Money, as they say, talks. In Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer traces the network of political funding and lobbying spearheaded by the Koch brothers. Although they feature prominently in this book, this is not solely about them. Rather, it's about how a concerted effort in the past decades has influenced American politics. It's interesting because Mayer positions this story as a fundamental question about whether American democracy can survive such tactics.
Dark Money is a roughly chronological narrative covering the nascence of the Koch brothers through to the present day at the time Mayer was writing. She explores the possible motivations behind the Kochs and their allies, and she grounds everything in essential historical context. This last part is very important. For someone like me, who wasn't alive prior to 1989, events like the elections in the 1970s are literally before my time and are not something I know much about. Mayer does a good job explaining how political funding functioned then as contrasted with now.
As a Canadian, I find elements of all of this quixotic and staggering. Our political system is by no means free of corruption or cronyism. Our current Prime Minister is the son of a former Prime Minister! Nevertheless, funding to political campaigns in Canada is nothing compared to the US. So a lot of this book just boggles my mind for the sheer volume of money we're talking about, and the ways in which people on both sides of the spectrum try to influence elections at all levels.
Prior to reading this book, I already knew about the Koch brothers and the shadiness that is super PACs, etc. Mayer connects all the dots and supplies ample details to build on your prior knowledge and actually arm yourself with facts. The conclusion is simple: wealth disparity is so great in the US that a tiny proportion of the population can exert disproportionate influence. The secondary conclusion is that the groundswell of support for the Tea Party, etc., is not the result of grassroots efforts. Mayer makes it abundantly clear that almost all of these conservative sources of opposition are rooted in privileged millionaires' and billionaires' funding. Combine that with aggressive gerrymandering and misinformation, and you have a recipe to influence policy and elections.
Mayer demonstrates that fake news and misinformation has existed long before the Internet was able to spread it. That being said, if there is any weakness to her comprehensive coverage, it might be that she seldom analyzes the effects of new media on these issues. Occasionally she remarks how the Kochtopus was taken unawares by Obama's crowdsourcing or whatnot. Yet overall, this is a lacuna in her analysis, something left very much unconsidered.
I wouldn't label this book as "essential" because it is ultimately quite long and dry. Yet it is still interesting. If this is a part of politics that you want to learn more about, you would do well to read this. Even if you don't pick up this book, it's worth reading about this issue in general (Mayer herself has published some articles on it).