This is a partisan book in multiple ways. First, it is deeply exaggerated. Author Jane Mayer’s sensationalism begins right on the cover with her subtitle: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. As my colleague Martin Morse Wooster points out, “the history she describes is not hidden, and the people she writes about are not radicals.”
Indeed, much of Mayer’s information comes from books produced by the donors she suggests are hiding their deeds. For instance, when sketching the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, she describes how the family business was veering toward bankruptcy before government contracts for World War I saved it. How did Mayer unearth this? By reading a history that the Bradley Foundation commissioned and published in 1992. Similarly, she relies heavily on the authorized history of the John M. Olin Foundation produced by John Miller. For her history of the Scaife family, she uses a memoir by Richard Mellon Scaife that was privately published years ago. Far from being kept secret, it was handed out to everyone who attended the man’s memorial service in 2014.
Mayer’s book is an extended exercise in scandalmongering, reaching its apex in her attempt to tie the Koch family to Hitler, because the family business built an oil refinery in Germany in 1933. But many multinational companies did business in Germany in the 1930s. Mayer doesn’t pretend that the Koch family, ardent champions of the free market, ever felt a serious attraction to the principles of National Socialism, but she casts dark aspersions. If Mayer had wanted to expose philanthropy scandals from the period, she could have described how many “progressive” donors promoted eugenics and harsh population-control measures in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. But that line of inquiry wouldn’t fit her agenda.
Mayer’s central thesis is that we live in an oligarchy and are, as she quotes one political operative, “controlled by a handful of ultrawealthy people, most of whom got rich from the system and who will get richer from the system.” Sure, she continues, wealthy Americans have long been influential, but “since the Progressive Era the public, through its elected representatives, had devised rules to keep the influence in check.” Now the evil rich are sponsoring a “radical reorientation of American thinking.” Today the wealthy’s “weapon of choice” is philanthropy, and they are “meeting in secret, hiding their money trails, and paying others to front for them.”
Mayer’s alarm over secret meetings and hidden money trails relies for its emotional power on her utterly one-sided portrait of the American political landscape. The Kochs and Scaifes and her other right-wing targets are presented as spending millions of dollars to advocate for public policies, overwhelming the opposition. She disregards hordes of donors at the other end of the spectrum who meet in private and often use vehicles like the donor-advised funds she vilifies. Careful tallies have found that left-oriented public-policy spending swamps right-oriented giving by many multiples (see pages 814 and 1143 in The Almanac of American Philanthropy for examples), but you would never know that from this book.
Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer—whose $74 million in left-wing political spending in the last national cycle made him the country’s top political giver—receives one bare mention in passing. George Soros, a left-wing donor whose political giving and national sway easily equals that of Charles and David Koch combined—as calculated by one of Mayer’s own favorite sources, the liberal Center for Responsive Politics—receives a few favorable nods. Inspection of her sources reveals that the same political operative concerned with “oligarchy” noted that 52 of the top 100 individual donors in the 2014 cycle were Democrats, which Mayer describes as “a few.”
The Center for Responsive Politics has also done a major study on the massive influence of labor unions, which Mayer gives even shorter shrift. The CRP looked at organizations (businesses, trade groups, unions) through the 2002-2014 election cycles, totaling contributions to federal candidates, parties, and PACs of all kinds made by organizations’ employees, PACs, or corporate treasury. Seven of the top ten donors were unions, which gave 97 percent to Democrats.
Mayer also ignores previous inaccuracies in her reporting that have been publicly rebutted. For example, in a New Yorker piece laying groundwork for the book, she excoriated donors for $2 million in “outside” political contributions to Republicans in North Carolina in 2010, claiming the money bought the election. I and other critics noted that the conservatives Mayer attacked were actually outspent by the other side. The book recycles the faulty claim.
Mayer’s largest omission of liberal giving involves the Democracy Alliance, which is the direct counterpart to the Kochs’ network of conservative donors and activist groups. The DA channels hundreds of millions of dollars from progressive donors to dozens of groups it deems most effective in moving public policy leftward and building progressive infrastructure. It assiduously keeps many of its efforts off the record (“dark” in Mayer’s parlance).
Mayer helps the DA stay dark. Her one explicit mention of the group doesn’t appear until six pages before the book’s end, where she vaguely refers to “the Democratic activist who tried to create a progressive counterweight called the Democracy Alliance.” Though the DA is sufficiently secretive that we don’t know much about its inner workings, it hasn’t just “tried” to influence American politics; its donors are spending huge sums with potent results, and sometimes questionable tactics.
A discussion of such extralegal maneuvering, alleged to occur on both sides of the political aisle, could strengthen Mayer’s thesis against “dark money,” but it makes no appearance in this book. Mayer could also have compared the DA with the Kochs’ network in various ways—membership, spending, effectiveness, technique, etc.—and that evaluation could have yielded a valuable lesson in canny public-policy giving. Instead, her book leaves the reader with a severely slanted view of the public-policy ecosystem.
Mayer does concede that “advocacy philanthropy” didn’t start with conservatives but with the Ford Foundation in the late 1960s, when Ford was “pouring money into the environmental movement” and “supporting public-interest litigation,” which “showed conservatives how philanthropy could achieve large-scale change through the courts while bypassing the democratic electoral process.” She also reveals that a left-wing think tank first created a companion 501c4 arm to carry out its harsher political work. And in an endnote she grants that George Soros and the Democratic Party pioneered—a decade before the Kochs—the use of an independent firm to provide microtargeting data, with controversial applications.
The difference, we are to understand, between conservative and liberal donors engaging in public policy is that conservatives only argue for less governmental control of the economy in order to enrich themselves. But that is untrue for at least two reasons. First, plenty of center-left donors advocate for self-enrichment; for instance, heavy government subsidies of solar- and wind-energy companies like Solyndra, not to mention union interests. Second, a business owner who advocates for a freer market in his or her industry is not guaranteeing that his or her company will succeed, as countless big businesses from General Motors and Chrysler to AOL-Time Warner could attest.
More importantly, the idea that think tanks, nonprofit policy groups, and philanthropically funded university programs operate in robotic lockstep to donor demands maligns a valuable sector of American democracy. Thoughtful liberal observers such as Paul Brest, former president of the Hewlett Foundation, have lauded work funded by many of the conservative foundations starring in this book as an excellent example of philanthropic support for public-policy debates from which donors of all ideological hues can learn. Gara LaMarche, now president of the Democracy Alliance and long a leading intellectual strategist on the left, has also cited such work as inspiration, praising conservative policy philanthropy for taking the long view and investing in ideas.
The strangest element of this book is Mayer’s horror at philanthropists who thus hope to “reorient” the public’s thinking. She seems to imply that it is insidious for donors, and the scholars and institutions they support, to speak to citizens about the fundamental issues of public policy, including regulations and taxes.
That is, unless they are progressive. You see, progressives keep the wealthy “in check,” and progressive think tanks, foundations, and journalists have been driven “by social science, not ideology,” always striving “to deliver the facts free from partisan bias.” Thus by a miraculous coincidence, everyone who has served Mayer’s preferred ideology—now and for the last century—has no political leanings, nor a hint of any bias.
That’s simply laughable. For instance, she quotes as a neutral historian professor Sean Wilentz of Princeton, an outspoken supporter of Hillary Clinton. Similarly, she invokes the “nonpartisan” Sunlight Foundation several times as an unbiased source. Sunlight’s staff rotate in and out of Democratic campaigns and activist groups in much the same way that she criticizes various foundation members and Koch employees for doing on the right.
In a final twist, the progressive fixation with campaign finance reform, which Mayer displays throughout the book, has its own “secret history.” The Pew Charitable Trusts and a handful of liberal foundation allies created a supposed grassroots base to advocate for new laws. The program officer who ran the operation later confessed that the donors hoped “to create an impression that a mass movement was afoot,” even as Pew’s own polls showed almost no public interest in the crusade. Ironically, campaign finance reform has given us the very system Mayer rails against, where political parties are so hamstrung that donors create their own alternative institutions.
If Mayer wants more disclosure and stronger parties, she should demand the dismantling of the regulatory edifice built by Pew and its allies. And if she wants traditional American self-government, she should learn to accept the idea of vigorous public debate, whether it’s Tom Steyer funding calls for taxpayer-subsidized solar energy, or the Koch brothers supporting free trade, or the Bradley Foundation advocating for educational reform.