Also by the same author: The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals.
Here is my version of recent American political history:
Everyone in America knows that if you want to identify the people or corporations, and the motivations, behind politics, you follow the money. Americans have historically differed in the degree to which they formulate this concept in their own minds as conspiratorial end-times ranting or shrug it off as just the way things are. But in recent years, changes in the way that money is spent on politics have made the most extreme and paranoid-seeming views most likely to be correct.
Yes, in the old days, political parties were run by bosses and unions were often run by thugs, voting was often rigged and decisions about what the government should do about this or that thing were handed to the elected representatives by cigar smoking back room denizens. If you don’t know about this “Gilded Age” of American Democracy that is just because you haven’t read about it. (You could start here.)
But that was ancient history, and during the 1960s and 1970s numerous changes were made in the law, lots of nefarious actors rounded up and pushed out, transparency became a previously unspoken of concept, and the the government got cleaned up. Somewhat. A lot, really.
You might say, “yeah, right, cleaned up, like Watergate and the Pentagon papers.” You’d be right to point that out. But notice that when Watergate happened, America got pissed. That is in part because we were in the process of cleaning up the government over those decades.
And, part of this cleanup may have involved the strengthening and organization of a strong Liberal elite that thereafter tended to run things in certain states, certain cities, and now and then nationally. This elite probably arose from the marriage of Northeastern Intellectuals (including both Republicans and Democrats) with Hard Core non-Northeastern Democrats that didn’t happen to be crazy racist bastards like George Wallace.
In those days, in the 60s, various wealthy individuals started to organize a backlash against this, funding individuals who might be future elected officials, producing books and TV shows (like Buckley’s Firing Line, and later, The Bell Curve), and so on. This organization often involved the formation of secret (or nearly secret) societies, exclusive meetings or conferences, and a process of auditioning low level or would be politicians. The Family. Bohemian Grove. That sort of thing.
Over time two things happened. First, more of the wealth that was available was attracted to this effort, and second, with the concentration of wealth, there was simply more money to put into this effort. But, still, the laws of the lands, and the regulations of elections, those elements of reform that had tossed the bosses, cleaned up the unions, expanded voting rights, and so on, stood in the way of the would be puppet masters.
What are these people up to and what do they want? That is beyond the scope of this humble blog post, but if you are reading my blog, you probably know that one of the objectives is to stop policy action on climate change. Action on climate change means keeping the carbon in the ground. Keeping the carbon in the ground means assets will be stranded. Stranded assets means that people like the famous “Koch Brothers” will move from being nearly the wealthiest people in the world to being the 20th wealthiest people in the world. And that, dear reader, is a situation up with which they will not put.
As you know, eventually, the law was changed mainly in the courts, the regulations obviated, a new and more effective effort to repress or control voting emerged, the unions effectively attacked, and the newly dubbed “1%” who were really the “0.1%” in most cases took over. And now, they are in charge. Or nearly so. To the extent that they are not, they will be in a few years.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a remarkable book that covers the latter part of this history, from the nadir of right wing power to the verge of total control, but mostly, the very recent years, and of course, a lot of this is about the Koch Brothers and their rise to power and influence.
And so, right now, I am faced with the task of getting you to read this book. I will do two things that I’m sure will work. First, I’ll tell you, truthfully and with enthusiasm, that this book is very well written, well documented, highly credible, very important, and while you read it you will probably have to be restrained at several points. Just. Go. Read. It.
Second, I’ve selected a handful of excerpts to give you a flavor. I normally don’t use a lot of excerpts in a book review, but since I imposed my own personal version (I was in some of those back rooms, and fought in the streets against the old guard more than a few times) recent history of American Politics, I’d like to give Jane Mayer a chance to enthrall, inform, and entice you with her own words.
So, from the book:
In a 1960 self-published broadside, A Business Man Looks at Communism, Koch claimed that “the Communists have infiltrated both the Democrat [sic] and Republican Parties.” Protestant churches, public schools, universities, labor unions, the armed services, the State Department, the World Bank, the United Nations, and modern art, in his view, were all Communist tools.
That was Fred Koch.
By the time Barack Obama was elected president, the billionaire brothers’ operation had become more sophisticated. By persuading an expanding, handpicked list of other wealthy conservatives to “invest” with them, they had in effect created a private political bank. It was this group of donors that gathered at the Renaissance. Most, like the Kochs, were businessmen with vast personal fortunes that placed them not just in the top 1 percent of the nation’s wealthiest citizens but in a more rarefied group, the top 0.1 percent or higher. By most standards, they were extraordinarily successful. But for this cohort, Obama’s election represented a galling setback.
Keep this in mind. Obama’s election set them back, because the were already at the gates. Not covered in so much in this book is the fact that Clinton was a setback as well, years earlier, in its own way (though not nearly to the same degree).
in a stunning turnaround in 2008, Scaife met with Hillary Clinton, who had fingered him as the ringleader of what she called a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to torment the Clintons. … After a pleasant editorial board chat, Scaife came out and wrote an opinion piece in his own paper declaring that his view of her as a Democratic presidential contender had changed and was now “very favorable indeed.” The rapprochement testified both to Hillary Clinton’s political skills and to Scaife’s almost childlike impressionability. Repeatedly in his memoir, he changes his political views after meeting antagonists in person, whether the liberal Kennedy family member Sargent Shriver or the Democratic congressman Jack Murtha. “Like many billionaires, he lived in a bubble,” concluded his friend Ruddy
That was Richard Scaife, a banking and oil magnate.
During a catered lunch at the summit, [early Tea Party leader Peggy] Venable introduced Ted Cruz [at an Americans for Prosperity conference] who told the crowd that Obama was “the most radical president ever to occupy the Oval Office” and had hidden from voters a secret agenda—“the government taking over our economy and our lives.” Countering Obama, Cruz proclaimed, was “the epic fight of our generation!” As the crowd rose to its feet and cheered, he quoted the defiant words of a Texan at the Alamo: “Victory, or death!”
Not an original idea of Cruz, but you get the point.
For the Koch network, Walker’s improbable rise was a triumph. Koch Industries PAC was the second-largest contributor to Walker’s campaign. More important, the Kochs were an important source of funds to the Republican Governors Association, which Republicans used in Wisconsin and elsewhere in 2010 to work around strict state contribution limits. The Kochs’ PAC had also contributed to sixteen state legislative candidates in Wisconsin, who all won their races, helping conservatives take control of both houses of the legislature and setting the stage for Wisconsin’s dramatic turn to the right…Walker had also benefited enormously from the philanthropy of two other archconservative brothers, the late Lynde and Harry Bradley…
Bradley funded the publication of the infamous “Bell Curve” by Herrnstein and Murray.
By 2009, the Kochs had indeed succeeded in expanding their political conference from a wonky free-market swap fest to the point where it was beginning to attract an impressive array of influential figures. Wealthy businessmen thronged to rub shoulders with famous and powerful speakers, like the Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Congressmen, senators, governors, and media celebrities came too. “Getting an invitation means you’ve arrived,” one operative who still works for the Kochs explained. “People want to be in the room.”
The new smokey back room, but probably with better food.
With Ryan declining to run, the Kochs and their operatives searched anxiously for an alternative…. The search for a more promising candidate set off a torrid courtship of Chris Christie, the tough-guy governor of New Jersey. David Koch invited Christie to his Manhattan office, where the two spent almost two hours bonding over Christie’s brawls with the unions and other liberal forces. The governor’s scrappy blue-collar style, combined with his plutocrat-friendly economic policies, made him an almost irresistible prospect. By June, the Kochs had given Christie the keynote speaker slot at their seminar, where he could audition for his party’s leading role in front of the people who could pay his way.
Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who preceded Christie as a speaker, provided a perfect foil. In a prelude to Perry’s later “oops” moment during the Republican debates, the governor made a poor impression on the numerically minded businessmen in the audience by displaying five fingers to illustrate a four-point plan, only to be left with one digit still waving in the air, programmatically unac- counted for.
The rich and powerful interviewing the prospective puppets.
Go read the book. Report back.