New paint, and shining some light on the dark money

by Rob Tiller

We’re getting ready to have our apartment painted, and it feels a lot like getting ready to move.  All the books are coming off the shelves and going into boxes or the used bookseller, and some old furniture is going to charity or the dump.  It’s unsettling, but we’re ready for some new colors.  Change can be good.

We’re feeling a little shaky as we enter the home stretch of the presidential election.  I still haven’t recovered from the shock of the disastrous election four years ago, and I doubt those scars will ever heal entirely.  Of course, we all always knew, anything can happen, but the 2016 election was a point when we realized, truly, anything could happen.  That is, of course, still true.

But it’s also true that we know a few things we didn’t in 2016, and we’re learning more all the time.  We may or may not have hit bottom for degraded hypocrisy by Republican Senators with the confirmation process for Judge Barrett.   But one good moment in the process came from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D., RI), who managed to shed a bit of light in the darkness. 

Specifically Senator Whitehouse called out the contributions of millions of dollars in dark money that went into confirming Trump’s Supreme Court nominees.  That is, boatloads of money from rich individuals and corporations have been and are being spent to get a Supreme Court that concerns almost exclusively with the well being of corporations and wealthy people, and the favored beliefs of one type of religion.  It should be shocking.  

A new report by Senator Whitehouse, Senator Warren, and others gives more details about the dark money and its success in controlling the courts. It’s here.

The enormous changes that the rich have wrought in our society in the last 50 years are the subject of Kurt Andersen’s new book, which I’ve almost finished.  In Evil Geniuses:  The Unmaking of America (A Recent History), Andersen gives a lively and readable account of changes in politics, law, and finance that quietly transformed our lives.  The elites got much, much richer, and most everyone else got leftovers.

As Andersen explains, the ideas behind the changes were not complicated.  The main objectives were and still are about lower taxes for rich people, and eliminating regulations on corporations.  The implementation involved enormous expenditures by people like the Kochs, Scaifes, and Olins to maximize political influence.  Beginning in the 1970s, they cleverly normalized their extreme position by establishing a network of conservative think tanks, endowed positions for friendly academics, politicians, and eventually, judges.  

Among the happy recipients of all that dark money was the Federalist Society, which engineered the nomination of Judge Barrett and boosted five current Justices, not to mention many other federal judges.  The group has been funded by a rogues gallery of super wealthy right wingers, including the Kochs, Olins, Scaifes, andMercers, and now gets millions of dollars annually from such sources.  

The publicly expressed ideology of the Federalist Society is all about freedom, constitutional rights, and tradition.   Much of its actual work is all about making sure the rich get to keep all the money they have and get a lot more.  Otherwise, group members generally support right wing positions on social issues of special interest to a regressive branch of Christianity, including abortion, gay marriage, and maintaining the racial status quo. 

As Andersen explains, we arrived at our current situation of oligarchic control and extreme inequality in small steps, many of which were legally and financially complicated. Most of us didn’t even realize the takeover was happening.  But with raw and unapologetic power plays like the Barrett confirmation process, the big picture is snapping into focus:  one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for the rich.

Getting to this point took a very long, careful, intensive effort on the part of the super greedy.  The good news is, the brutal oligarchic system we’ve now got is not set in stone.  We can change it and make one that’s fairer and more compassionate.   It may be we’re just about to start that work.  We’ll have a better idea in a couple of weeks.  

One quick postscript to my post of October 9 regarding Judge Barrett, Justice Scalia, and originalism. Erwin Chemerinsky, an eminent constitutional scholar, reinforced a couple of my points in a NY Times op ed this week . He notes that originalism is not at all what it pretends to be, in terms of its certainty and objectivity. He also points out that some of its positions run directly counter to our basic ideals regarding equality.