Dark Money is a provocative and copious history of the leverage of right-wing money in our recent politics. Like Jane Mayer’s previous book, The Dark Side (2008), which dealt with the emergency-detention regime set up after September 2001 by Dick Cheney and his associates, it centers on the exorbitant reactions by men of power to a situation that supplied a pretext for the sudden expansion of their control. It has been reported, on good circumstantial evidence, that Charles and David Koch picked over the life and writings of Mayer herself in an effort to intimidate and discredit her while the book was being written, and for that reason Dark Money must be praised for its courage as well as its comprehensiveness. Her narrative begins in the middle, with the summit of January 30–31, 2009, in Indian Wells, California: a convocation of distressed billionaires, invited by the Koch brothers to plan against the consequences of Barack Obama’s election. By then, says Mayer, Koch Industries owned “four thousand miles of pipelines, oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, the Georgia-Pacific lumber and paper company, coal, and chemicals, and [the brothers] were huge traders in commodities futures, among other businesses.” Their net worth was approximately $14 billion each.
The billionaires who joined them in the wake of Obama’s inauguration were agreed in their wish to obstruct any progressive reform the new president might attempt. The likely guest list must be inferred from the scraps of other lists: The financiers known to have attended or sent proxies to later summits in Obama’s first term include Steven A. Cohen, Paul Singer, and Stephen Schwarzman. Present and accounted for at Indian Wells, however, were Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Conservative opinion-makers like Charles Krauthammer, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Glenn Beck, who had accepted invitations to earlier summits, were situated to learn punctually of the doings at Indian Wells, and whatever may have been resolved there, the design that emerged would be vindicated in one obvious way. By March 2015, Charles and David Koch’s personal fortunes had climbed from the initial $14 billion to almost $42 billion each.
Among the political developments for which Mayer awards the Koch brothers substantial credit are the Citizens United decision; the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, and of the Senate in 2014; and Republican gains in statehouses and governorships, where, between 2009 and 2015, the party increased its hold from 22 to 31 governors, and its control of both chambers of the legislature from 14 to 30 states. Among the causes of the change not covered by Mayer are the slow economic recovery after the collapse of 2008, and the decline, among Democrats, of the political talent for explaining the purpose, function, and occasional necessity of government.
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A collective response by the very rich to an alarm in the night, the Indian Wells summit was hardly the first of its kind. The most notable precursor was Lewis Powell’s widely distributed private memo of 1971 proposing a conservative strategy for the decades to come. Powell, who would soon ascend to the Supreme Court, had served on “the boards of over a dozen of the largest companies in the country, including the cigarette maker Philip Morris,” and his memo urged “guerrilla warfare” against public-interest lawmakers and editors on the liberal side who sought to curb the power of big business. He called for “careful long-range planning and implementation,” with a “scale of financing available only through joint effort.” This was, in effect, a reveille for the rich, and Powell aimed to organize them just as Saul Alinsky had done with the laboring poor. Cartels or secret business agreements were remote from Powell’s design. Rather, the memo spoke of the planting and inculcation of an ideology, and the creation of institutions to propagate it. The Scaife Family Charitable Trust, the Olin and Bradley foundations, the conversion of the American Enterprise Institute from a business think tank to a neoconservative combine specializing in foreign policy, economic policy, and everything in between—these were the offspring of the right-wing strategy launched by the memo.