The Dark Future of Democracy
A New York Times investigation into non-profit political spending in 2020 revealed a dramatic increase in Democrats’ use of “dark money.” Though the term is often used by the left to criticize their Republican counterparts, research proves they have been hypocrites, participating in the same practices, for the past two years.
The term “dark money” refers to funds anonymously donated to non-profit organizations (like the National Rifle Association or March For Our Lives), that subsequently pump them into the political system. To keep these groups distinct from more inherently political organizations, such as Political Action Committees (PACs) or Super PACs, the IRS classifies dark money funds under different tax codes — so they do not have to play by the same rules as the rest of our electoral system.
By filtering money through these sources, ultra-wealthy donors and corporations are able to remain nameless political actors. Their money is spent unencumbered by disclosure requirements and public scrutiny. The funds materialize in a myriad of ways: private polls, litigation funding, campaign ads, opposition research, voter outreach, and more.
It was not always like this. In 2010, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision changed the way America funded its elections. It allowed groups with clear political interests to define themselves as ‘social welfare’ organizations, thereby adhering to this newer, shadier set of rules. And ever since that decision, the number of these dark money groups skyrocketed.
While both parties have benefited from dark money, Republicans typically enjoyed a significantly larger share of these funds — something the Democrats have been quick to call out.
Their most notorious targets were two Republican brothers: Charles and David Koch.
The Koch brothers’ political spending quickly grew to outstrip that of the RNC itself, and their name became synonymous on the left with corruption.
Former President Barack Obama railed against the idea of dark money in politics throughout his presidency, including a speech given just before his departure from office in 2016. Yet, he quietly benefited from its structures in the 2012 election.
President Joe Biden campaigned on ending dark money groups and increasing transparency in election spending. He also promised to propose a constitutional amendment to “entirely eliminate private dollars from our federal elections,” which his campaign website claims would not only overturn Citizens United but “return our democracy to the people and away from corporate interests that seek to distort it.”
But the persistent threat of former President Donald Trump turned this dynamic on its head. The Democrats, buoyed by an influx in support from Republicans disillusioned with Trump, capitalized on the very thing Biden campaigned on ending to propel him into the presidency.
In 2020, this materialized into a class of ultra-wealthy Democrats and moderate Republicans pouring money into left-aligned nonprofits at a record-setting rate. As reported by The Times, one group alone, The Sixteen Thirty Fund, spent over four hundred million dollars to elect Democrats—more than the Democratic National Committee. There were dozens more of these mysterious organizations behind them. Altogether, the fifteen largest Democrat-aligned nonprofits spent over 1.7 billion dollars in 2020.
In contrast, the largest conservative dark money group–One Nation–spent 195 million dollars, with the largest 15 groups totaling just over 900 million dollars, according to The Times.
The right is not taking this opportunity to gloat, though. Rich Republican donors are instead fighting to close the gap, resulting in a dark money arms race. The Koch family has made statements distancing their PAC from the Republican party, announcing their intentions to shift towards more bipartisan issues such as criminal justice reform.
This created a vacuum in conservative politics, with dozens of groups rushing in to fill that void. Many are linked to Leonard Leo, a conservative financier and former Federalist Society executive. Groups aligned with Leo spent over 120 million dollars in 2020, according to The Times. Marc Short, the former Chief of Staff to Vice President Pence, is also spearheading a new group called American Freedom which just spent over ten million dollars fighting against the passage of Biden’s Build Back Better initiative.
Critics of dark money hold that by allowing billions of dollars to be anonymously injected into the political process, elections become controlled more by the wealthiest few Americans and less by the will of the voters. While small donors are a growing and formidable financial force in America, their reach is greatly overshadowed by that of anonymous mega-donors.
The issue has less to do with the amount of money raised, and more to do with the number of people raising it. When individual Americans are outspent by just 15 groups, led by a handful of people, there will be serious skews in the issues candidates campaign for—and against.
Previously, the Democratic party was this practice's loudest and most powerful critic. Now, with real institutional power to do something about it, they stand to lose billions of dollars if dark money is ever meaningfully curtailed.
Biden has yet to introduce his promised amendment banning dark money—and has gone silent on his idea of overturning Citizens United—putting the best hope for reform in serious jeopardy. As these shady nonprofits grow exponentially more powerful, and as loosened rules allow essentially unlimited funds to be raised and spent outside of the public view, the state of our democracy is left in the lurch.