Jim Hightower: If You Put $100 Million Into a Race, Don’t You Get Naming Rights for the Candidate?

“Populism” can be defined in a number of different ways – conceptually, it's viewed quite differently by scholars, politicians and the media. But progressive champion Jim Hightower, author of The Hightower Lowdown, cuts to the chase in his inimitable Texas style. For him, populism is simply an analysis of how money intersects with, and distorts our politics.

Hightower's been keeping the plutocrats' feet to the fire for a long time now, but he doesn't recall a time when our elites were so brazen in their entitlement, so predacious in their quest for ever more power over our economy and society.

Jim Hightower appeared on this week's AlterNet Radio Hour to talk about where we are, how we got here and how ordinary people can fight back. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion (you can listen to the whole show here).

Joshua Holland: Jim, you recently wrote about this small group of billionaire right-wing sugar-daddies who have played such a pivotal role in the GOP nomination process. They really have shaped the race on the Republican side. They bankrolled Mitt Romney from very early on, giving him a huge advantage over some of the politicians the conservative base really wanted to see in the race -- and probably helped keep some of them out of the race. So we have this process where the candidates went as far as their wealthy benefactors let them go. Do you think we might start to see some buyer’s remorse on the right after the Citizens United decision?

Jim Hightower: I think some of the saner ones are already feeling that, but you had Mitch McConnell this very week up on his hind legs in the Congress decrying Barack Obama for doing something as modest as saying that if the corporations are going to buy our elections at least they should have to disclose their names. They should have to tell us who they are and not run those multimillion-dollar, negative attack ads in secret. You’re not going to get it from the Republicans. I don’t know what you’re going to get that from the Democrats either. I think it’s got to come from the countryside.

As you indicated, in the Republican primary this spring, we had some $40 million going into super PACs -- these entities allowed by the Supreme Court decision to put unlimited amounts of corporate money or individual money into campaigns of their choice. Of that $40 million, as we detailed in the last issue of The Hightower Lowdown, some seven men put up almost half of it themselves. Just seven individuals. Sheldon Adelson was the big dog, the casino baron from out in Las Vegas, and all the way to China. He has all kinds of special interests and he needs help from the government. He put $21 million into, for God’s sake, Newt Gingrich. Since then he has put $10 million into Romney and says he will spend as much as $100 million. Now I’ve got to ask you Joshua, if you put $100 million in, don’t you get naming rights for the candidate?

Holland: You should. You should get something like that.

Hightower: It’s Mitt “Sheldon” Romney.

Holland: It’s Team Sheldon Adelson. Let me ask you Jim: what do you think these guys want? When you’re talking about putting in that kind of bread into a race, is part of it just an ego thing? It seems like whoever the Republicans nominate these days is going to embrace a very hard-right position on taxes and regulation. With all these positions their whole field already embraces, I’m not sure what they’re getting out of it.

Hightower: It is ego, but you can stroke your ego with a lot less than $100 million and a lot less than $21 million. They have very special interests.

One example we pointed out is Harold Simmons here in Dallas, Texas. An 80-year-old multibillionaire who is just a hardcore right-winger and a corporate buccaneer who has been Rick Perry’s sugar-daddy for a number of years. Simmons got very special benefits from backing Perry, putting several million dollars into his races. Among his conglomerate holdings is something called Waste Control Specialists. This is an outfit that handles nuclear waste and other kinds of waste. There was a bunch of low-level nuclear waste (by the way, there is really no such thing as “low-level” nuclear waste) in a facility that the state was going to run. After Perry came into office, it was changed to where a private corporation could run the facility and the legislation was written in such a way that only one corporation was eligible for it, and that would be Waste Control Specialists.

A little later on, once he got the contract and began burying waste in West Texas, in this facility, he got another addition to the law. Initially the waste could only come from the state of Texas and Vermont. They had a compact between the two. He got that changed, so that now 34 states can go to Waste Control Specialists out in West Texas. So Harold Simmons is making billions off this one deal, and that deal could not have happened if he wasn't the big money behind Rick Perry.

Holland: I think a lot of people understand the way campaign finance works. The way lobbying works. I think it’s less understood the way corporate money plays out in our courts. In the 1970s, these wealthy right-wing donors started investing in what you might call intellectual infrastructure in legal circles. They endowed academic chairs; held conferences; and published academic journals. They started the Federalist Society, which has had a huge impact.

We’ve seen this bear fruit with things like Citizens United. There was a report out this week that the court had ruled with the position of the US Chamber of Commerce in 100 percent of the cases it took an interest in during the current term. I’m not sure how you make progress in that environment. Do you see the courts going too far and kind of opening up some eyes? Maybe provoking a backlash? How do we get out of this?

Hightower: You saw another report this week that the court approval rating is at perhaps an all-time low. Certainly in modern times. A court that normally the public doesn’t know much about and says they’re in black robes and sitting up there so they must be important. They do good things. They helped desegregate the schools. They helped liberate women from discrimination. Now they’re below 50 percent in approval rating and falling because they are totally on the side of corporate interests.

As you indicated, Joshua, that’s not by accident. That’s because the Federalist Society and other entities -- many of which by the way are funded by the Koch brothers -- they have been the instigator for 30-40 years behind this movement to try to infiltrate the courts. Initially it was at a state and district level, but now it goes all the way up to the Supreme Court. These are their boys. John Roberts, Scalia, Alito and Clarence Thomas. Clarence Thomas and Scalia had gone to the Koch brothers biannual retreat out in the desert to meet these billionaires and politicians to frame a strategy for taking over the entire government. If you’ve got the Congress, which they do in the House, and you’ve got Mitt Romney and his surge for the presidency, and if you’ve got the courts that pretty much wraps it up.

People are getting fed up. They’re beginning to see what this is. That’s why we can have some hope. Once the people get a sniff of it, once they’ve sensed that something could be done then something will be done. There are a couple of great coalition efforts out there: freespeechforpeople.org and also movetoamend.org are doing grassroots actions all across the country to repeal Citizens United, and even working to take away the crazy notion of corporate personhood.

Down here in my state we know that a corporation is not a person because Texas has not executed one yet. Nonetheless that notion is so beyond the realm. The notion that a corporation is a person and money is speech, so therefore corporations have more speech than anybody else – that is so appalling and so antithetical to what it is to be an American that there is a natural revulsion towards it.

People are looking for ways to do something. These efforts that are going to take place need to be grassroots because Washington is not going to do it. It won’t come out of the Congress without a very heavy push from the countryside. Already you’ve got Los Angeles, New York, Vermont, and New Mexico passing resolutions saying please send us a Constitutional Amendment overturning Citizens United. We will pass it in our states.

Holland: How much of our economic debates are a result of what you might call corporate propaganda? I think about this idea that the wealthy are "job creators" or that businesses aren’t hiring because of some nebulous uncertainty about regulations and tax hikes that may or may not materialize down the road. Every conservative seems to believe in these things even though common sense says that a business will hire when it has customers.

How do you wade through the BS, Jim?

Hightower: Just like you just did. You go right through and state it. Nobody believes that. The idea that CEOs are so skittish that they’re sitting back and waiting? That they don’t want to invest because of what Obama might do? It's just hogwash. They need customers, and they’re not going to get customers until wages go up. It’s not about jobs; it’s about the wages. The incomes and middle-class possibilities. If you don’t have a middle-class then you can’t have a prosperous America. That’s the reality that most Americans know because they’re experiencing the opposite. They’ve been knocked down deliberately by these politicians who are just complete whores to these moneyed interests in our society.

So that’s the battle. That’s what populism is. It’s the realization that real politics in America has always been about money and power. It’s not about social issues, this little thing here and that little thing there. It fundamentally comes down to who’s got the money and power, and how they’re using that money and power to get more for themselves at our expense. 

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