The re-election of Barack Obama in November 2012 dealt a stunning defeat to the Republican Party. As the GOP reeled from the loss and began laying plans to win in 2016, a small group of shadowy and wealthy figures gathered at the request of Charles and David Koch, otherwise known as the Koch brothers. Their secret agenda: to systematically influence our political system.
The depth of their reach is the subject of investigative journalist Jane Mayer’s bestseller, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Charles and David Koch are among the richest people in America, she tells us, worth a combined $85 billion. Their politics lean far to the right — they oppose almost all governmental regulation, particularly when it comes to the environment. The brothers own and run Kansas-based Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States, and one that has racked up a long list of environmental violations and legal entanglements.
While the Koch brothers’ money and influence is enormous, they also have assembled a group of like-minded, super-rich colleagues. Together, this shadowy group has been overwhelmingly successful at leveraging their special interests, according to Mayer’s research. The group comes together in secret gatherings twice a year and has done so for more than a decade. In 2016, the Kochs and their network quietly spent more money than ever influencing people and policies, Mayer says, quoting a 2016 study by two Harvard University scholars who found that the Koch organization has a bigger payroll than the Republican National Committee.
It isn’t surprising that the Koch brothers and their colleagues utilize corporate lobbying. But they also set up and pour money into nonprofit organizations that are actually political organizations, and they make contributions to influence political races clear down at the state and county level, Mayer writes.
Mayer, who was a featured speaker at the Sun Valley Writers’ Conference a few weeks ago, is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the recipient of several top journalism prizes. Her latest work reveals how the Koch brothers have perfected this brand of power buying and have done so largely unchecked. While the brothers and their associates would rather remain in the shadows to carry out their agenda, Mayer’s rigorous investigation has helped bring them into the light of public scrutiny. “Dark Money” offers a timely, unsettling look at the extent to which deep pockets and strong convictions can influence American politics and business — and why we should all be concerned about that.
Bob Kustra is president of Boise State University and host of Reader’s Corner, a weekly radio show on Boise State Public Radio. Reader’s Corner airs Fridays at 6 p.m. and repeats Sundays at 11 a.m. on KBSX 91.5 FM. Previous shows, including an interview with Mayer, are online and available for podcast at http://boisestatepublicradio.org/programs/readers-corner.