'Power corrupts" is one of the most famous maxims in politics. In Ireland, we know all too well how public life can be corrupted by money and influence. Growing up in Longford in the 1990s, one of my abiding memories is the seemingly endless corruption tribunals involving senior politicians, backroom fixers and businessmen (they always seemed to be men).
But if you want to influence politics beyond a planning decision or a dodgy public contract, doling out cash in brown envelopes is a very blunt tool. Politicians might not do what they say. They might get voted out or be demoted. Besides, what if instead of getting land rezoned or a sweetheart deal, you want to change a country's entire political culture? The way to do that isn't to buy the politicians - it is to own the ideas that dominate the political conversation.
This is what has happened in the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years as increasingly amounts of secretive 'dark money' has flooded into politics, aided by the rise of anonymous digital campaigning and weak electoral laws. Where buying politics once involved backhanders to politicians, now it's about buying the system itself. The result is a world of Donald Trump, Brexit and social media partisanship that many experts believe is imperilling the future of democracy.
'Dark money' is an American term for an increasingly global phenomenon: funds from unknown sources that influence our politics. This money gets into the political system in an increasing variety of ways, including through loopholes in election law and online political campaigns and through agenda-setting pressure groups that do not declare their funding. In her authoritative book on election finance, Dark Money, the American journalist Jane Mayer outlines how US democracy was in effect bought by a cadre of the super-rich and their surrogates, often through anonymous political action committees (PACs) that can spend limitless amounts of money.
The sums involved in these 'super PACs' are eye-watering. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, co-owners of the second-largest private company in the US with strong interests in coal and petroleum, spent more than $1.5bn on Republican political causes until David's death last year. Trump's biggest backers included the hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, a major investor in Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics company that was shut down in 2018 after being found to have harvested data from more than 85 million Facebook profiles without users' knowledge.
As the US gears up for November's presidential election, the importance of money has seldom been greater. Both Trump and Joe Biden are furiously fundraising, with most of the money raised coming from a handful of super-rich donors. Attempts to control the role of private money in US politics have largely been abandoned, since the 'Citizens United' Supreme Court decision that corporations qualify as individuals whose free speech needed protection, paving the way for unlimited anonymous campaign contributions. "A federal election in the US is supposed to be decided by 150 million voters and yet the policy preferences are being determined by literally 20 people, 20 major donors," Adav Noti, a US election lawyer with the Campaign Legal Centre, told me from Washington DC.
Libertarian political philosophies
This 'dark money' takeover of American politics can be traced to the 1970s, and one unlikely character in particular: Richard Fink. A teenage tearaway, Fink injured his back loading freight cars in his native New Jersey. Bored, he enrolled in an economics course in university. He would later say that he didn't even know what economics was. Fink soon learned. He developed a particular passion for the Austrian school that underpinned most libertarian political philosophies. The state should play a minimal role, and the fewer regulations the better.
After college, Fink started a postgraduate course in New York University but he was struck by the paucity of schools teaching about the Austrian school economists Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. He asked Charles Koch for money to start a programme in Rutgers University, where he was teaching part-time. In the late 1970s, Fink flew to Wichita, Kansas, the centre of the brothers' oil empire. Fink was 27, with long hair, a beard and a black polyester suit with white piping that wouldn't have looked out of place in Saturday Night Fever. Charles Koch gave him $150,000. Fink repaid the mogul's faith in him. He developed a theory of how political change could be manufactured, just like any one of the myriad products that Koch Industries produced every single day.
Fink summed up his theory in a paper called The Structure of Social Change. Behind the dry title was an ingenious three-tiered model for how to bring about a libertarian revolution. The first stage was investing in academics who would produce "the intellectual raw materials". Money poured into universities from libertarian donors. Graduate programmes in Austrian economics started opening across the US. Step two in the process, Fink once explained, entailed taking the "often unintelligible" intellectual output of these academic programmes and refining them into a "usable form". Think-tanks were key. Independent research institutes had existed in the US and elsewhere since the turn of the century. These organisations professed to follow facts and reason rather than partisan bias. Fink's think-tanks, by contrast, were deeply partisan.
The Koch brothers alone spent hundreds of millions of dollars on think-tanks: the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and dozens more. These were more like lobbying organisations than research centres. They pushed often fringe positions - such as playing down the human role in climate change - that at times conflicted with one another but chimed with their sponsors' overall libertarian aims. The third part of the strategy was subsidising citizens' groups that would pressurise politicians to adopt particular policies, and funding fringe political movements to lobby inside the established parties. These political outriders pulled the Republican party base and their political representatives further and further to the libertarian right.
US libertarians have invested billions in think-tanks, universities and election campaigns over the past four decades. Guided - explicitly and implicitly - by Fink's insights, a tiny group of plutocrats bought unparalleled influence over the American political system. Before this methodical and precisely targeted spending spree, libertarians were largely thought of as cranks. Now they owned the policy agenda.
Under Donald Trump, whose agenda in many areas is set by these foundations and by wealthy activists such as the Mercer family, American environmental regulations have been more or less scrapped. Industries have been deregulated. The ostensibly grassroots Tea Party movement - in many ways a precursor to Trump's election victory - was bankrolled by the Kochs and others. The super-rich achieved this remarkable reorientation of the political sphere not by crudely bribing politicians but by ensuring that the limited space within which policies are created and publicly discussed was filled with proposals that they wanted.
Something similar has been happening in the UK. Britain, as the author Anne Applebaum notes, "has become a place where untransparent money, from unknown sources, is widely accepted with a complacent shrug". The relatively small sums involved can make it even easier to get access to the top table of British politics. "A little bit of money goes a long way," former Conservative minister Guto Bebb told me. "We are not America. You don't have to spend half a billion on a general election campaign. If you are willing to put a quarter of a million into a think-tank, you can get a lot of bang for your buck."
Where US donors might be expected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a single election cycle, for £50,000 pretty much anyone can get a seat with the British prime minister at the Conservative Leader's Group dinner. Discussions at these lavish dinners are kept strictly private, even if they touch on government policy.
The effect of dark money is most evident in the biggest policy change in recent British history: Brexit. In two decades, the idea that Britain should leave the European Union, deregulate its industries and environmental standards and form a new trading relationship with predominantly white English-speaking nations went from a fringe concern to a widely held political aspiration. London's corporate-funded libertarian think-tank world - second only in size to Washington's - has exerted political influence far beyond its relatively small size. "Brexit is a big example of centre-right think-tank success," a former staffer at a British libertarian think-tank told me.
Westminster's nest of Eurosceptic think-tanks - mostly housed in two adjacent town houses a stone's throw from parliament - are committed to open markets and perfect information in all areas except one: their own funding. Words like 'institute' and 'centre' give an appearance of academic rigour to what is essentially paid-for lobbying. This kind of criticism has even come from within the think-tanks themselves. John Blundell, former head of the influential Institute of Economic Affairs, complained that corporations were buying up these 'research' groups "left, right and centre". David Frum, formerly a fellow at the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute has said that think-tanks "increasingly function as public-relations agencies".
British politics has become increasingly Americanised, with anonymous corporate money playing a more influential role in setting the political agenda. If anything, the UK is even more vulnerable to capture than the US political system. Britain's laws are incredibly weak. Breaking American electoral laws can land you in prison - as Trump lawyer Michael Cohen discovered. The maximum fine the British Electoral Commission can impose is £20,000.
When the successful Vote Leave campaign broke electoral laws during the 2016 Brexit referendum - including by massive overspending - there was almost no political payback. Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave's director, repeatedly refused to give evidence before a parliamentary committee. One of Boris Johnson's first acts on becoming prime minister in June last year was to make Cummings his chief adviser. Johnson had been Vote Leave's most famous public face during the referendum campaign.
So, could the dark money playbook come to Ireland? Well, we're certainly no strangers to graft. As Elaine Byrne notes in her excellent book Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, Wolfe Tone's very first pamphlet, in 1790, warned of the "choice of open or concealed corruption". The 1801 Act of Union - which robbed Ireland of any vestige of political independence - was paid for in bribes and backhanders.
Of course, post-independence Ireland was no city on the hill either. Latterly, there are signs that corruption has receded somewhat from Irish public life. Last year, Transparency International ranked Ireland 18th on its corruption index, below countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway but above the Western European average.
Anonymously funded think-tanks and huge political donations are not a major feature of Irish political life. But, as in Britain, Irish electoral law is weak and poorly regulated. Until the late 1990s, regulations on political funding barely existed. The establishment of the Standards in Public Office Commission - in the wake of a series of corruption tribunals - was an important first step but has not been followed up.
It is disarmingly easy for Irish politicians to sidestep regulations on disclosing political donations. As in Britain, Irish electoral law is piecemeal and outdated. Even more remarkably, our electoral law is the responsibility of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Repeated manifesto pledges to set up a dedicated Electoral Commission have yet to be implemented.
Jennifer Kavanagh, an electoral law expert at Waterford Institute of Technology, says that an Electoral Commission "is badly needed in Ireland as we are one of the few EU (probably the only) countries that does not have an overall electoral management bodies to take overall control of the management of elections and to review both the adequacy of regulations and to act as a repository for electoral research in the country. There is legislation proposed but considering how long this body has been talked about and promised, you wouldn't need to be a cynic to think that securing the electoral integrity of the Irish electoral process is not a major governmental concern."
Electoral integrity might sound like a dry topic. But it can have huge consequences. Already in the US, Donald Trump seems determined to tip the scales to gain any advantage he can in November's election, including clamping down on postal voting.
When politicians abuse the political system, voters can easily lose faith with democracy itself. A Cambridge University study published this year found that 58pc of those surveyed were dissatisfied with democracy. Discontent was most pronounced in the US and Britain. If Ireland is to avoid a similar fate, it needs to start thinking seriously about regulating the business of politics - before it's too late.
Peter Geoghegan's new book 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics' is out now, published by Head of Zeus