The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
I attended my 20th Harvard reunion last month. To my transplanted Florida bones, the 50-degree temperatures reminded me of shivering through my undergraduate years on the banks of the Charles. Perhaps because news was breaking that weekend about the alleged legal woes of “curious” Harvard acceptee and top White House aide Jared Kushner, there was much chatter about him, his politics, and the role of money in elections.
A Harvard reunion is hardly a representative sample of just about anything. Suffice it to say that most people I spoke with are Democrats—though not all. A few were recent Republican defectors. Yet, nearly to a person, they were deeply troubled by the new administration, from its approach to immigration to health care to taxes to basic science to climate change. And we talked about tactics for showing resistance ranging from calling Congress, marching, suing, and getting engaged in electoral politics.
Yet there were others who simply wanted to reach into their wallets and begin doling out dark money. Dark money is certainly tempting. As I describe in my book Corporate Citizen?, dark money is becoming a feature and not a bug of modern American electoral politics. Simply put, dark money is the term for unlimited, undisclosed contributions to non-profit trade associations and social welfare groups that is spent on politics. “Why should we unilaterally disarm?,” the argument went at the reunion. “The other side uses dark money all the time.”
My response was simple: “Don’t be ‘Seduced by the Dark Side.’” Dark money may seem like a satisfying expedient response to the current political crisis, but it corrodes democracy.
Dark money is not a good way finance elections and I won’t change that belief no matter which side is winning. For example in the current Virginia governor’s race, the Washington Post has called out the irony of former top GOP campaign operative Ed Gillespie getting targeted by dark money groups after years of spearheading dark money expenditures against Democrats. But it doesn’t matter who is the target or who is footing the bill. Donors should be open about their support, and have what Justice Scalia called “civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”
Whether dark money comes from the right, the left, the alt-right, the alt-left or the center, it is not healthy. Voters deserve transparency about the true sources of money in politics. Today, it’s impossible to know whether any illegal foreign money is hiding among all the undisclosed funds.
So why is dark money becoming a feature and not a bug in American elections? Because it has become institutionalized through law. And Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is the Lord Darth Vader of dark money.
What? You mean you haven’t seen McConnell prowling the halls of the Capitol in a black cape and breathing mechanically? Let’s just take one case, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). There has been a longstanding SEC petition asking for greater disclosure of corporate dark money. But Vader, uh, McConnell, has consistently added riders to the federal budget blocking the SEC from adopting a dark money rule. He’s likely to try this tactic again this summer, when Congress crafts the new budget.
Don’t let him get away with it. If you live in Kentucky, show up to his town halls and let him know you don’t want dark money in our elections or riders in our budgets that prevent agencies from addressing dark money. Or call his office or tweet at him (@SenateMajLdr) to let him know that dark money shouldn’t become a normal part of our law. Tell him to turn away from the Dark Side.
But any of us who engages in politics from now on should be better than McConnell. If we don’t like dark money, we need to be consistent and condemn it across the board. Transparency should be a positive force that both Democrats and Republicans embrace.