but is open to anyone with a strategic mind.

I highly recommend this book.

Money over People

The overarching theme you see throughout the book is that, again and again, funding from a super wealthy minority was used to win battles, despite large majorities of the public (not just either party) being opposed. In some cases, this monetary influence took the form of wooing federal judges with lavish vacations, funding political battles, even financing “grassroots” activists.

The other fascinating learning from the book is the ensemble of characters that led these victories. There are plenty of names I’ve never heard before in the news media, yet they have been conductors of these grand orchestras of political influence and change. I’ll dive into a few details in some case studies.

Citizens United

James Bopp is a lawyer, and one of the orchestra conductors I mention above. You’ve probably never heard of him. Yet his Wikipedia page says “he has been designated as one of the most influential lawyers in the United States of America”. He was the mastermind behind the Citizens United case, the infamous “Corporations are people” case which enabled corporations and individuals to donate unlimited money to political campaigns. In the book, Jim is quoted as saying:

“We had a 10-year plan to take all this down,” he told the Times. “And if we do it right, I think we can pretty well dismantle the entire regulatory regime that is called campaign finance law.”

Changing Obama's Legacy

The most disturbing fact about Citizens United is how it directly led to roadblocking Obama’s efforts to fulfill his campaign promises of healthcare reform and more. Consider the timeline of Obama’s presidency. November 2008 Obama wins in a landslide. Democrats have the Senate 58 (D) - 41 (R) and the House 257 (D) - 178 (R). Healthcare was planned to be the first item on Obama’s agenda, but immediately upon being sworn in, the country is faced with the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

He spends most of 2009 dealing with the crisis. January 2010, the Citizens United decision is handed down. Almost immediately, the Republican funding machine goes into hyperdrive, driven by the infinite stream of money they have effectively just won. In November 2010, as a direct consequence (yes, there are other factors too), Republicans climb to 51 (D) - 47 (R) in the Senate and pick up an astonishing 63 seats in the Senate, the largest swing since 1938. The Republicans take back control of the House 242 (R) - 193 (D), creating endless roadblocks for the policy objectives for the Obama administration.

In this light, Obama’s accomplishments while President are even more impressive when considering the unprecedented and organized campaign waged against him almost immediately from his inauguration, a campaign funded on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Influence Playbook

There are many other modes of influence used. The Koch brothers architected a new branch of legal analysis called Law and Economics, funding centers at top-tier law schools to champion it, and then flying federal judges to resorts to be “educated” on the new field.

They pioneered the notion of “Nonprofit research institutions” such as the Heritage Foundation, publishing studies that further conservative views instead of researching the truth.

They financed the rise as well as manipulated the agenda of the Tea Party. An internal memo for the Romney campaign described David Koch as “the financial engine of the Tea Party”.


After reading, the questions I’m left with: Why are the Republicans currently so much better at playing politics than Democrats? Why is there no Frank Luntz of the Democratic Party? (Frank Luntz is a masterful influencer and invented the phrases of “government takeover” and “death panels” as related to Obamacare).

To be clear, I don’t agree with 100% of the Democratic platform - there are significant flaws in it. Still, the party tries to help people instead of hoodwinking the electorate with distractions and with bad science. Both factual reality, and the American people, are on the side of the left (look at demographics, it’s true). I want to see our political conversation and our representation reflect that reality.

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