Thursday, May 11, 2017

Dark Money, by Jane Mayer

Today I'm looking at something that again might be a little controversial, Dark Money by Jane Mayer. This book tracks the rise of the reactionary right and their support by the billionaire donor class, with the infamous Koch brothers as some of the greatest players and organizers behind this largely hidden political machine. As for the accuracy of this book, I have two main concerns. The first is since the activities that Mayer is reporting on are, as she describes them, largely hidden from the public eye behind a veil of front organizations and anonymity. Piercing this veil and following the money trail can be incredibly difficult and even Mayer admits that not all the information can be dug up so the puzzle that we have is incomplete. The second issue is, since I listened to this as an audio book I do not know how thoroughly Mayer's researched this topic and what her sources are. Granted even if I had read this book I don't know if seeing the citations would help me that much one way or the other. I will say that the amount of research presented within the body of the book is at least impressive enough to make me think Mayer is raising some legitimate points.

In this book Mayer records how over the past half-century, from the John Birch Society in the 1960's to today's Tea Party movement, the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors have been involved in moving libertarian ideology from the fringe of American politics closer to its center. And from at least an objective standpoint there has been a strong shift rightward on economic policy among the Republican, and to an extent also the Democratic parties, especially after the Reagan years of the 1980s. But what Mayer describes is a decades-long conspiracy by the Kochs and other libertarians, to manufacture public support for their ideology through organizations such as think tanks, social welfare groups, charities, political action committees, and the establishment of libertarian-leaning programs in prominent universities. As Mayer depicts it, the Kochs have been involved in creating safe spaces for libertarian ideology for years and it is finally reaping dividends with the Tea Party movement and the shift right of the Republican party.

And I have to admit, there is compelling evidence within my own experience to support Mayer's assertions. I have several relatives who have bought into the ideology spread by Fox News and other conservative outlets for years. Mainstream institutions such as the media, universities, and the government itself are depicted as bastions of ''liberal ideology'', bent on crushing hard-working (white) Americans by taxing and regulating them to death in some socialist nightmare. I've seen first hand how exposure to the echo chamber can make people convinced they're the most oppressed people in the country. But to suggest as Mayer does that this has been a concentrated campaign lasting decades, orchestrated by a clique of super-wealthy libertarians, does stretch the boundaries of credulity.

And yet at the same time we can see the evidence. Ideologies that would have been unthinkable in previous decades, such as the gutting of the EPA, the repeal of minimum wage and child labor laws, and the abolition of institutions such as Social Security and Medicare, have been bandied about in all seriousness. Surely these ideas, which wouldn't have been considered by even the most conservative Republican or Dixiecrat fifty years ago, had to come from somewhere? And so the evidence does point to organizations funded at least in part by the Kochs and their allies.

If the material covered in this book is even halfway true, it paints a very grim picture for the American future. I am actually writing this review on the eve before Election Day so regardless how tomorrow turns out I'm left with the feeling the increased divisiveness in American politics will remain. If, as Mayer asserts, the Republican party has become beholden to the reactionary millionaire and billionaire donor base, then there is little reason for them to compromise and all the incentive in the world to continue pushing to the right, trying to undo a century of progress and reform in the United States. I can only hope things look better six months later when this finally posts.

- Kalpar

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