From the start of his bid for the Oval Office to now, the 45th president of the United States has drawn plenty of accusations of illegal activity for his finances and the funds of his companies. Many of us have paid close attention to the developments of investigations into this money, watching cable news and following journalists we trust on Twitter. But perhaps we should also turn our attention to other areas of our government, look beyond the executive branch to search for signs of money and politics intermingling in nefarious ways.
Documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed did this. She looked at Montana, her home state, where campaign finance reform has long been a concern of voters, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 to give corporations permission to unleash millions of dollars into elections and push their desired candidates toward political wins while drowning the voices of ordinary voters. For several years, Reed filmed in Montana and beyond, following corporations’ money into the depths of local, state, and national elections and nominations.
On Oct. 1, at 10 p.m. EST, Reed’s investigative work will premiere on PBS as an installment of the Emmy Award-winning documentary series POV. Dark Money, Reed’s powerful documentary, is an urgent, engrossing, informative, and poetic documentary about how dark money is infiltrating all areas of our nation’s political system. The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award. It took Reed six years to make, and Reed and I spoke about it on Sept. 28, minutes after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was during our conversation that Reed informed me of dark money behind Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“And that’s precisely what we’ve been seeing,” said Reed, speaking also of Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. I raised my phone closer to my ear.
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Da’Shawn Mosley, Sojourners: What inspired this film?
Kimberly Reed: Really, a feeling of injustice, the feeling that unlimited money — especially unlimited anonymous money — really decides the structure of our democracy. It drowns out everyday voices of the average citizen and seeing that happen and feeling that sense of injustice — the inverting of the power structures that democracy was intended to be built upon is — that all stewed for six years to make this film. I’m from Montana, so I saw this story brewing there, and it seemed like it was going to be a dramatic story where you have grassroots citizens on one side and even some elected officials who were going to be pushing back against some of those corporations that were spending dark money. And once I got on the ground and started talking to some of the elected officials, many of whom — most of whom — are Republicans, I saw that they had the same sense of injustice as the grassroots citizens. It wasn’t about right or left or red or blue. It was about fair or not fair. It was about playing by the rules versus not playing by the rules and cheating — or finding loopholes — that would allow some people, almost always people in power, to game the system, to hold onto that power.
Mosley: One scene in the film I found pretty chilling was someone stating that the goal of these corporations is to stack the courts any way they can, and that they have already pretty much bought the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the nation, and that all they need now are the state courts. What was your reaction when that was said?
Reed: We just saw Kavanaugh get confirmed by the judiciary committee of the U.S. Senate. Let’s put it this way: What the film predicted is that there will be more and more efforts, on behalf of dark money groups, to put elected officials in office and influence their votes. But the film also predicted that we were going to see more and more influence of dark money in judicial races and judicial nominations. And that’s precisely what we’ve been seeing. We saw it with the stonewalling of the nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court. A group sprang up when he was nominated called the Judicial Crisis Network, a 501(c)4 group, and they spent over $10,000,000 to oppose Merrick Garland. Then they spent millions of dollars getting Neil Gorsuch confirmed. And they’re now spending millions again to get Kavanaugh confirmed.
We have also seen a 501(c)4 group on the left pop up to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination and, you know, we got to hold both sides accountable. Having anonymous money on the right and anonymous money on the left that’s getting into an arms race of dark money is not good for anybody’s democracy. I don’t want to create a false equivalency because the amount of money they’re spending is not equal to the Judicial Crisis Network, but it’s not a good sign for both sides of the political aisle to weaponize dark money.
It’s interesting to note that dark money, which was enabled by a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Citizens United v. FEC, is being used to place judges on that same bench. That circularity is stunning.
Mosley: I know you grew up in Montana and that it was a major setting for your documentary Prodigal Sons. What is it about the state that fascinates you?
Reed: Part of it is just, you know, it’s my hometown. It’s where I’m from. It’s a place I love, but I also feel like it’s a place that’s misunderstood. It’s kind of seen as this flyover state that, I think, people paint with a broad brush, and if you look at it closely, you see a lot of the questions, a lot of the conflicts, that are going on in American society at large. I just think it’s always helpful to focus on a small story in order to tell a much bigger story, and when I saw that the atmosphere was developing that we could tell this small story about campaign finance that was indicative of what was going on in the rest of the country, I was drawn to telling a story there again.
Mosley: After people see the film on Monday, what should they be doing to fight what you’ve uncovered.
Reed: One resource for folks is darkmoneyfilm.com, where we have a “Get Involved” webpage that lists our partner organizations. There’s a lot of different ways to go about campaign finance reform, and that list provides a variety of those ways. So that’s one thing folks can do.
I hope that, first and foremost, people just get plugged into our democracy, that they find a way to get politically active. Votes matter. Votes count a lot. We see what happens when we hand the reins of governmental power over to people who haven’t been tested thoroughly. So, we need to make sure that, as citizens, we’re doing that testing.
The main things, in terms of campaign finance, that voters can do is to just demand transparency, demand disclosure. And a lot of times, those laws are already on the books: It’s just a matter of enforcing them.
… All of this is, at the end of the day, about getting elected officials to listen to constituents’ demands that we don’t have a bunch of unlimited, anonymous money corrupting our politics. And what we saw happen in Montana, thanks to a lot of journalists and voters paying attention to the issue and holding elected officials accountable, is that you get this kind of virtuous circle where everyone’s keeping an eye on where money is coming from and cleaning up elections.