I am midway through a remarkable book, Daring Democracy, which lays out in depressing detail the strangle hold that the elite and corporate sector have over our democracy.. This post summarizes the state of that strangle hold.
Money’s Grip on Democracy
In many posts, Retake Our Democracy has laid out how the elite dominate the electoral and legislative processes, but Daring Democracy does an extraordinarily good job of describing the layers of controls we have lost to the elite over the last 50 years. it is not just that the 1% buy elections, they rig the rules, they dominate the media, they even influence what our students are taught in K-12 and college. The post will describe the various ways in which moneyed interests deprive us of our voice.
What is clear: 84% of Americans feel that money has too much influence in politics. Yet as this post reveals, money influences politics in almost unimaginable ways. How?.
The Money Primary. The impact of money in politics begins with who is deemed viable to run. I have reported on how the DCCC vets candidates by insisting they demonstrate that they have a donor list capable of generating tens of thousands of dollars quickly. Daring Democracy puts it this way: “In Wisconsin, Kelly Westlund got up the courage to run for Congress and approached the Democratic Party. ‘I told them I wanted to jump in and their representative asked me if I could raise a quarter million dollars in three weeks. I laughed at him,’ she explained… ‘He responded, ‘Then you are not viable.'” This scenario has played itself out in dozens of House elections this year. If you’ve got access to money, you are viable and otherwise you can’t get into the game.
How does this play out in primaries and general elections? In 2013, congressional candidates with fund-raising advantages were nine times more likely to win and in State races 84% of those candidates who raised the most money won their elections. Some might say that raising money correlates with popularity, i.e. people who raise the most, have the most supporters, but less than 1% of Americans contributed over $200 in 2016 but that 1% who contributed more than $200 made up over 67% of all the money contributed in 2016. From Daring Democracy: “This big-donor class is overwhelmingly white, wealthy and male.” The result of the infusion of money is illustrated in the short video at the bottom of this post. It’s conclusion: what you and I think about an issue has absolutely zero to do with whether it becomes law. Zero. Nil. None. I highly recommend the video.
So, how did money wind up with such a firm grip on US politics? In a chapter entitled Manipulating the Mindset, Lappé identifies 1971 as the beginning of what she calls the Anti-Democratic Movement when Lewis Powell wrote a 34-page memo commissioned by the US Chamber of Commerce on how and why the elite and corporatocracy must retake democracy. Fearful of the wave of civil rights, women’s rights consumer rights advances, Powell laid out a plan that explicitly called for undermining democracy.
As a result of this memo, the 1% began funding an array of ‘non-profit’ foundations and think tanks that set out to undermine democracy by creating misinformation and faux research on welfare recipients, the federal budget, student protests, climate change, voter fraud, drug use, the benefits of the free market and every conceivable area of public policy. They created disingenuous economic theories that justified massive tax cuts for corporations and the rich and research to justify undermining the labor movement, the consumer movement and a raft of social justice advances. They created ALEC, the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity (Koch), FreedomWorks and a host of other non-profits hellbent upon taking over the media and relaxing FCC regulations to allow for an obscene concentration of the media in the hands of just five mega corporations. These non-profit PACs are also rewriting K-12 and college curriculum, and intentionally manipulating the American mind to accept unfettered capitalism as being good for America and Americans. A key part of this effort was the funding of attorneys who challenged every policy that advanced justice, every consumer protection regulation, every entitlement. The on the Anti-Democratic Movement’s crowning achievement was the Supreme Courts defining corporations as having the rights of individuals and in Citizen’s United, opening the floodgates for money in politics. The Devos clan almost single handedly funded the legal work that led to Citizens United. The entire Anti-Democratic movement is an appalling story with the increasing influence of money in politics takes many forms.
Buying Elections with an Infusion of $$. Over time, these billionaires have learned to collaborate and coordinate; they host conferences with $200K admission so they can privately plot their strategy. They infuse key swing districts or states with huge amounts of PAC-funded ads like what we saw in the Keller-Colon race and before that when the GOP unseated Sen. Leader Michael Sanchez. For example: “The Koch’s Americans for Prosperity spent more than a million dollars in the last week of the campaign to push incumbent GOP senator Ron Johnson over the top against his opponent, democracy-champion Russ Feingold.” The Koch’s weren’t alone in Wisconsin, as there were other 1% PACs like the Chamber of Commerce, the Senate Leadership Fund, and the Center for Media and Democracy that also poured millions into the Johnson-Feingold race. Feingold narrowly lost and this happens in every state in the Nation, every election cycle.
Focus on State Legislature to Enable Gerrymandering. Since the mid 70’s, the elite focused intensively on winning state legislatures because each census state legislatures redraw district boundaries. As a result of their success (at left) gerrymandering efforts have created absurd district boundaries that can yield these kinds of results: “In 2012, Republicans won 13 of 18 congressional seats in Pennsylvania even though the GOP received 100,000 fewer votes statewide than the Democrats. In Ohio, the GOP won a staggering 12 of 16 congressional seats even thought they only received 52% of the vote.” And in state races the effects of gerrymandering are even more pronounced, essentially baking in majorities in the state houses responsible for redrawing district boundaries.
Lobbying. From 1971 (the year of Powell’s memo) to 1982 the number of registered lobbyists in Washington grew from 175 to 2445. Corporate lobbyist spending comprises 75% of all lobbying with public interest lobbyists (e.g. unions) comprising just 1%. Through manipulation of the budgeting process, corporate lobbyists systematically depress salaries of federal employees including Congressional staffers to entice them to lucrative lobbying jobs. Tom DeLay created the K Street Project which helps GOP staffers land lobbying jobs. In 2012, half of retiring members of congress become lobbyists. In 1970 that number was 3%. In state legislatures where elected officials rarely have staff, the impact of lobbyists with their faux research supporting their corporate priorities are even more pronounced.
Corporate Cabinets. Draining the swamp didn’t quite happen, with a plethora of oligarchs now serving in the revolving door of White House cabinet members. This is yet another source of insider, moneyed leverage and this is not just a GOP phenomenon. Bill Clinton turned to Robert Ruben (Goldman Sachs) to lead the Treasury and Barack Obama turned to Wall St. execs to develop the bail out strategy for the 2008 financial collapse that their investment practices had created.
American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Founded in 1973, and the brainchild of the Heritage Foundation, “a 2011 ALEC membership brochure boasts that each year more than 1000 bills based on ALEC’s model legislation are introduced…. in 2015 172 ALEC-sponsoered bills to privatize education appeared in 42 states.” You can thank ALEC for ‘stand your ground’ legislation that legalized the murder of Trayvon Martin. ALEC specializes in voter suppression legislation with over half of the 62 voter-ID bills introduced in 37 states coming from ALEC.
Voter Suppression. Despite the fact that the Dept. of Justice’s 2006 study of voter fraud found a rate of voter fraud of 0.000000013%, the GOP and the oligarchy have successfully advanced a myriad of voter suppression laws purporting to counter non-existent voter fraud. Voter ID laws disproportionately impact voters of color who tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic and with 32 states now having some form of Voter ID provision, the impact is staggering. In some states the legislatures have artfully constructed voter suppression laws that make it difficult to almost impossible for poor people to obtain the required ID. For example in Mississippi you must produce a picture ID to vote, but to obtain a picture ID you need a birth certificate: Catch 22, to obtain a copy of your birth certificate, you need a picture ID. You can’t make this up. The real reason behind this effort is clear: ALEC Founder Weyrich stated: “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been….our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Disgusting.
Mass Incarceration. This is a little known strategy. In most states those who are incarcerated must list their addresses for the census as where they are imprisoned. This greatly diminishes the population of urban communities which have the highest proportion of incarcerated adults, plus it HUGELY inflates the population in largely rural communities that have prisons. For example, 2/3 of all those incarcerated in the state of New York come from New York City and 91% of those prisoners are imprisoned in rural upstate New York, greatly increasing the census totals for rural New York while commensurately deflating the voting power in NYC.
Taken together, we face a dispiriting array of challenges: an oligarchy that has learned to use its wealth to control the media, the message and politicians, state and federal voting districts gerrymandered to GOP advantage, and a population that has absorbed a non-stop media message that government is incapable of delivering anything of value to its constituents, so taxes must be cut and government functions privatized. The annual government shutdowns or threats of shutdowns reinforce the public’s view that Congress can’t function and politicians are incapable of governing. And so voters turn away.
And yet, at this moment, a surge of activism across the country offers a measure of hope which leads to my conclusion from all of the above: if we are to get money out of politics, we need to get people into politics.
Bottom line: If you do not show up, the 1% will continue to tighten its grip on our future; we will watch more wealth become concentrated among billionaires without conscience and we will see any hopes for our planet and our children’s future evaporate. It is really that simple. Look to future blogs for specific opportunities to canvass and call in the primaries. The video below is worth watching.
Paul & Roxanne
Categories: Election, Political Reform & National Politics