This is an alarming – dare I say frightening – examination of the ways in which American billionaires – primarily the Koch brothers – and multimillionaires have used their fortunes to influence US politics, particularly since Obama’s first term. It also chronicles their efforts to create an education and lobbying system to promote their extremist views as mainstream since the late ’60s.
The book is full of details and interviews. There is so much detail it is, at times, numbing. It’s easy to get lost in the names of foundations and different types of non-profit groups and it’s easy to forget which billionaire or multimillionaire primarily funded which. But what it is amounts to is extremely detailed reporting about what is essentially a massive PAC or a third US political party, albeit a party which doesn’t actually have any candidates, and only pays other candidates to run in one of the two main political parties.
And it really is alarming. One of the surprises for me, a Canadian, was the degree to which private entities – “nonprofits” – can lie in advertising in the US without obvious consequences. I knew about attack ads – we have the odd one in Canada – but what really surprised me is how many of these ads – not explicitly associated with Republican candidates of course – contain deliberate and sometimes obvious untruths. (Not for the first time this month I say “Thank science I live in Canada” where laws and norms prevent this from happening.) It’s kind of hard to fully grasp the degree to which now billions of dollars from a few hundred people have been spent on propaganda. As Mayer points out, even if you agree with the philosophy behind this propaganda campaign – that less or no government regulation (in most areas, but not all for some reason) is better for society – you cannot deny how self-serving this campaign is. (Though the donors nearly all deny that it is self-serving.) They are very rich and less regulation will make them much more rich.
I have two issues with the book. The first is that Mayer is clearly left-wing and concerned not just about money in politics in general but money supporting right-wing ideology and the Republican Party in particular. That’s fine, I guess, but I always think these types of books need to try to be as nonpartisan as possible for the simple reason that, in a perfect world, I could recommend this book and books like it to conservatives and they might see the problem. I’m pretty sure I can’t, though, as most conservatives reading this book will likely dismiss Mayer as a cranky liberal early on and not finish it. A related aspect of this problem is, too often and especially in the early going, Mayer doesn’t explain why money in politics is bad. I mean, she does, especially in the final chapters when it really gets out of hand, but I think some people need it dumbed down more. Any freedom-loving American can easily say “It’s their money, I don’t see why they can’t spend it how they want to” and move on. The important points – that money gives an unequal voice to the rich and that, in many instances, money is used to actively and aggressively promote untruths – are not emphasized quite enough for my liking though, as I noted, this improves as the book goes on.
The other issue is bigger: what is the causal relationship here? We can ask this about propaganda at any time, such as with the 2016 presidential election. Yes, billionaires have spent billions now on nonprofits, university programs, PACs and the like to promote their (mostly) libertarian ideology. And some of this money likely influenced people who might not have thought this way without that money. But how many people? I believe Trump is a symptom. Similarly, I can’t help but think believing this propaganda – especially the really ridiculous stuff – must also be, in part, a symptom of something bigger. Propaganda only works on those with a predisposition to believe it. Now how much of that predisposition to believe was created by these billionaires is a question that is never even addressed. And so the biggest flaw of the book is that Republican voters have zero agency in this story – they were brainwashed and now the country is in danger. I don’t find that very convincing, do you?
That being said, the book is still eye-opening and very much worth your time. (It’s okay that she’s a liberal, I swear.) And it makes me extremely worried about our future here in North America, given that things are not about to change in the US any time soon. (Though, on the optimistic side of things: some of these donors are quite old so a future in which some of their children and foundations stop doing this is possibly right around the corner.)
Laws aren’t the enemy. Corruption is the enemy.