Where Is the Outrage over Money in Politics?
We might wish the uproar from the convention halls of both parties these busy weeks were the wholesome clamor of delegates deliberating serious visions of how we should be governed for the next four years. It rises instead from scripted TV spectacles — grown-ups doing somersaults of make-believe — that will once again distract the public’s attention from the death rattle of American democracy brought on by an overdose of campaign cash.
No serious proposal to take the money out of politics, or even reduce its tightening grip on the body politic, will emerge from Tampa or Charlotte, so the sounds of celebration and merriment are merely prelude to a funeral cortege for America as a shared experience. A radical minority of the super-rich has gained ascendency over politics, buying the policies, laws, tax breaks, subsidies, and rules that consolidate a permanent state of vast inequality by which they can further help themselves to America’s wealth and resources.
Their appetite for more is insatiable. As we write, Mitt Romney, after two fundraisers in which he raised nearly $10 million from the oil and gas industry, and having duly consulted with the Oklahoma billionaire energy executive who chairs the campaign’s energy advisory committee, has announced that if elected President, he will end a century of federal control over oil and gas drilling on public lands, leaving such matters to local officials more attuned to industry desires. Theodore Roosevelt, the first great advocate for public lands in the White House, would be rolling in his grave, if Dick Cheney hadn’t already dumped his bones in a Wyoming mining shaft during the first hours of the Bush-Halliburton administration.
We are nearing the culmination of a cunning and fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that were slowly and painstakingly built over decades to protect everyday citizens from the excesses of private power. The “city on the hill” has become a fortress of privilege, guarded by a hired political class and safely separated from the economic pressures that are upending the household stability, family dynamics, social mobility, and civic life of everyday Americans.
Socrates said to understand a thing, you must first name it. As in Athens then, so in America now: The name for what’s happening to our political system is corruption — a deep, systemic corruption.
How did we get here?
Let’s begin with the judicial legerdemain of nine black-robed magicians on the Supreme Court back in the l880s breathing life into an artificial creation called “the corporation.” An entity with no body, soul, sense, or mortality was endowed with all the rights of a living, breathing “person” under the Constitution. Closer to our own time, the Supreme Court of 1976 in Buckley vs. Valeo gutted a fair elections law passed by a Congress that could no longer ignore the stench of Watergate. The Court ruled that wealthy individuals could spend unlimited amounts of their own fortunes to get themselves elected to office, and that anyone could pour dollars by the hundreds of thousands into the war chests of political action committees to pay for “issue ads,” clearly favoring one side in a political race, so long as a specific candidate or party was not named.
Money, the justices declared in another burst of invention, was simply a form of speech.
Then, just two years ago, the Roberts Court, in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, removed any lingering doubts that the marvelous “persons” that corporations had become could reach into their golden troughs to support their candidates and causes through such supposedly “educational” devices as a movie trashing Hillary Clinton.