John Buell

Shining a Light on Dark Money

My home state of Maine recently took a step to revive an increasingly moribund democracy. By a 55-45 margin, voters enacted a proposal that strengthens public financing for candidates who elect that option and find themselves facing heavily-financed opponents. Just as significantly the measure requires disclosure of the sources of private financing, the dark money that has become a major concern of democratic activists and the broader public. Preliminary polling showed that concerns about dark money were widely shared and an important issue in driving support for the initiative. Dark money, however, is only one symptom of a larger problem.

There is no better example of the deleterious role money plays than Exxon’s attempts — successful for a whole generation — to quash public awareness of global climate science. Dark money has not only aided candidates who served the interests of the fossil fuel industries, it has shaped the whole contours of the debate long before the issue has taken center stage in American politics. The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) journal recently published a peer-reviewed study based on an analysis of more than 39 million words of text produced by 164 organizations active in the coordinated campaign to deny the existence of human-caused climate change between 1993 and 2013.

Study author Justin Farrell, a Yale University sociologist, told the Washington Post that this “birds-eye view” revealed an “ecosystem of influence” within the corporate-backed groups.

Within this anti-science echo chamber, the Post reports, “[t]hose that received donations consistently promoted the same contrarian themes—casting doubt, for example, on whether higher levels of man-made carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were harmful to the planet. There was no evidence of such coordination among the non-funded groups.”

How do democratic citizens curb the influence of money manifested in ads, think tank reports, and the regular fare presented in the corporate media? How can we limit the ability of corporations to dominate the airwaves without running afoul of First Amendment concerns?

I would start with the contention that much of advertising is political speech and that virtually none of it is informative or useful. In the classic study, Captains of Consciousness, Stuart Ewen argued that corporate advertising has an overarching theme beyond the promotion of particular products. That meta message is that whatever the problems caused by the evolution of our capitalist order and its particular commodity mix, capitalism and new and improved commodities can solve that problem.

Equally significant is the role that advertising plays in exacerbating the status anxieties so prevalent in a society both as inegalitarian and work-dependent as our own. Once again, commodities are portrayed as the answer to such anxieties, but once acquired soon lose their luster as others gain similar items. Life in the squirrel cage continues. In the process environmental stresses grow, only to be hidden not only by the Exxons of the world and wished away by consumers who often feel trapped in these consumption binds.

More obviously, ongoing corporate advertising addresses controversial political questions long before elections. Thus natural gas trade groups tout clean natural gas as abundant—complements of fracking—and thus cheap. Surely they have the right to make such a claim, but not via a public subsidy.

As a society we should stop subsidizing advertising. Advertising, like fiancé, takes some of the sharpest minds among our undergraduates and an enormous amount of our resources. Under current law it is treated as a cost of doing business. Just as some activists have proposed limits to the amount of CEO salaries that can be treated as business expenses, so too should advertising expenses be treated in a like fashion. Thus, if deductible advertising were to be limited to 1% of corporate revenues, corporations wanting to do more would not be prohibited but could not deduct the excess from their taxable income.

Ideally, public interest groups should have an opportunity to respond to ads like the natural gas promotions. I’d like to see the corporate media, which themselves benefited from subsidies and monopoly power, required to provide lowest cost ad space to such groups. In addition, Dean Baker has suggested that every citizen be able to claim a tax credit for contributions to charities or tax-exempt think tanks of their persuasion. More broadly we need to advance models of decentralized, pluralist media as the best answer to the dark or obscure money that has metastasized throughout our political economy.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine and writes on labor and environmental issues. His books include Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age (Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2016

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