A Book Review, and thoughts about (oh, no!) politics.

I have experienced an active internal dialogue about a subject for my comments in The Weekly Packet this week. Do you remember the cartoons that used to come on before the movies? The ones with an angel putting “good” ideas in one of a character’s ears and a devil putting “bad” suggestions in the other? Along with the newsreel and the previews? Well then, hobble on over and let’s talk!

The dialogue has centered on the wisdom of sticking a toe into the political debate, which I would do with great trepidation. Please remember that I have run for public office! I ran for a position on the Board of Health in Wayland, MA when I was on the faculty at B.U.! I lost a highly and hotly contested race, the highlight of which was a “debate” televised by the League of Women Voters, in which I had to explain the difference between a septic tank (good) and a cesspool (bad), without using any four-letter words.

That experience left me with great respect for anyone who has sufficient dedication to the issues involved to participate in our political process, no matter what his or her position may be.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to understand how the politics of our current Republican party have evolved. That’s the topic of a new and important book, Dark Money, by Jane Mayer (Random House, New York. 2016). By way of introduction, as most of you know, the Republican party had its origins in the anti-slavery politics of the mid-1850s. After the Civil War veterans had had their days in the White House, the image of the party changed substantially when the assassination of President McKinley resulted in Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt taking office. (If you haven’t read Edmund Morris’ three-part biography of T.R., do yourself a favor: order it today!)

The party “establishment” (Yes, Virginia, there has always been one) enlisted Roosevelt for the Vice-Presidency in order to deprive him the opportunity for attaining a more strategic position as either New York’s governor or senator, positions in which he could have continued his disruptive progressive activities. The assassination doomed their strategy to failure. Theodore Roosevelt and then William Howard Taft, his chosen successor, helped to institute the reforms that brought the first “Gilded Age” in the US to a conclusion. After the Depression and WWII, Eisenhower, a moderate conservative, launched NASA and the interstate highway system, supported the expansion of Social Security, and strongly opposed the growth of “the military-industrial complex”. Nixon, somewhat more conservative, still managed to open diplomatic relations with China, establish the Environmental Protection Agency, and (not often remembered) propose a comprehensive national healthcare plan.

How did this distinctly center-right political organization evolve, over the next few decades, into a group largely opposed to federal limits on corporations (like Theodore Roosevelt’s), infrastructure improvements and limits on the military (like Eisenhower’s), and comprehensive healthcare and environmental regulation (like Nixon’s)? Mayer provides part of the answer with a detailed analysis of the political strategies of a small group of extremely wealthy families, including the Koch brothers, Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin and the Bradley brothers. She outlines the process by which the well-organized wealthy deployed vast amounts of money into building intellectual acceptability for extremely conservative policy.

Aha, you’re saying! The Weekly Packet is channeling its inner Oliver Stone!

I think not, because Mayer’s book is process-oriented and immensely well-documented. She clearly does not buy into the far-right’s politics, but her point is not the politics. Instead, she documents how some very rich individuals (not all males, by the way) used their money to support the economists, political scientists and candidates, in academics and politics, who would support policies that allowed the wealthy to maintain and grow their wealth. The “how” is the interesting part: the funding of foundations, the alphabet soup of organizations, the enormous impact of the Citizens United decision, and finally, the highly data-driven process of re-districting that has resulted in the polarization of state and national representation. The players in Mayer’s drama first set up organizations that funded think tanks, often on college campuses, and they founded organizations that appeared to have grass-roots support but, in fact, did not. (These “Astro-turf” organizations have played a major role off the national stage, in local and state elections.) Then, having set up the organizations, they contributed mightily (often through tax-deductible contributions) to support them.

After making the effort to read Dark Money with an open mind, I was left reflecting on the role of our government here in the United States. We have largely defined that role in our national conflicts, in our wars. First in the American Revolution and then in the Civil War, we defined the principle that the authority of the government derives from the consent of the governed, all of the governed. Then, by our participation in WWI and WWII, we established that, in order for government to provide for the defense of our freedoms and for our health and safety in a rapidly changing world, the governed would support the government with our taxes, our service in the military, and our respectful, informed, participation in the political process.

Most of our public life, then, is a constant re-iteration of the Goldilocks dilemma. For all of the issues we face, how much government is too much; how much is too little, and where is “just right”?  This is the substance of our continuing political dialogue. In the broad spectrum of opinions, there are no right answers, only compromises acceptable to a majority of the governed.

What I find deeply disturbing about Dark Money is the weight of evidence Mayer has gathered to support the concept that a very limited group of very rich individuals has developed a strategy to indirectly exercise influence far out of proportion to its numbers in order to control that dialogue.