A Slip of the Chip

Dark Money and 501(c)(4) Associations

An accident on the internet last month exposed a hidden form of political corruption known as “dark money.” It allows corporations to donate funds to “social welfare groups” set up specifically to support their political interests while circumventing legal limits.

The New York Times, in a highly unusual step, editorialized about the practice: “There’s absolutely no legal justification for any political party to have a social welfare group, which exists solely as a vehicle for nervous donors who want to stay in the shadows. But whether the money is secret or disclosed, both parties are routinely selling access to the nation’s governors and their staffs to those with the most resources.”

Apart from The Times’s Editorial Board, few seemed surprised by the practice – or by the larger point about the buying and selling of political influence by corporations. The specific practice of “dark money” may be new, but contributing to political campaigns, hiring lobbyists, attending industry meetings, and setting up special occasions to get corporate executives together with legislators, their staff members, lobbyists, regulators – all of this has become common. It reinforces the belief in the eyes of the public that the system is rigged.

It doesn’t seem that the “accident” was the work of a self-appointed whistle-blower, and it may be as simple as a secretary pressing the wrong button. But it may also be an unconscious slip, which like many such slips could have been motivated in ways we can only imagine, such as guilt about participating in unethical schemes, belief the practice should be illegal, or anger about the system for being so weighted against the middle class. Then, of course, the slip may have been born of carelessness, rooted in the conviction that any restraints on wealth are pointless, bound to be circumvented sooner or later. I feel a tendency in myself to come around to that conviction.

The Times’s editorial concluded sardonically: “Those without a checkbook can stay in the back of the line.” But what is the power of such ridicule?

Clearly there are important discriminations to be made here, regulations and laws that need to be established as we struggle to maintain our belief in democracy and keep the political playing field reasonably level. Few of these influence peddling practices pass the smell test, stirring up visceral responses that, inevitably, provoke unconscious reactions. If so, “accidents” like this are bound to happen with increasing frequency.

That may be the only sign of hope as politicians, legislators, commentators, pundits and, even, the courts give up any pretense of opposition to this trend. The smell is getting just too bad, a stench that provokes disgust, revulsion, fear – and small acts of sabotage.

The underlying problem, though, is that such unconscious reactions tend to remain out of awareness. We smile at them, we may even laugh out loud, as we “understand” what is going on without being able to articulate it clearly or formulate a response.

Laughter and ridicule may be the best we can do.