“Cut-outs, front groups, false narratives, hidden funding. It has the tradecraft of a covert op.” So says Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Chairman of both the Budget Committee and the It’s Always Sunny Meme Committee, of his rivals’ political support.
Whitehouse’s conspiracy theorizing, recently expanded into a book-length diatribe The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court, targets most frequently the American energy industry—an industry he calls a “bullying menace” that “call(s) the shots” in Washington.
In The Scheme, Whitehouse puts “the dark arts of climate denial” front and center. In chapter 1 he conjures “a lurking climate denial apparatus, funded with anonymous money,” that has “shifted into high gear.” The Senator has continued to beat the drum on Capitol Hill in 2023 with an ongoing series of floor speeches — we’re up to speech number twenty now — restating his case.
In Senator Whitehouse’s mind’s eye “the scheme” plays out as follows: Fossil fuel companies intent upon preserving their market power utilize donor privacy laws to pump money into organizations that make their case and influence policy.
But Whitehouse has some ’splaining to do.
“The scheme” can just as easily describe funding of anti-energy and anti-capitalist outfits, if we abstract away the particulars he has denoted as the bugaboos. Swap out a few terms and this could describe a system that benefits Whitehouse himself: Wealthy entities intent upon institutionalizing their political power utilize donor privacy laws to pump money into organizations that make their case and influence policy.
Whitehouse’s own leading donor, the League of Conservation Voters, demonstrates some of the same characteristics of the so-called “cut-outs” the Senator decries. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV), a group that advocates against the American energy industry, bills itself as a political force for “people and the planet” that aims to “create safe and healthy communities protected by a just and equitable democracy.” Funny, then, that the LCV is on the payroll of the Left’s own version of a lurking apparatus funded with anonymous money.
The single largest contributor to the LCV Super PAC (the wing of the LCV that explicitly funds campaigns like Sheldon Whitehouse’s) is the Sixteen Thirty Fund. While that innocuous name gives little away, the Atlantic’s Emma Green has called the Sixteen Thirty Fund “the indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money.” According to Green, the Fund “undeniably benefited from the rush of panicked political giving on the left during the Trump years.” The numbers bear that out, with Sixteen Thirty serving as a pass through for tens of millions of dollars in both the 2020 and 2022 election cycles.
To connect these dots — sorry if this is getting a bit Always Sunnyish — Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s largest single donor, the League of Conservation Voters, is itself funded in large part by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, deemed a “dark money” group by even the accounts of mainstream outlets like the Atlantic and the New York Times.
Senator Whitehouse’s money stream is no one-off, but rather is consistent with political spending trends. According to a New York Times analysis ahead of the 2022 elections, 15 of the most politically active nonprofit organizations that generally align with the Democratic Party spent $600 million more than a comparable sample of 15 of the most politically active groups aligned with the Republican Party.
According to The Times, the Sixteen Thirty Fund received single anonymous donations as large as $50 million and spent nearly half a billion dollars on the 2020 elections. For Senator Whitehouse, a self-described “WASP” who lives “in fear of shame” this should be shameful indeed. Nevertheless, the Senator seems happy to continue drawing such support.
But really, is that so crazy?
Tempting though it is to levy the counteraccusation of hypocrisy, to say to Senator Whitehouse “He who wishes to remove the speck from his political rival’s eye should first remove the dark money from his own donor log,” there is perhaps something more important to say, that donor privacy is good, actually. Amid heightened social and political tensions, donor privacy has never been more important. The flood of dollars into funds like Sixteen Thirty and distributaries like the Whitehouse-funding League of Conservation Voters attests to privacy’s cross-partisan appeal. While Senator Whitehouse is disgusted by oil barons anonymously funding small think tanks, he perhaps can see the wisdom in keeping the names of, say, lonely red-state liberals private from their neighbors.
Call Whitehouse a hypocrite if you must, but call privacy a valuable hallmark of the American system while you do so.