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By Philip Revzin

CHICAGO, 24 MAY 2016 — A central fact of our electoral system over the past couple of decades, ranging from votes for dogcatcher to president, has been the ever-growing influence of wealthy individuals, with business or ideological axes to grind, on both sides (but more so on the right) using their wealth to change American politics, often to their own direct benefit.

This trend predates the 2010 Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling, but was accelerated by it. That decision, rather than unleashing into campaigns billions of dollars in unaccounted money from corporations, has unleashed billions of dollars from billionaires, who most often can remain anonymous. The effects have been dramatic, with conservative victories on issues ranging from public sector unions to voting rights to government funding cuts.

It’s all recounted in massive detail in Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Doubleday 2016). The book is at once dense, comprehensive, novelesque, and scary as hell. Fueled by hundreds of interviews and documents, the New Yorker staffer (who has published stories on the Koch brothers and George Soros, among others in that magazine) takes us from the John Birch Society through the Reagan years through two Obama elections to today’s headlines – Donald Trump won’t take Super PAC money? – wait a minute! How much Super PAC money was spent in the GOP primary?

Ms. Mayer, who in the early 1980s worked for me at The Wall Street Journal (and has since overcome that to become one of our leading investigative journalists and author or co-author of three other books,) focuses much of her narrative on Charles and David Koch, but brings in a sort of right-wing hall of fame of big, often secretive donors, including Richard Mellon Scaife, Paul Singer, Stephen Cohen, and dozens more. She breaks a bunch of news on details of meetings and plans, often successful, to derail Obamacare (turns out the Tea Party wasn’t a completely grass-roots uprising against the Affordable Care Act, but was generously funded by groups aligned with the Kochs and others), produce new generations of conservative activists at selected universities, and turn the majority of state legislatures reliably Republican. She also briefly and dispassionately dispenses with a despicable attempt to smear her after one New Yorker piece ran.

Most of what the book lays out is probably legal, but it does have profound implications for our society. It’s not a matter of one side or other being more wrong — the whole thing is wrong. Without going all Scandinavian, there are literally dozens of industrialized countries that run clean, fair elections that give voters a choice and respect all voices, without doing what we do. A common factor in all of them seems to be limits on money the campaigns can spend or can have spent on their behalf – all nice and equal – which magically seems to eliminate almost all of the abuse. While none are perfect, in most cases they manage to foster serious debates — on a myriad of issues — without a lot of venom. Just sayin’.

Dark Money deserves to be read as necessary background to political discussions of how we can change the system it unearths. It’s a vital and welcome first step – in hygiene and politics, sunshine is the best disinfectant, and this book, as its title suggests, opens the window on some important but relatively unexamined corners of our politics.

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
By Jane Mayer
Hardcover: 464 pages
Doubleday (January 2016)
ISBN-10: 0385535597
ISBN-13: 978-0385535595

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong. He last wrote on Brexit and The European Union for Culturekiosque.

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