“Dark money” and the preservation of the American oligarchy — Senator Whitehouse is spot on

America’s oligarchs have made remarkable progress in the past 40 years in tilting the economic and regulatory playing fields in their favor and against the interests of the middle and working classes. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse accurately described how those oligarchs are using “dark money” to cement those by gains through a carefully-selected federal judiciary that will resist attempts by a more enlightened federal government to restrain an economic system that is out of control.


Wow, did the presentation by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island) on the influence of “dark money” on judicial nominations during the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett ever strike a nerve. The editorial board of the Wall Street Journal responded with a scathing dismissal, effectively calling it a well-polished conspiracy theory.

The Wall Street Journal is controlled by Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who also controls Fox News, which is now headed by his son, Lachlan. The Murdochs are mouthpieces for the other business tycoons behind much of the dark money to which Whitehouse referred. A stunning report last year by the New York Times detailed the central role played by the Murdoch family “in the illiberal, right-wing political wave sweeping the globe” that has “destabilized democracy” in the United States and elsewhere.

Little wonder that the WSJ editorial board hit the panic button. Whitehouse’s presentation may finally get the attention that the threat posed by dark money to our democratic institutions, including the judiciary, deserves.

The WSJ editorial board was not the only right-wing platform to go on the counter-attack. The conservative National Review ran a piece during Whitehouse’s remarks captioned “Sheldon Whitehouse is a Loon.” Whitehouse is not a loon, but he has members of the privileged economic classes running very scared.

As a lawyer and former social worker, I long have been aware of the widening gap between rich and poor in our society and concerned about its deleterious effect on our future. Until recently, however, I did not fully appreciate the extent to which economic disparity has been successfully pursued as a specific policy goal by some of America’s most affluent citizens for the past 40 years. I wish that I had taken the time to educate myself sooner.

I urge you to use the occasion of the nomination of Judge Barrett, and Senator Whitehouse’s insightful presentation, to educate yourself on this critical issue. I have included references to two superb books that can be part your reading list on the subject.

“Dark money” is a phenomenon unleased on the American public by two Supreme Court decisions in 2010, including Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. Dark money is money raised for the purpose of influencing elections by nonprofit organizations that are not required by law to disclose the identities of their donors. These organizations can receive unlimited donations from individuals and corporations. So-called Super PACs can raise funds without any legal limit on donation size as long as they do not coordinate or make contributions directly to individual candidates or political parties.

The book “Dark Money” by Jane Mayer is essential reading to put Whitehouse’s remarks in broader context, and to understand that the threat of dark money goes well beyond a biased judicial branch. The desire of the dark money donors to control the judiciary spelled out by Whitehouse serves the ultimate goal of protecting the darker forces of capitalism from government regulation.

To put the influence of dark money into full context, there is one other book that you should read, “Evil Geniuses,” by Kurt Andersen. The book describes how, for the past four decades, an informal coalition of big business executives, the super-rich, and right-wing zealots undermined the rules and norms that produced middle class prosperity and sharply tilted the economic playing field in favor of the upper class.

Wage stagnation for middle class Americans, and the growing and unsustainable disparity in wealth between the haves and the have-nots, are not flukes. They are consequences of deliberate policies successfully promoted by America’s oligarchs.

Whitehorse laid bare the attempts by America’s oligarchs to install a federal judiciary that will protect the oligarch’s gains over the past four decades. Those oligarchs, including their handmaidens in the media and in Congress — and President Donald Trump — will fight tooth and nail to discredit Whitehouse and keep his concerns from gaining political momentum.

The corruption of capitalism as this country’s economic system, heavily tilting it toward helping the very rich get richer and keeping everyone else pretty much where they are, has not gotten nearly enough attention, probably because the subject is a bit arcane. Of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president, Elizabeth Warren certainly got it, and did her best to place the issue front and center.

Bernie Sanders got it too, but in a way his campaign (and his most ardent followers) may have harmed efforts to bring the issue of the need for systemic regulatory, financial, and tax reform into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Warren carefully characterized her message as repairing capitalism.

Sanders, on the other hand, came across as wanting to replace capitalism with socialism, and that certainly is the goal of many of his followers. It is not, however, the goal of the vast majority of Americans, and it is questionable how much of the rhetoric from the self-described “democratic socialist” that they believed.

In any event, it is incumbent upon us to get this issue into the mainstream of Democratic Party political discourse. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has assured Sanders, Warren, and others that he understands its importance. It is imperative that he wins on November 3rd.

Donald Trump is the candidate of the oligarchs, foreign and domestic. His “genius” has been in throwing enough red meat to his base — racism, xenophobia, overturning Roe v. Wade, etc. — to keep them loyal without delivering on his promises to help ordinary Americans. If elected to a second term he will put the movement toward oligarchy into overdrive, with him in the role of oligarch-in-chief like his buddy Vladimir Putin in Russia. The working class will be forgotten once again.

We need to educate ourselves on this subject, and wake up before it is too late. Take a look at what is going on in terms of voter suppression. If we wait too long while the oligarchy consolidates its control of democratic institutions, including the electoral process, it will take an actual revolution to restore fairness and balance to our economic and governmental systems.

Retired lawyer, former prosecutor, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Commentary published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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