Dark Money (2008)
When a documentarian makes their name with a highly personal documentary, it is always a question whether the skill that made them an effective storyteller in that setting will translate to a more impersonal topic. Kimberly Reed's Prodigal Sons is one of my favorite documentaries, dealing with her transition and some other family drama. With Dark Money she shifts to the fertile ground of the political/social issue documentary, focusing on the influence of money in politics. The way she keeps it somewhat smaller and more personal is by using her home state of Montana as the case study. The selection of Montana isn't purely sentimental, but rather it is a state with a surprising history of strong campaign finance regulation stemming in part to its history of some profound devastation at the hand of early industrial tycoons.
Money in politics is a touchy point for me. On the one hand, I'm fully supportive of taking major strides to get money out of politics. I do not believe money should be considered speech and that monetary contributions to political efforts should be heavily limited. The current Supreme Court disagrees with me. The Court does allow (for now) that Congress can mandate disclosure rules, though at present it has done little on this. One scene in this documentary charts out the risk of poor disclosure policies that create de facto bribery with almost no means of enforcement except under unusual circumstances as in one case featured in the documentary. The thing is, I'm not sure how big of a deal this actually is in affecting political outcomes. The shady groups involved here aren't that far removed from something like Emily's List, but instead of screening candidates for pro-choice views, they screen them for views on things like Right To Work laws. The only difference is Emily's List is public about its aims while these other groups are a bit cagier. But the point is, the views drive the support more than the support drives the views.
The problem is this is not a bipartisan issue. The interesting thing about Montana as a subject for this film's analysis is that many of the people targeted by the dark money efforts are Republicans, in primary contests against more radical members of their party. This, in tandem with the financing of the right-wing media structures, goes a long way to explaining why the Republican party has gotten so extreme. But it isn't like the politicians are distinctly more conservative than their base as a result of dark money...their base they are drawn from is just as radical. There is no comparable apparatus on the left. Instead of a fairly uniform radicalism nationally, Democratic ideology tends to be tethered to the liberalism of each area, with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Vermont and the Bronx, but Joe Manchin in West Virginia. The Cook Political Index and a focus on what the area's economic specialty is explains the variations a lot better than corporate contributions do.
But as much as I want to dismiss the role of money and instead focus on the institutional issues that I think do truly structure political outcomes a lot more, I cannot completely escape the way money influences those institutions. The documentary is effective here in looking at how these groups have particularly focused on state Supreme Courts that are often elected (which is dumb), and also effectively captured the US Supreme Court where life terms (which are dumb) make control sticky, especially with a prominent role given to the Senate (which is horribly disproportionate and generally dumb). With influence in these areas, not exactly through money but through taking control of one party in a two-party system and exploiting moments of power, they have put their finger on the scales to tilt the institutions increasingly their way. In Montana the documentary has a glimmer of hope at the end of its thorough and well structured analysis. The public has displayed an appetite for good government measures even in conservative states when it is put to direct vote (though again, the courts can overrule these). So maybe there is hope, though I tend to be a pessimist that maintains the only long-term solution is taking a tip from the Founders and tossing out the Constitution they wrote in favor for a new document better suited to the current challenges.