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While much of the nation is glued to the presidential horse race, other elections are going on too. A new Congress (all 435 House of Representative seats are technically open) will be chosen in November, and also one-third—34 seats—of the Senate. The outcome matters a good deal. “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress” the Constitution states. And the Barack Obama years have been a lesson in the reach and depth of those powers. Even now the most recent of 50-odd efforts to “repeal Obamacare,” approved by the House in January awaits the President’s veto. Why write a bill destined for defeat? For the same reason the Republicans have orchestrated government shutdowns, convened no fewer than eight investigations into the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi and waged war on the Iran nuclear deal. Doing nothing—or rather, stopping things from happening—is part of politics too.
Indeed it has provided a counter-narrative during Obama’s administration, an epic of anti-government obstructionism or heroic resistance (depending on your point of view). And now the story has its master chronicler, Jane Mayer, whose Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, published in mid-January, has bounded up the US bestseller lists, with its feverishly detailed exposé of the dollar-soaked politics of America’s new Gilded Age, ruled by bosses, just like the original one, only top-hatted robber barons have given way to a new cast of ideologically-besotted “corporate plutocrats” who pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the “process” in the name of the “free market” and in the interest of protecting their fortunes.
“Dark money” isn’t Mayer’s coinage. It’s the term for “donations” to political causes, made in almost every case by the super-rich whose anonymity is protected by law. Pioneers include Richard Mellon Scaife, the most famous “secret” player in the 1990s, when he financed “the vast right-wing conspiracy” that haunts Hillary Clinton to this day, and the even more fanatical “billionaire Koch brothers,” Charles and David, who own a giant oil-and-chemical empire that has made them the joint sixth wealthiest billionaires according to Forbes magazine’s 2015 World Billionaire ranking, together worth some $80bn. For five years, Mayer has been unearthing the facts about these elderly brothers—one in Manhattan, the other back home in Wichita, Kansas—architects of a “private political machine that had helped cripple a twice-elected Democratic president and begun to supplant the Republican Party.” Their adjutants, paid and voluntary, now populate much of the conservative movement: “right-wing media moguls, conservative elected officials, and savvy political operatives who had made handsome livings helping their patrons win and hold power. There were also eloquent writers and publicists, whose work at think tanks, advocacy groups, and countless publications were quietly subsidised by corporate interests.”
Mayer, a staff writer at the New Yorker, is an old-school muckraker. At a time when so much political reporting emphasises “data” and polling, and the handicapping of candidates’ debate performances, she has a connoisseur’s palate for the plain-daylight scandal and its secret protocols—the politics of string- and lever-pulling, the off-the-record account of Who Was in the Room—the 20 “chieftains” in the “war council” who met in Karl Rove’s living room and “coordinated their plans of action and divided up their territory.” Elected officials flit through the story, but as shills and front-men, with the occasional wild-eyed idea man like the ferocious budget-hawk Paul Ryan, depicted here as a rising force, “a square-jawed, blue-eyed, earnest young Ayn Rand disciple,” dead-set on shifting the tax burden onto the poor and the middle-class, already battered by the Great Recession.
If this sounds conspiratorial—or like an amicus brief for the Bernie Sanders campaign—well, Meyer shares his outrage at a “rigged” system that serves the 1 per cent. And, like Sanders, Mayer gets many things right. The lines Marco Rubio kept repeating in the New Hampshire debate were undiluted Koch: “Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world. That’s why he passed Obamacare and the stimulus and Dodd-Frank and the deal with Iran. It is a systematic effort to change America.” Meanwhile, the brothers launched another “stealth” campaign against Mayer. “‘Dirt, dirt, dirt’ is what [a] source later told me they were digging for in my life,” she reports with undisguised satisfaction. “If they couldn’t find it, somebody would create it.” Instead they helped her create the book that, so far, is the most illuminating text of the 2016 election.
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