Jane Mayer: Dark Money in Politics

How does “money in politics” work? Is there a plan by some billionaires to seed the political landscape with “dark money”?

In this post, we present the research of investigative journalist Jane Mayer who exposed the immense influence of the Koch brothers on American politics. The Koch brothers are wealthy libertarians who have used their fortune to reshape the nation’s political landscape for decades. By giving voice to the wealthy few over the masses, “dark money” is a major problem that contributes to political inequality.

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About Jane Mayer

Jane Mayer, born in 1955, is an American investigative journalist who has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1995. Mayer has written about money in politics, government prosecution of whistleblowers, the US Predator drone program, Donald Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, and Trump’s financial backer Robert Mercer.

Mayer’s book, “The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals” (2008), examines the origins, legal justifications, and possible war crimes liability related to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques (commonly considered torture) on detainees by the CIA and DOD. In 2016, Mayer published “Dark Money,” in which she investigates the conservative fundraising of the Koch brothers.

Dark Money

In “Dark Money,” Jane Mayer delves into the Koch brothers’ 40-year project aimed at reshaping American politics in line with their libertarian beliefs. Charles and David Koch were far-right libertarians who aspired to dismantle big government in the United States, regarding it as a form of tyranny and viewing taxation as theft. They were determined to change the direction of American politics and shrink the government, thereby removing regulations from businesses, including from their own.

Beginnings of the Koch Brothers’ Plan

In 1980, David Koch, with Charles’ support, ran as vice president on the Libertarian ticket. They considered Ronald Reagan as too liberal. Conservatives such as William Buckley described the Koch brothers as “anarcho-totalitarians.” Campaigning at the extreme end of the political spectrum, they got only 1% of the vote.

Following this setback, the Koch brothers devised a new strategy to change American politics without directly winning the popular vote. Their objective was to write the “script” for politicians by focusing on influencing elite public opinion. They drew inspiration from a paper written by Lewis Powell, a future Supreme Court justice, who argued that conservatives, particularly corporate conservatives, were imperiled in America because liberals were ascendant. Powell argued that conservatives needed to capture elite public opinion by targeting influential figures in society, such as newspaper editors, university professors, scientists, clergy, and judges.

Taking Powell’s advice to heart, the Koch brothers used their considerable inherited wealth to fund a system that included university programs, think tanks, and other initiatives to change elite public opinion. They followed in the footsteps of other multimillionaires and billionaires on the right who were also funding similar projects. The Koch brothers believed that politicians were merely actors reciting lines, and the key to transforming America lay in writing the script for those politicians to follow.

Koch Industries, owned by the brothers, manufactures products such as Stainmaster carpet, Lycra, Dixie Cups, and Vanity Fair napkins. The brothers were both graduates of MIT and highly successful businessmen, and as MIT graduates and engineers, David and Charles Koch approached the American political system as an engineering problem. They aimed to manufacture political change and shift the country far to the right on economic issues. Their ultimate goal was to create an assembly line for changing American politics, bypassing the need to win the popular vote directly.

Impact of the Koch Brothers

The Koch brothers have used their wealth to fund various organizations that put out position papers, academic programs, and pressure groups like Americans for Prosperity. This network of organizations has played a significant role in shaping policies, particularly on global warming.

Around 156 members of Congress had signed a pledge created by one of the Koch brothers’ groups, promising to do nothing about global warming that would cost a single cent. In the 2016 election, the Koch brothers and their donor group had a budget of $889 million to support various Republican candidates, as powerful as a third political party in the US.

It’s not just money — it’s what money can buy.

The Koch brothers have been working for four decades to create a network of interlocking organizations aimed at changing American public opinion and ultimately influencing voter behavior. Their strategy of funding think tanks and intellectuals who produce papers supporting their positions, backing pressure groups that appear to be spontaneous citizen-led movements advocating for these policies, and pressuring politicians to adopt these positions has been rather successful. By focusing on influencing key decision-makers and opinion leaders, the Koch brothers have played a crucial role in steering the country toward their vision of a smaller government and fewer regulations on businesses.

This long-term, strategic approach has had a significant impact on the US political landscape. The Koch brothers’ persistent efforts over four decades have shaped public discourse and influenced the direction of American politics, demonstrating the power of wealth and determination in shaping a nation’s political trajectory.

Why the Koch brothers’ influence is different

In American politics, there has always been money and wealthy backers from both the Democratic and Republican parties. According to Mayer, a small group of around 400 to 500 of the country’s richest businessmen with a conservative philosophy operates as a third party in politics, accumulating a war chest for the 2016 election cycle and offering candidates financial backing if they support the group’s positions on various policies.

The Koch organization refers to this group as the “network” and its members as “investors.” The identities of these donors are kept secret, but years of reporting have revealed some of their names. The network at some point employed two to three times the number of paid employees as the Republican National Committee, with a budget twice that of the 2012 Republican National Committee.

This intense, ideologically potent group of wealthy individuals has used their money to influence elections without running for office themselves. Their method of trying to reshape public opinion and political policy is a departure from the traditional democratic approach to elections.

It is essential to remember how quickly the political landscape has changed. In the 1980 presidential election, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan relied on public funding and did not spend private money. The public funding option has since fallen apart, but the cyclical nature of political financing suggests that the situation could change again in the future.

Backlash against money in politics

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have increasingly catered to the interests of their elite and wealthy donors, resulting in middle-class and working-class voters feeling left behind.

While it is challenging to prove that politicians have changed their votes or positions due to donor influence, it is evident in its outcomes, such as policies on trade and financial regulation. For instance, the Democratic Party’s support of NAFTA, pushed by Bill Clinton, negatively impacted American manufacturing companies and wage earners. This move went against organized labor’s stance and favored wealthy donors in the manufacturing industry. Similarly, the Dodd-Frank Act has been criticized for being watered down and ineffective, with only one person jailed for the 2008 financial meltdown.

The amount of money involved in American politics has increased dramatically in recent years, with scandals and reforms often occurring in waves. As money becomes more important in politics, both parties gravitate towards wealthy sources, such as Wall Street for the Democrats, consequently neglecting the interests of rank-and-file voters. This situation has sparked anger among those who feel left behind and ignored by their political representatives.


The Koch brothers’ influence on American politics spans several decades and amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. Charles and David Koch, both strident libertarians, aimed to shrink the government, reduce taxes, and minimize regulations on industries. With a combined fortune of $90 billion, the Koch brothers have been able to significantly impact political decisions.

Despite their initial political failure in 1980, the Koch brothers changed their strategy to influence elite public opinion, funding university programs, think tanks, and other initiatives. Their efforts have shaped public discourse and steered the country towards their vision of smaller government and fewer regulations on businesses.

Beginning with Barack Obama, and the rise of candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, all of whom criticized the influence of politically corrupt money, suggests that Americans are increasingly resistant to the idea of secret money behind politicians. Despite the Koch brothers’ attempts to discredit Mayer’s reporting on their activities, their influence on American politics remains a significant issue that deserves further scrutiny.