By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 4, 2018)
If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.
What is this “dark money” of which “they” speak these days? You know, “them”…all those smarty-pants news anchors and political pundits and conspiracy theorists on the internet, radio and TV who bandy the term about with worried tone and furrowed brows?
According to a new documentary by Kimbery Reed helpfully entitled Dark Money, that term should be bandied about with worried tone and furrowed brow. To paraphrase Jason Robards’ wry understatement in All the President’s Men: “Nothing’s riding on this except the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.” Oh…there is also a little matter of the continuing integrity of our elections.
Before you panic, I should clarify that there is a “New Coke” (New Koch?) element here. The implementation of “dark money” is nothing new. The concept of “buying an election” is deeply embedded in the DNA of our republic… it’s as American as apple pie. It’s just that the semantics have evolved. Terms like “graft” and “influence peddling” have been part of our lexicon for a long time (“a rose by any other name”…and all that).
Even the Father of Our Country played a little footsie under the table (some 30 years prior to the Constitution, no less). From a 2014 Washington Post article by Jamie Fuller:
When George Washington lost an election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1755, he decided to improve outreach. Two years later, he bought about $195 worth of punch and hard cider for friends and managed to win. However, the newly elected legislature quickly passed a law prohibiting candidates from giving voters “meat, drink, entertainment or provision or…any present, gift, reward, or entertainment etc. in order to be elected.”
How quaint. The point of course is that campaign finance reform has unquestionably been there all along, as well. However, the effectiveness of such legislation is perennially…questionable. One thing’s for sure…the Founding Fathers could never have envisioned the SCOTUS’s “Citizens United” decision of 2010. Also from Fuller’s piece:
2010-In Citizens United vs. FEC, the Supreme Court held that independent expenditures by corporations and labor unions were protected by the First Amendment, which struck down BCRA provisions—building on previous campaign finance laws—banning these types of expenditures.
A few months later, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals applied the decision in Citizens United to the case Speechnow.org v. FEC. The federal judges decided arguments that unlimited independent expenditures would lead to corruption were invalid. The chief judge noted that these arguments “plainly have no merit after Citizens United.” These two cases paved the way for the creation of super PACs and the growing power of 501(c) 4s.
Man that is some byzantine postmodern influence peddling, in contrast to a couple jugs of hard cider and a set of wooden teeth. I am aware that most of Digby’s regular readers are much more politically astute than I. But for someone like me, who doesn’t know a “501(c) 4” from a petit four…you have to literally draw me a picture.
Thankfully, the “star” of Reed’s documentary, investigative journalist and founder of the online Montana Free Press John S. Adams, does just that at one point in the film. He summarizes thus: “[Backdoor corporate campaign financing via super PACs] is not the people controlling the government. It’s a government, controlled by a corporation, controlling the people.”
Reed has found two perfect framing devices for her treatise; firstly, Adams with his mission to expose the insidiousness of elections that are (“thanks” to the Citizens United ruling) bought and sold by untraceable corporate money, and secondly the state of Montana itself, posited as the “front line” in the fight to preserve fair elections nationwide.
Montana makes a fascinating case study on many levels, from its “citizen legislature” (a unique practice shared by a handful of states), to its history of campaign finance reform (e.g. the “Corrupt Practices Act of 1912”). Rich in resources, the state has a sad tradition of being exploited by special interest groups; every level of their political system is dominated by corporate interests (not unlike many Third World countries, n’est-ce pas?).
Reed takes a few side trips around the country as well, to illustrate the many tendrils of dark money interests. For example, she points to the 2010 election of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, whose victory was due in no small part to the Koch brothers-funded conservative political advocacy group Americans For Prosperity. Walker is also held up as an example of how crucial the control of state supreme courts is to dark money interests (pointing to his cronyism in appointing some of his major supporters as justices).
Admittedly, it’s all a bit of a downer. Still, Reed gives us glimmers of hope here and there. Case in point: Beginning in February 2019, right here where I live, in Seattle, the “Democracy Voucher” program will kick in. As explained on the Seattle.gov website:
In November 2015, Seattle voters passed a citizen-led initiative known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). I-122 enacted several campaign finance reforms that changed the way campaigns are typically financed for Seattle candidates.
One major reform allows the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission to distribute “Democracy Vouchers” to eligible Seattle residents. Other campaign reforms include campaign contribution limits for lobbyists and contractors.
Seattle is the first city in the nation to try this type of public campaign financing. The Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission is committed to increasing transparency, accountability, and accessibility for how Seattle elections are financed.
It’s a start. But Seattle is only one city, and it’s a big country (and look who’s in charge).
If “dark money” is the antithesis of “democracy” to you, and gives you cause for concern, then this film is in your wheelhouse. Granted, if you are a political junkie Reed may be preaching to the choir, but her film is accessible enough to work for the casually engaged and/or wonky-curious voter as an easy-to-digest primer on a complex (and timely) issue.
Greed is the lack of confidence in one’s own ability to create.
Here’s a stupid question: Who wants to be a millionaire? Yeah, pretty much everybody. But is a million enough? And if not, why not? Why is it always “more more more (how do you like it, how do you like it?)”. And why are people who have more than they could ever spend so goddam unhappy until they can figure out a new way to make even more?
In 2008, filmmaker and photo-journalist Lauren Greenfield set out to answer those questions. The culmination of her decade-long project is a “multi-platform” release including a museum exhibition, monograph book, and the documentary Generation Wealth. This is solely a review of the film portion of Greenfield’s triptych.
Spurred by the accelerating worldwide obsession with wealth and all that it implies, Greenfield literally goes all over the map (L.A., Monaco, Russia, China) in this sprawling study. She profiles a jarringly disparate cavalcade of subjects, from porn stars and plastic surgery addicts to convicted Wall Street swindlers; people who have gained and lost fortunes, people who live beyond their means to feed their narcissism, to people who got fucked up because they were born into wealth…pretty much the entire, erm, rich pageant.
It’s a great concept, and I understand what she was trying to do, but unfortunately, the project turns into a case of the dog finally catching the bus but not knowing what do next. Adding to the unfocused approach, and glorified reality show memes, Greenfield does a 180 and turns the camera on herself and her family.
In a tangential sense, this reminded me of one my favorite documentaries, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, which began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South but ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and validation, filtered through McElwee’s search for the perfect mate. Now, there’s one thing money can’t buy.