Dark Money

In this current climate…feeling tense yet? Well, it all started with an election almost two years ago. And we’re divided as ever. Each side blaming the other and when the ultimate goal is to get your candidate elected. We’ll do whatever it takes to get our person in and to keep the other one out. There was once an idealistic past where candidates were chosen in the court of ideas. Now elections are won and lost using game theory, pandering, and toxic vitriol.

Director Kimberly Reed takes on the subject of campaign finance reform in her documentary Dark Money. The term “Dark Money” refers to the campaign ads where you don’t know who’s paying for the ads. Faceless organizations that pour money into campaigns without every disclosing the people in that organization.

Dark Money opens at the little-known epicenter of campaign finance reform, Montana. Known as a resource state, Montana made its riches from its natural resources primarily silver mining. At the start of the century, the Anaconda Mining Company spent decades mining and extracting every last ounce of silver it could find. They were the state’s largest employer and became a powerful entity. They bought and controlled the Montana State Government to ensure that state business and environmental regulation were favorable to Anaconda.

When the last ore of silver was extracted, all that was left was an empty mine and a major water source in the form of a lake, permanently contaminated resulting in death to any living creature finding refuge. In the aftermath, the corporate damage was done and to ensure this would never happen again, Montana enacted some of the harshest campaign finance reform laws decades ago. It made it illegal for corporations to contribute money to any state campaign.

“…goes into great detail chronicling the demise of Montana’s long-held campaign finance laws thanks to Citizens United…”

The winds of change are inevitable. Something sinister is happening in Montana elections. Coordinated attacks fired on longtime Montana politicians. The film’s first subject is former Republican state representative John Ward (R). Heading into the primaries, Republican incumbent Ward was blindsided by a series of political postcards sent to Montana citizens claiming that Ward was soft on crime and a personal friend of “killer clown” John Wayne Gacy. These last-minute attack ads were not only effective in costing Ward the primary, but they were complete lies too. This mysterious PAC calls itself “Mothers Against Child Predators” was behind the smear campaign.  These “mothers” were well funded and well-coordinated.

Dark Money goes into great detail chronicling the demise of Montana’s long-held campaign finance laws thanks to Citizens United, who argued that corporation involvement in campaign ads is considered free speech and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.

Director Reed follows the trail of investigative journalist John Adams. Adams’ mission to expose how insidious the influence of Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super PACs are. How they skirt around state and federal laws to peddle influence. How they can buy elections using vast amounts of cash resources. Adams calls out the Koch Brothers and large coffers of cash available to any candidate willing to support their business agenda.

Full disclosure, I personally tend to lean a little to the Libertarian side of things—unfettered freedom, you might say. Dark Money is decidedly one-sided in its presentation. It clearly argues all forms of corporate influence is bad, especially when that influence does not originate from that state or community. Like many political documentaries, they tend to labor on about a simple solution to a complex problem and saying the election process is complex is an overwhelming understatement.

“…succeed in presenting a strong case for campaign finance reform.”

Dark Money does succeed in presenting a strong case for campaign finance reform. While I am a proponent of freedom of speech in all forms, Reed makes the strong case that against the financial resources of outside interests, the battle can literally be a David-and-Goliath-like battle, where David gets squashed in the end. But can you really blame the Rep. Ward’s primary loss to a bunch of postcards?

For me, campaign finance reform is not a binary issue. One can agree with parts of it and oppose other parts. Businesses have the right to protect their own interests. Unions have the right to protect its members. Individuals have the right to campaign for their candidates. While I may believe in the right of any person, business, or organization’s right to free speech, I also believe in full disclosure. Who is paying for these ads?

At its heart of campaign finance reform was meant to protect the American voter from being duped by misleading ads and organizations. Like it or not, freedom of speech covers the freedom to lie. That’s right. I said it. Believe it or not, candidates lie. Ugh…I mean the opposing candidate lies, not my candidate, of course. My candidate always tells the truth. Controlling behavior through laws is an exercise in madness. The truth is you can pass as many reform laws as you want, but like the game of chess, there’s always a counter-move to bypass that new regulation. Ultimately, voters need to start using their brains and read past the headlines and talking points and figure out what you really believe and make an informed vote.

The most interesting aspect of Dark Money is the part that’s not there. The documentary ends just after the presidential election of Donald Trump. In the end, outgoing Federal Elections Committee chair Ann Ravel, frustrated by the lack of attention she received from the Obama administration writes a letter to now President Trump touting how he refused outside money for his campaign and urged him to make a change. The scene is a little cynical knowing nothing would change. But with the current battle between Trump and the Koch Brothers, the grassroots primary win of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the spotlight placed on fake Russian Facebook ads, maybe voters are wising up, or they just got used to the noise.

Dark Money (2018) Directed by Kimberly Reed. Written by Kimberly Reed and Jay Arthur Sterrenberg.

7 out of 10 stars

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