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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Dark Money, Philanthropy, and Cynicism

Many posts have discussed the political uses of philanthropy

Theodore Schleifer at Puck:

Neither party will admit it, but the line between philanthropy and politics has, frankly, been completely obliterated over the last few years. What counts as “philanthropy” versus “politics” depends on your political tribe: I can tell you that the Koch network views their campaigns to deregulate the economy as philanthropy that helps the poor, although liberals won’t believe it. Similarly, conservatives won’t believe that registering likely Democratic voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona is “philanthropy.” Many liberals see that as plainly pro-democracy, and given the racial inequities in voter turnout, as anti-racist. Conservatives see these well-tailored charitable gifts—such as the half-a-billion dollars that Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan donated for elections administration last year—as driven by a sinister agenda, or at least as a bank-shot progressive power play. You’d have an equally difficult time convincing Democrats that the Kochs’ lobbying against the E.P.A. is done for the benefit of the rural poor.

If there was a silver lining to Citizens United, it’s that most insiders now will admit, in candid moments, they’re in on the joke. Cynicism abounds. Technically, there should be an easy way to distinguish between philanthropy and politics: According to the tax code, a donation to a 501(c)3 organization is tax-deductible because it is philanthropy, while a donation to a 501(c)4 group, a super PAC or a campaign is not tax-deductible because it counts as politics. And technically, there should be a way to distinguish between policy advocacy—the purpose of dark-money 501(c)4 organizations—and explicit elect-him or oust-her electioneering, which is the provenance of super PACs and campaigns. But the territory has become decidedly murky, as the new filings from outside groups reveal....

None of these tactics are illegal. But one consequence of the aforementioned loopholes and exploits is that ever more of the money that shapes civic life is retreating into the shadows. This trend began in philanthropy over the last decade, as billionaires moved their charitable work from tax-filing foundations into donor-advised funds and LLCs that don’t share anything with the I.R.S. And now what has eaten philanthropy has eaten campaign finance, too. The upshot is that the public disclosures that are filed with the government have never meant less. Reading the tax documents that private foundations must file, or the F.E.C. reports that campaigns and super PACs must declare, reveals an awfully incomplete snapshot of big-money philanthropy and big-money politics. The real innovation, and the real money, increasingly flows in the unaccountable backwaters of America’s political swamp.