• Marc Johnson

A New Gilded Age


If Mitt Romney wins the Florida primary Tuesday, as now seems likely, the media scrum following his every move will no doubt credit his win to his new-found aggressiveness in taking on Newt Gingrich, including his clearly superior debate performances during the week leading up to the vote. But that explanation will only be part of the story.

Additional credit for Romney’s rebound from what looked like near disaster in South Carolina must go to the faceless, if not altogether nameless, pro-Romney Super PAC – Restore Our Future. The Super PAC has lavished millions on the Sunshine State to help restore the future of Mitt’s campaign. Of course, Romney is not alone in enjoying the largess of a well-heeled Super PAC. Gingrich has come to depend for television exposure in the dispersed and expensive Florida market on the Super PAC that supports him – Winning Our Future. Other less well financed Supers are supporting Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and a Super PAC supporting Barack Obama is waiting patiently in the wings.

There are so many sleazy angles to the Super PAC story it is difficult to create a priority list of all the real and potential outrages. We are now into the second year of this new 21st Century reality of unlimited, corporate, and often secret money perverting what were our already money drunk campaigns.

Still in fact what seems like a new reality is really an old American tradition; a tradition of unlimited corporate money in campaigns that dates back more than 100 years to what came to be called the Gilded Age. So, remembering the old admonition that those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it, we have effectively arrived at a new Gilded Age in the year 2012. It’s not necessary to be a good government, goody two shoes to worry that the very nature of our democracy is changing in ways that are profound and deeply troubling in this new age.

As the American Enterprise Institutes’ Norm Ornstein wrote recently in The Hill, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case – that’s the now infamous ruling were the Court’s majority overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, allowed unlimited corporate and labor union money to flow to Super PAC’s and equated money with free speech – has put our politics more and more into the hands of the 21st Century captains of the new Gilded Age.

“By giving corporations free rein to meddle in politics without any accountability required, just like in the robber baron days, and by defining money as speech, the court dealt a body blow to American democracy,” Ornstein wrote. “Candidates no longer can focus simply on raising money for their campaigns against other candidates. Because corporations have almost unlimited sums they can put in with no notice, candidates have to raise protection money in advance just in case such a campaign is waged against them.”

The website OpenSecrets.org reports that the Romney aligned Super PAC has spent more than $17 million so far, most of it to attack Gingrich. Here’s where the perversion begins. Big money donors give unlimited amounts to the Super PAC’s, often attempting to conceal the real source of the cash, but nonetheless maintaining the ability to curry favor with the candidate supported by the big PAC. One has to be awfully naive to believe that a $1 million donation doesn’t buy more than a thank you note.

One example: Utah news organizations have reported that two Provo, Utah companies listed as $1 million contributors to Restore Our Future don’t really seem to be companies at all.

“Companies called Eli Publishing and F8 LLC contributed $1 million each to Restore Our Future,” Utah television station KSTU reported last August. “The companies share an address in downtown Provo and the super-PAC received the money from both on the same day.” The address listed for the companies, according to the TV report, was an accounting firm where employees said they had no knowledge of the businesses.

Other Romney Super PAC donors aren’t so obscure. John Paulson a New York hedge fund manager is in for $1 million. Forbes magazine lists Paulson as the 17th wealthiest guy in the world, worth $15.5 billion, which begs the question: why only a million bucks?

J.W. and Richard Marriott, the hotel guys, are into the Romney PAC for a half million each. Until a year ago, Romney served on the Marriott board. The CEO of New Balance athletic shoes is a half million dollar contributor, as is the managing partner at Romney’s old Bain Capital firm. That fellow’s wife shelled out her own $500,000.

Clearly the Romney-aligned Super PAC hasn’t had to look under many rocks to turn up millions. These dollars aren’t falling far from the tree, which is one reason all this Super PAC business has the real potential to be so sinister. The candidates all regularly proclaim that they have no connection to the Super PAC’s who are raising and spending so freely on their behalf. Federal law prohibits coordination between the campaigns and the PAC’s they say, but the line that separates the campaigns from the big corporate money certainly isn’t a very bright line.

USA Today reported over the weekend about the remarkable “coincidence” of the message in Romney’s speeches on the stump matching up with the anti-Gingrich television ads Restore Our Future is putting on the air. Of course, the two organizations don’t need to really coordinate since the PAC’s are run, in every case, by former close aides and associates of the candidates. But the no coordination mandate helps maintain the fiction that all this is happening at arm’s length and that there is no quid pro quo involved for the millionaire and billionaire contributors.

Gingrich’s Super PAC is, of course, mostly funded by an extraordinarily wealthy Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife Marion. Adelson says his support for Gingrich is easy to explain. He is a long-time friend of Newts and values the former Speaker’s vocal support for Israel, a cause near and dear to the Adelsons. But, of course, nothing is that simple in politics. Adelson’s international casino empire has vast interests in public policy and since early last year Adelson’s company has been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which is reportedly looking into violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

So, you might ask: what does the fact that all these very rich, very well connected, very politically interested corporate leaders have to do with a new Gilded Age? Isn’t this just the way politics has always worked? Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved.

Maybe the only thing different is the amount of money involved and the fact that thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United these vast amounts of corporate dollars can flow unregulated into the political process. We have gone back to the future, back to the first Gilded Age at the end of the 19th Century.

University of Texas historian H. W. Brands wrote his book Reckless Decade: America in the 1890’s in 1995. In an interview with C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Brands nailed the essence of why corporate money in politics has such a potentially corrosive effect.

“Any capitalist economy,” Brands said in the C-SPAN interview, ” is based on the notion of economic self-interest. And, you know, if you put it another way, you can — if you’re not being too complimentary, you can call it greed. And our economy runs as much on those lines as it did back then [the 1890’s] – maybe not quite as much. There’s a government safety net now to deal with those people who were falling out the bottom of the economy during the 1890s. But, certainly, I mean, the idea of profits, and I’m certainly not going to criticize profit. But, nonetheless, the idea of economic self-interest is definitely as much a motive.”

The question to ask of our democracy in this new Gilded Age is how any candidate, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how honest, can escape the human impact of a well-heeled friend donating a few million to help get him elected?

And granting that the casino owners, the hotel operators, the unions and the guy running the non-business businesses in Utah may truly value the particular approach and policies of a particular candidate, we also can’t deny that each has a self-interest. We all have a self-interest, but not all of us can buy so much free speech or so much access.

Justice Anthony Kennedy rather unbelievably wrote in his opinion in the Citizens case,  “[The Court majority] now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

You wonder if Mr. Justice Kennedy has been following the campaign so far.

At a time when growing concerns about income distribution in America collide with a mounting distrust of most of our national institutions, including corporations, the Congress and the Presidency, the Supreme Court has, by opening the flood gates to unlimited corporate money in our elections, given us even more cause to doubt the fairness and sustainability of our democratic system.

As H.W. Brands noted in his history of the first reckless decade in the 1890’s, the greed and corruption that seemed to seep into every facet of America life in the first Gilded Age became so serious that only two political alternatives seemed possible – revolution or reform. Thankfully, the country took the path of reform and Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson ushered in a Progressive Era in response to the Gilded Age.

One of T.R.’s Progressive Era reforms was to ban corporate money from political campaigns. That ban lasted for 100 years. That ban ended, and a new Gilded Age began, with a breathtakingly impactful Supreme Court decision two years ago.

As one of the beneficiaries of the excesses of the Gilded Age, Tammany political boss George Washington Plunkett, famously said, there is dishonest graft and honest graft. Plunkett went in for the honest variety. As he said, “I might sum up the whole thing by sayin: I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

 

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson