Jane Mayer wrote Dark Money in 2016 to chart the campaign by billionaire Koch brothers and their allies to use the political system to pass libertarian principles into law at all levels of government. Since 2016, the effort has only grown more sophisticated.
Most recently, the Koch network has used its vast trove of data and small army of political operatives and volunteers to defeat a public transit proposal in Nashville. The Koch brothers don’t like public transit. They have business interests that make money from cars and highways. They also don’t believe it’s a function of government at any level to provide transportation. If people don’t have cars, the Koch network believes they should use Uber.
The Citizens United decision allowed unlimited amounts of money to flow into politics, and billionaires like Charles and David Koch, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Robert and Rebekkah Mercer, and a host of others are making the most of the opportunity to steer the country in their favored directions.
It’s typically true that a focused and well-funded effort to bring out voters passionate about a cause can prevail over wider public opinion. Initially, the Nashville effort was heavily favored by local voters. After the Koch intervention, the ballot initiative went down to defeat.
The Koch brothers and their ilk are using their own money. They are going about influencing state and local races, along with national ones, in a highly sophisticated way. They have a clear and unwavering libertarian philosophy, which they package in ways that appeal to ordinary voters. The defeat of the Nashville public transit system finally hinged on the increased taxes that would have gone to pay for it. That part of the project was amplified heavily by the Koch opposition. The economic benefit of having a transit system that ordinary people could use to reach their jobs, the benefit to the environment of fewer cars and trucks on the road, and the fact that the working poor don’t really have money to use Uber was muted or lost. What the Koch brothers are doing is entirely out in the open, and is not breaking any laws.
This is democracy too — perhaps not the “of the people and by the people” variety, but a tiny minority of wealthy people using the system to get what they want. I’m not sure it’s what the Founding Fathers envisioned, but it’s what democracy has become.