By Jon Schwarz and cross-posted from The Intercept
If you, like most Americans, believe you’re being screwed by the U.S. political system, and would like to know exactly how the screwing functions, tune into “Dark Money,” a new documentary premiering Monday, October 1 on PBS. The film, directed by Kimberly Reed, is one of the most expert dissections ever conducted of the subterranean tentacles quietly strangling U.S. democracy. (“Dark Money” was co-funded by Topic Studios, which is part of First Look Media, along with The Intercept.)
The movie is largely about the last decade of politics in Montana. This long-term, close-to-the-ground focus is cinematically unique, and makes it possible for “Dark Money” to illuminate three startling facts about how America now works.
First, the corporate hard-right is systematically investing in politics at an incredibly granular level, down to state and local races.
Second, they’re not just trying to crush Democrats. Leaked documents examined in the movie show conspirators discussing a plan to “purge” all Republicans who don’t share their worldview — an ideology so conservative that it hasn’t been seen in full flower in the U.S. for 100 years. In fact, the politicians who appear in the film are largely Republicans who’ve been successfully targeted for the right-wing purge, who speak wistfully about Montana’s evaporating history as a small-d democracy.
Third, dark money, while just one tributary of the Mississippi of cash flowing through the U.S. political system, is a key tool of the corporate right. It gets its name from the fact that certain kinds of nonprofit corporations — unlike political campaigns and even Super PACs — currently do not have to disclose their donors.
Big, out-of-state money therefore can flood into small races in the last weeks before an election with total anonymity, paying for the sleaziest ads and mailers imaginable, produced by organizations created solely for that purpose. For instance, as the film depicts, three days before the 2008 GOP primary, a group calling itself Mothers Against Child Predators sent out bulk mailings suggesting that John Ward, an incumbent Republican state representative, was a secret admirer of the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, simply because he opposed the death penalty. Ward then was defeated by a little-known, more conservative challenger. Mothers Against Child Predators, having served its purpose, vanished, with Montanans having no idea who was behind it.
This secrecy serves the corporate right both coming and going: Voters can’t judge whether big, out-of-state interests are behind ads, and corporate funders won’t suffer brand damage when they back smear campaigns or push extreme candidates…