Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” — Book Review

In the midst of last year’s presidential race, the New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer released an in-depth expose on the influence of billionaires on our political process.  Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a comprehensive, well-researched book detailing this sordid side to our democracy and its potentially corrupting influence on our political debates and decision making.

It mostly focuses on the Koch brothers.  As two of the wealthiest men in the world, their private fortune comes from the oil-and-gas industry, by way of the company their father started.  Steeped in extreme right-wing ideology, the brothers became politically active largely in the face of environmental regulations, which undermined their business’s profits.

Mayer also describes other politically active right-wing billionaires, like Art Pope, Richard Mellon Scaife, and the DeVos family in Michigan.  Many are aggrieved due to environmental regulations and government prosecution of their corporate wrongdoing, but most are die-hard believers in the “bootstrap” theory: that government largesse removes the incentive to work hard and that the poor should be blamed for their bad personal decisions.

It details their efforts not just to fund political campaigns, but a vast web of think tanks and academic researchers to seed conservative ideas, coupled with post-Citizens United funneling of funds to a web of untraceable political organizations.  They failed coming up against a popular president in Barack Obama, but they had huge success at the state level and in securing both houses of Congress for Republicans.

The book is an important, albeit slightly tedious and depressing read.  It probably could have been shortened, and it also could have more fairly described some of the similar activities on the left.  And too often Mayer failed to acknowledge that money doesn’t always win.

But all in all, it’s an alarming and important wake-up call about how economic inequality has now concentrated not just wealth but political power in the hands of a few.  I recommend it to anyone interested in politics and the state of our democracy.