As a news consumer in the 21st century, I try to measure every piece of political news that flows down my social media streams against two different questions:
Does this piece paint the politicians in question as mercilessly, cartoonishly evil? As much as I detest Donald Trump, I do not believe that he does things because he wants to be evil. Nobody is the villain in their own stories, and an unrealistic portrait of Trump (and Ryan and McConnell and so on) can contribute to that dreaded “liberal bubble” that pundits warn us all about. In politics, understanding someone’s motivations can uncover their strategies.
Does this piece paint conservative politicians as the masterminds of a flawlessly executed conspiracy? By overestimating the planning capabilities of the opposing party, we grant them power over us. If you subscribe to the theory that Russia has been planning the Trump administration since the fall of the Berlin Wall, you will likely lose all hope in your own power as a political being. If we are all pawns in Putin’s (or Bannon’s, or Trump’s) game of three-dimensional chess, if our every move has been anticipated and countered years in advance, it’s very easy to wonder why we should bother playing the game at all.
The July book for the Reading Through It Book Club, Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, confounds both criteria. The book is literally about a successful conspiracy to make a highly conservative Republican Party the dominant political party in American politics, and the Koch brothers portrayed in this book can, at times, only be described as cartoonishly evil. How else would you describe some of the richest people in the history of the planet who decide that the best way they can contribute to the world is by poisoning the land, sea, and air and by removing even the most basic benefits from the nation’s most needy people?
Perhaps for those reasons, people at last night’s discussion agreed that Dark Money is the most depressing book we’ve read so far. Some described feeling “hopeless” after finishing it. Many described a sense of powerlessness after reading about the decades of work that went into creating our modern-day predicament. In short, people were bummed out.
This should not be construed as a knock on Dark Money. Mayer's reporting is nothing less than brilliant, uncovering secret machinations and revealing previously hidden connections between libertarian billionaires and the conservative messaging machine. Reading Dark Money feels a little like that horrifying moment when you overturn a rock and see all the pale wriggling creatures rooting through the soil beneath, just before they sink below the surface again.
Those of us who’d finished the book a few days before the book club didn’t feel quite as bad: after some reflection, it seemed to us, it’s better to know about the agenda of the wealthy John Birchers than to not know. But it’s a huge, bitter pill to swallow, and some discomfort is to be expected.
Still, with some distance, it’s easy to understand the motivations of the Koches and their ilk. Nowhere is the Koch political philosophy so succinctly described as in a quote Mayer unearthed from a speech Charles Koch delivered to the Wichita Rotary Club in the 1970s: government should only “serve as a night watchman, to protect individuals and property from outside threat, including fraud. That is the maximum.”
Of course someone who has only known prosperity would believe that government’s sole occupation should be protecting personal wealth. There’s not much else that government can offer Charles Koch; he can afford private planes to soar over broken roads, he’s surrounded by people who attended private schools, he’s never known a moment of desperate hunger. To an intellectually incurious man born into astronomical wealth, it must be nearly impossible to consider poor people as anything but temporarily indisposed wealthy people who have squandered their potential.
And Mayer certainly doesn’t grant the Koches omnipotence, either. At several points in Dark Money’s narrative, the brothers are blindsided by fate: they did not anticipate the rise of the Tea Party, for instance, or the successful passage of the Affordable Care Act, or (as mentioned in a preface prepared for the newest edition of the book) the election of Donald Trump. In all three of those occasions, the Koches were forced to improvise. Wealth can buy many things — an army of some of the best marketers on earth, for starters — but it cannot contain the chaos of real life.
So: the good news is that the DeVoses and the Koches are not beings of pure evil; they are fallible. That might sound like cold comfort, but last night’s book club concluded with outpourings of hope for those who felt hopeless after reading Dark Money. Basically, it’s a numbers game: the Koches have billions of dollars, but they will never have the majority of Americans on their side.
For all the hundreds of billions they’ve spent in their efforts to not pay taxes, all the Koches have really won is a slowing of the clock of progress. Their goal is to turn time back to the 1950s, to destroy the progress made by people of color and women and minorities. Really, though, all they can do is stall for a while before they’re outnumbered yet again.
The Koches can afford to market-test their tax cuts and deregulations with some of the best professionals in the marketing business. But progressives market-test their best causes by honing their message across millions of personal experiences. The fallacy that you can create jobs by cutting taxes for the top one percent is a profoundly unpopular statement right now, even with Republicans. That’s because Democrats have repeated over and over the truth that the economy doesn’t grow from the top-down — as the newly coined cliché goes — but from the bottom up.
It takes longer for Democrats to refine their message, but when they finally figure out what they’re saying and how to say it, they can swamp the conservative dark money machine with sheer volume. The top one percent did not give the masses a 40-hour work week out of the kindness of their hearts. Factory owners did not suddenly decide to stop employing children because they realized it was wrong. Women did not get the vote because powerful men finally listened to reason.
Every change worth making in society has been made because the many demanded it over the protestations of the wealthy. You can buy the biggest, most expensive megaphone in the world, but your shouts can still be drowned out if enough people stand together with one voice.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant