Monday, March 28, 2016

Bill Kraus: Book Review of Dark Money by Jane Mayer

By Bill Kraus

To get to respectable book length the author had to load up with bios of the billionaires and their forebears and tell you at tiresome detail where they got all that money.

Skim that.

What’s interesting is what they have been doing with that money to set the mostly domestic agenda and see that it is supported by bought and paid for legislators in the states and in the Congress.

The almost opening paragraph of the book is about inauguration day in 2009. Obama was taking the oath of office. The billionaires were gathering in California to set a strategy which would defeat Obama—failed—to make his life difficult—succeeded—and to take over statehouses across the country to get their views [called anachronistic totalitarianism by Bill Buckley] into the law and laws of the land—really succeeded.

Their timing couldn’t have been better.

In the wake of the Watergate reforms and their unintended consequences the baby boomers became indifferent to and/or disdainful of politics, politicians, and ultimately government itself. That boil is being lanced in the presidential campaign this year, but has been festering for almost 40 years, an era of non-participation when the parties powers dwindled to the point that they were somewhere between shells of their former selves or merely labels. All hat no cattle.

The citizen activists who had run the parties and spent an inordinate amount of time and energy marginalizing the extremist minorities went away.

The extremists stayed and took over the memberless, inconsequential parties. The power shifted mostly to legislative leaders who slated candidates and funded campaigns with the billionaires money.

The net effect of all of this was that politics became marketing and money became even more important than it always was. Money enriched the professionals who were now fully in charge of campaigns and who advertised their candidates way to victory with 30 second sound bites directed to the voters who had retreated from the playing field and were in the stands reading their various hand held devices.

The billionaires with their dark money walked in and took over either directly or through third party campaigns.

At one point in Dark Money a high riding billionaire told his peers that all they had to do to control elected representatives was threaten a primary challenge and they will start “wetting their pants.”

Money went from being an important part of campaigns to being the end all be all. And the billionaires with their agendas and their bank accounts were there to supply it.

Then along came the outlandish campaign of 2016 with its interesting side effects. The money race is still very consequential, but The Donald is being praised for using his own money, and Bernie is following the Elizabeth Warren lead and raising serious big money in small bites. In ways large and small money and where it comes from, what and who it buys is in the spotlight instead of in the dark.

The baggage that slows Hillary’s run to the nomination is mostly distrust and the that distrust is closely tied to where and how she is getting her money.

Jeb who had and spent more money than anyone withdrew.

And Jane Mayer wrote her book.

Is it still all about the money? Probably. But maybe not the billionaires' money.

Even though we are way beyond poor boy campaigns, we are catching onto dark money and who is giving it and why. The supreme court which is obsessed with free speech has consistently said they think the money/speakers should be disclosed. This would chase away many donors and purify the rest. But what would really change the system is stigmatization. What if all that money used to buy votes costs more votes than it buys?

We never really had a government of, by, and for the people. At its best we had a government of the elite, by the bureaucracy, and for the people. This became a government of the money, by the incumbents, and for the money.

Jane Mayer’s book and the presidential campaign of 2016 may get us back to of the elite, by the bureaucracy, and for the people.

Like in baseball batting .333 is pretty darn good.

Bill Kraus, a former top adviser and strategist to Wisconsin Governors Lee Sherman Dreyfus and Warren Knowles, is the Chair of the State Governing Board of Common Cause in Wisconsin. You can reach him at

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