Political Money: New Best-Selling Book Genre?

AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Members of Arkansas Democracy Coalition and other groups rally at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Arkansas, Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Speakers at the rally called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. 

Books about who pays for American elections rarely hit the bestseller lists, but a rash of new titles tackling the once-obscure topic of campaign financing signals that publishers now regard political money as popular fare.

Whether your cup of tea is juicy details about the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, like those New Yorker writer Jane Mayer dishes up in her 450-page narrative Dark Money, or rigorous legal analysis along the lines of what Richard L. Hasen delivers in Plutocrats United, the newly hot genre of political money has something to offer.

For progressive organizers, California writer and activist Derek Cressman’s When Money Talks: The High Price of ‘Free’ Speech and the Selling of Democracy offers a how-to primer on how fed-up citizens can take action. For conservatives, law professor Richard Painter’s Taxation Only With Representation argues that campaign reforms would lead government to both spend less and regulate less. For those looking for a middle way, Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman explain in Nation on the Take how special interest money impacts the daily lives of ordinary Americans.

None of these books will win fans in every quarter. Some reform advocates will wish that Mayer went beyond describing the problem to spelling out solutions. And some scholars will quibble that Hasen’s argument for legal fixes to promote “political equality” would not withstand constitutional muster. Conservatives will dismiss Cressman’s book out of hand, and liberals may argue that the books by Painter and by Potter and Penniman don’t go far enough.

But as a group, the new crop of campaign-finance books paint a compelling and detail-rich portrait of what’s wrong with the nation’s election system, and what might be done to fix it. Again and again, these books return to themes of economic inequality, participatory democracy, and to the disproportionate influence that a few wealthy donors wield at the expense of average Americans.

Amid talk that campaign financing may even prove the defining issue of the 2016 campaign, publishers’ interest in the topic testifies to mounting public concern. We spoke with a few of the authors of the new campaign-finance books now hitting the shelves, who all agreed that voters—and readers—are thirsty for solutions.

In Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer describes in lively and exhaustively reported detail how the Koch brothers emerged from a rigid and repressive upbringing to mount a decades-long crusade to promote their free-market ideology of small government and deregulation. The book’s major themes include the influence a few wealthy billionaires wield on politics and policy, and the Kochs’ use of tax-exempt groups to hide their political spending.

“Vast majorities of people in the country support Social Security and want to see it strengthened,” says Mayer. “Majorities want the minimum wage raised. Majorities think climate change is a problem and want to see something done about it. Yet Congress doesn’t act on these issues. What’s tying their hands? Part of what’s tying their hands is enormously powerful private interests.”

Dark Money describes how Charles and David Koch spent tens of millions over three decades to help win GOP control of state legislatures, governorships, and Congress, underwriting a network of think tanks and advocacy groups that largely operate outside the disclosure rules. As her title suggests, political secrecy is at the heart of Mayer’s story.

“The thing that I most wanted readers to understand is that, especially since Citizens United in 2010, there has been an explosion in secret spending,” says Mayer. “And it’s not so much from corporations, but from enormously wealthy individuals. They’re putting the money through quasi-charitable organizations. They are hiding their hands. And the lack of transparency, to me, is just a huge invitation to corruption.”

Hasen picks up where Mayer leaves off, focusing less on what’s wrong with the system and more on how to fix it. In Plutocrats United: Campaign Money, the Supreme Court, and the Distortion of American Elections, Hasen challenges the assumption that campaign-finance jurisprudence is a balancing act between protecting free speech and curbing corruption, and points to a third defining principle: preserving political equity.

Hasen acknowledges that his argument is aimed less at the current Supreme Court, which under Chief Justice John Roberts has embraced deregulation, and more at whichever new, more progressive high court might emerge in the event of expected vacancies in the next few years, and of a Democratic administration after Election Day.

“My book is aimed at what can be done to change the jurisprudence, and to change the politics so that true reform is possible,” says Hasen.

Hasen argues that political equality is a compelling interest that justifies campaign changes without stifling speech or hurting competition. To promote his “equality rationale,” which posits that no citizen should disproportionately influence elections more than any other citizen, he urges $100 campaign-finance vouchers for every voter, and limits on both campaign contributions and expenditures. Part of his goal, Hasen says, is to shake up the debate.

“I think the conversation about campaign finance in the United States has become stale, and on the reform side it has become somewhat desperate,” says Hasen. “So my thinking was that we need to go back to first principles, and rethink the entire structure that the Supreme Court has put in front of us over the last 40 years.”

If Hasen’s book will appeal to campaign-finance experts, lawyers, and scholars, Potter and Penniman have set out to convince a more general audience that seemingly abstract campaign-finance problems impact average Americans. Titled Nation On the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It, their book includes the stories of real people who paid the price for the policies promoted by the big-spending financial services, pharmaceutical and fossil fuels industries.

“The point is, this is not just about good government, and it’s not just about some abstraction about corruption and lobbyists in Washington,” says Penniman, who heads the bipartisan reform group Issue One. “This is about negative impacts on people’s daily lives.”

The book takes pains to stay away from hot-button issues that tend to divide progressives and conservatives. A chapter titled “It’s Fixable” spells out solutions that might define common ground, such as enhanced disclosure and better enforcement at the FEC.

Like the other authors whose campaign-finance books are hitting the shelves, Penniman says publisher appetite reflects the popular mood: “To the extent that nonfiction book publishing is some kind of representation of the pulse of the country, it certainly seems like the pulse is rising on deep concern about money in politics.”

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