OPINION: Shining A Light On Dark Money

OPINION: Shining A Light On Dark Money

By Tench Phillips, Naro Cinema

At the time of the founding of the nation, political democracy in the U.S. was extremely limited. The root meaning of ‘democracy’ is rule by and for the people. But exactly who is included in the term ‘the people’? The founding fathers lived in an era when only white male property owners governed and had rights. Thomas Jefferson declared “All men are created equal” when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and yet its truth rang hollow for decades. It can be said that in our own times the phrase has evolved to encompass all people regardless of race, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. And yet in practice, institutionalized racism enables profound social and economic injustice in this country.

Although political democracy has improved over the decades, it’s not been due to the benevolence of the ruling class. The hard-won legal rights for women and African-Americans has required their prolonged and dedicated heroic struggles. And it’s an ongoing battle, especially with the recent ruling by the Supreme Court that overturned protections granted under The Voting Rights Act.

In contrast to the expansion of voting rights to more people over the last century, the range of issues that voters can have some actual influence has stagnated. For example, despite the fact that most Americans are in favor of Congressional reauthorization of the assault weapons ban, or advocate for lower prescription drug prices – legislative reform is blocked by Congress. 

Political influence by corporate lobbyists, special interest groups, and billionaire oligarchs rule the day. The will of the people plays second fiddle to the dictates of a minority of wealthy campaign benefactors. And as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling for Citizen United in 2010, a new era of anonymous campaign contributions and unlimited bribery has been ushered in. The political right has been ingenious in figuring out how a minority party can rule America. And now they can claim all three branches of government.

And yet what is so obvious that it often goes unseen is the lack of influence that citizens have over fundamental economic decisions – the private sector’s production of goods and services. Under our system of monopolistic corporatism, real social power lies not within government but in the corporate economy. Crucial decisions that have a direct impact on society and the natural world are not up for a democratic vote. 

For example, the majority consensus has little say in which industrial products are manufactured (gas-guzzling cars as opposed to mass transportation), or how society is powered (fossil fuels or renewables), or how much and which consumer goods to produce (luxury goods for the rich as opposed to basic necessities to support the world’s poor). These important societal decisions are made by unelected corporate executives who are protected from accountability through that legal embodiment, the modern corporation. 

The workplace is less democratic than society as a whole. When the rights of workers go unprotected and union organizing has been banned, management and owners can turn authoritarian. Union-busting in this country has greatly reduced the number of union workers over the years. The activist courts continue to rule against organized labor in both the public and private sectors. Many non-union workers are forced to remain in their dead-end jobs rather than risk losing their health insurance and benefits.

A full-scale economic democracy is simply incompatible with capitalism. Limiting the power of that legal construct – the corporation – would go a long way towards weakening the control that markets have over government and society. To begin with, legislating the removal of corporate money from politics could return our government to the people. 

Both political parties are beholden to campaign funds from Wall Street – and its getting worse. The special election in Georgia last year was the most expensive Congressional race in U.S. history. An obscene amount of  funds was spent by the two parties along with outside money – a total of $57 million that resulted in a Republican win. Although Bernie Sanders showed us the way to remove big money from elections, the Democrat leadership didn’t learn a thing.

The new documentary Dark Money is an investigative probe into the corrupting influence of the shadow world of anonymous Super-PAC campaign funding. The film is not based on, but covers some of the same materials as Jane Mayer’s book of the same name. Dark Money shows at the Naro on Wednesday, August 8 with speakers and discussion. 

The director of Dark Money and Montana native Kimberly Reed returned to her home state when she heard that there was heavy resistance against the Citizens United decision. She realized there was a story to be told about Montana and that she was the one to do it. Kimberly explains, “Like many Americans, I found the ideas that corporations are people and money is speech to be ludicrous. Approximately 80% of Americans have consistently disapproved of this decision.”

In Montana, corporations had been exploiting the state’s rich natural resources for more than a century, extracting minerals and strip-mining the land. State politicians and authorities were paid off by corporate interests to do their bidding, and the corruption reached into every level of government. When the mining operations were shuttered and the companies moved on, the state’s residents were left with toxic groundwater and a polluted landscape. 

Montana had learned the hard way, and subsequently enacted strict campaign finance legislation in the early twentieth century. State politicians adhered to these guidelines for decades. But that clean politicking began to unravel after the Citizens United ruling. 

An influx of corporate-funded smear campaigns and dubious legislation began to pollute the Big Sky state. Political attack ads would seemingly appear out of nowhere. Blatant propaganda and misinformation flooded the broadcast airwaves and people’s mailboxes. Sophisticated campaign marketing came from unknown organizations that claimed to be of grassroots origin but whose funding was unknown — and almost impossible to trace. 

It can take years to uncover the damage that dark money causes, and to expose the covert forces that fund the campaigns. But by that time the Super-PACs have moved on and it is too late to do anything about it. Kimberly figured out that “the only way to really understand how the dark money shell game works was to follow the nonprofit corporations over multiple election cycles as they pop up, disintegrate, reconstitute, and wreak havoc once again.” 

The filmmaker enlisted the help of lawyers, campaign officials, and journalists to try to identify which out-of-state forces were behind the smear campaigns that would pop up at at key moments in elections cycles. One of the journalists that she follows in the film is Montana Free Press reporter John S. Adams. His diligence helps local authorities prevail in a relevant corruption case that ultimately brings down a prominent politician. 

Kimberly describes her film production’s investigative strategy. “I played this game of Whack-A-Mole over three election cycles in what became the perfect environment to tell the campaign finance story. Montana was not only the first and hardest hit with dark money but also the state that fought back the hardest with grassroots citizen outrage. It was important to me to remind folks that campaign spending is not just a liberal or conservative issue; and it affects all Americans, not just Montanans, regardless of ideology.”

Although the bulk of the Super-PAC money that has come into the red state of Montana has been used against Democrats, several mainstream Republicans have also been targeted. Perceived as too moderate or not willing enough to enact the legislative agenda of the Koch brothers and the corporate ALEC lobby, these incumbent Republicans were running in state party primaries against challengers who were more right-wing than they were.

The battleground in Montana is but a microcosm of what’s going on across the country. The role that money plays in our politics has never been more corruptive. Dark money contributions increased a stunning 60-fold in the first election after Citizens United and funding for the 2018 campaigns has already far outpaced that of 2016. Dark money is getting more sophisticated, more insidious, and harder to track. And under the Trump administration, we can no longer count on the Federal Election Commission or the Supreme Court to derail the anti-democratic forces in our society. 

It’s clear that our nation is in trouble. Since Citizens United, anything goes where elections are concerned, and deception and lies rule the day. Campaign spending is the most fundamental political problem facing our democracy. 

There are organizations to connect with that can provide key information about campaign funding. FollowTheMoney.org which is based in Montana, and OpenSecrets.org collect and disseminate political contribution records for candidates in all 50 states. The investigative effort to make campaign funding transparent is the important first step in the battle for campaign finance reform.