• Marc Johnson

Politics of the Oligarchs


The intersection of money and politics, both at the fringes and at the center of our democracy, has often led to full-blown scandal. William Andrews Clark used his copper fortune to buy a U.S. Senate seat in Montana in 1899 by bribing state legislators. By today’s standards Clark’s “acquired” Senate seat was a real bargain. He reportedly spent only $300,000.

In the 1920’s money was at the core of the Teapot Dome scandal that sent a cabinet member to jail and forever defined Warren Harding’s administration as among the most corrupt in the nation’s history. In 1935 the nation’s electric industry, threatened by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s desire to break-up the great utility holding companies, mounted what was at the time the greatest (and costliest) lobbying campaign ever. The effort consisted of phoney “grassroots” lobbying of Congress financed by the then unheard of sum of $5 million. We know about this because a then little known Alabama Senator by the name of Hugo Black used a Congressional investigation to expose how the big money was gathered, laundered and spent to protect the utility monopoly.

Watergate, Abscam (the money and political scandal that serves as the basis for the Oscar-winning film American Hustle), Al Gore’s fundraising at a Buddhist temple, well, you get the point and we could go on-and-on.

With its latest ruling on political money, the United States Supreme Court (or more correctly five justices) further shredded the one-time consensus that too much money mixed up with politics is fundamentally bad for American democracy. The Court’s McCutcheon ruling now joins the historic case Citizens United, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, in systematically eliminating constraints on money in politics. While Roberts’ McCutcheon ruling left in place individual limits on contributions to candidates and political action committees, one only has to read the opinion to see that those limits will eventually topple, too.

Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the Roberts’ majority in the McCutcheon case, but argued in a separate opinion that, amazingly, the Court hadn’t gone far enough. Thomas called the ruling “another missed opportunity,” and as Politico reported, said he would strike down all limits on campaign donations and that the state of the law will be unsatisfying incomplete until the court squares up to that issue. “Until we undertake that reexamination, we remain in a ‘halfway house’ of our own design,” Thomas declared. In other words, stay tuned.

The Sheldon Primary

Amid the general and persistent fog of American politics, the daily battle for the dominate soundbite, the buzz of the latest opinion poll, jobs report or health care enrollment number it is easy to miss what is happening right in plan sight. But, like the revelation Dorothy must have felt when she pulled back the curtain on the less-than-meets-the-eye Wizard of Oz, the direction of our politics – if you want to see it – was on display in stark relief a few days ago at the expensively tacky Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.

It is a rich irony that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court knocked another brick out of the wall of campaign finance law just days after four of the likely Republican candidates for president next year were cooing and scraping in front of the $93 million dollar man – casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

In my distant memory there was a time when it was considered unseemly for a politician to audition, at least publicly, for the favor of a business mogul whose vested interests are so obvious. As Jonathan Alter points out in his New Yorker blog there is no secret as to what “the Sheldon primary” that recently featured the governors of New Jersey, Wisconsin, Ohio and the former governor of Florida was all about.

Adelson, who makes most of his money at a casino in Macau (which, if your geography is rusty is “a special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China) wants no expansion of Internet gaming that might threaten his gambling halls and he wants two federal investigations of his operations to go away. He’d also like to name the next Secretary of State and dictate U.S. policy toward Israel and the Mideast. Give the guy credit for candor.

“I’m against very wealthy ­people attempting to or influencing elections,” Adelson told Forbes in 2012. “But as long as it’s doable, I’m going to do it.”

So here was Ohio Gov. John Kasich shamelessly and publicly sucking up to Adelson, the guy who single-handedly spent $93 million in 2012 attacking Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a generous gesture that kept Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race long weeks past his expired by date. As Kasich’s home state Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote, “Kasich, more so than any of his peers, drops all pretense” in his effort to kiss Adelson’s ring, or something. “He laces his 30-minute speech with direct appeals and shout-outs to the host with the most. Starting with the fifth or sixth, one national reporter loudly guffaws with each utterance of ‘Sheldon.'”

In John Roberts’ world rich guys like Adelson writing huge checks to politicians and the committees who support them is, in the words of Garrett Epps of The Atlantic merely “free speech” for rich guys. Millions in financial support from the deepest of the deep pockets is just “like volunteering to lick stamps at the campaign office; reclusive Nevada billionaires are just constituents, like the widow seeking her pension benefits; the desires of business executives are just beliefs, advanced in the way the Founding Fathers wanted—by writing big checks. Under this rationale, it is hard to see why direct-contribution limits should be allowed, and we may assume that cases soon to be brought will give the majority the chance to eviscerate those limits.”

Roberts’ reasoning equates Sheldon Adelson’s $93 million in political spending to my bumper sticker. It’s all a matter of free speech, says the Chief Justice, but obviously not at all about equal access to the political process or disproportionate influence over the lawmakers.

NBC’s Chuck Todd has documented how this “free speech” campaign has been going: “Political spending from outside groups – either created or bankrolled by American billionaires – has skyrocketed from $193 million in 2004 and $338 million in 2008,” Todd wrote recently, “to a whopping $1 billion in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. To put this $1 billion in outside spending in perspective, it’s almost TWICE what John Kerry and George W. Bush spent COMBINED in the 2004 presidential race ($655 million). And it’s THREE TIMES the amount John McCain spent in the 2008 election ($333 million). Another way to look at all of this money: Overall political spending on races (presidential plus congressional) has DOUBLED from $3 billion in 2000 to $6.2 billion in 2012. And in presidential races alone, the combined amount that George W. Bush and Al Gore spent in 2000 (about $250 million) QUADRUPLED to the combined amount Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent in 2012 ($1 billion-plus). And that doesn’t count the political-party spending.”

My bumper sticker is sounding less and less important as, in reality, we turn electoral politics, once dominated by candidates and parties, into a free spending game for Sheldon Adelson and other billionaire oligarchs who have the money and the vested interests to increasingly dominate our elections. As long as it’s doable, as Sheldon might say, why not.

Ironically it was Newt Gingrich, the guy who benefited from the Adelson financed attacks on Romney’s private equity past, who said during the last campaign, “You have to ask the question, ‘Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money?'” The answer, more and more, seems to be – yup.

“Watching events in Russia and Ukraine,” columnist Gail Collins writes, “you can’t help noticing all the stupendously rich oligarchs with their fingers in every political development. It’s a useful word, connoting both awesome power and a group you don’t really want to have around.

“In the former Soviet Union, the money elite generally get their power from the politicians. Here, it seems to be the other way around. But the next time casino zillionaire Sheldon Adelson invites the Republican presidential hopefuls to go to Las Vegas and bow before his throne, feel free to say they were just off honoring an oligarch. Apparently, the founding fathers would have wanted it that way.”

Truth be told the Founders wouldn’t recognize American politics today. They were tough, aggressive partisans to be sure, but they couldn’t have imagined a political process where a handful of extraordinarily well-to-do rich guys have been able to bend the system merely by spending lavish amounts of cash. In poll after poll, Americans express exasperation and cynicism about our politics. Millions don’t participate feeling that their vote – not to mention their voice  – doesn’t count. Younger Americans, in particular, see a rigged system built and maintained by the really wealthy to perpetuate themselves and their point of view.

If you think the American electorate is cynical now, just wait until all the campaign spending limits come off as the Roberts’ court take it upon itself to ensuring that more money from fewer people is the overriding and perhaps only decisive factor in our politics. Americans may not like Congress much these days, but one suspects they’ll like a bunch of well-heeled oligarchs calling all the shots even less.

The question then: will we change this trajectory and blunt the politics of the oligarchs or will we, as Gail Collins says, decide that “what this country really needs is more power to the plutocrats?”

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson