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Money Talks in Many Ways: Election-Season Reflections on How the Ruling Class Rules


A solid majority of Americans has long told pollsters that the wealthy few and their giant corporations and financial institutions exercise too much power in “the world’s most celebrated democracy”[1] the United States. The sentiment is understandable given the nation’s dollar-soaked political system, usefully described by left critics as “the best democracy money can buy” (Greg Palast) and (less humorously) subject to “an unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward S. Herman and David Peterson).[2]

 

Some Areas of Elite Consensus

 

That dictatorship is in fine form two weeks out from the next presidential election. It’s wrong and even childish to say that there’s no difference at all that matters between the nation’s two dominant political organizations and their standard-bearers Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Still, behind the official media story line of an epic contest between two “very different” and “sharply polarized” parties and candidates, the only two officially viable contenders bow to the wishes of capital and defy majority opinion by agreeing, in the words of the left activist Bruce Dixon, that:

 

  • “The federal government should NOT enact any sort of WPA-style program to put millions of people back to work.”
  • “Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are ‘entitlements’ that need to be cut to relieve ‘the deficit.’”
  • “Climate change treaties and negotiations that might lead to them should be avoided at all costs.”
  • The corporatist investor-rights North American Free Trade Agreement is “such a great thing it really should be extended to Central and South America and the entire Pacific rim.”
  • “Banksters and Wall Street speculators deserve their bailouts and protection from criminal liability, but underwater and foreclosed homeowners deserve nothing.”
  • “Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve ‘energy independence.’”
  • “The FCC should not and must not regulate telecoms to ensure that poor and rural communities have access to internet, or to guarantee network neutrality.”
  • “There really ARE such things as ‘clean coal’ and ‘safe nuclear energy.’”
  • “Oil and energy companies, and other mega-polluters must be freed to drill offshore almost everywhere, and permitted to poison land and watersheds with fracking to achieve ‘energy independence.’”  
  • “No Medicare for All. Forget about it eliminating the Medicare age requirement so that all Americans would qualify.”
  • “No minimum wage increases for you, no right to form a union, no right to negotiate or strike if you already have a union, and no enforcement or reform of existing labor laws.”[3]

 

As if these and other areas of rich plutocratic consensus (i.e. – the notion that the U.S. should maintain a giant Pentagon system that accounts for half the world’s military spending and amounts to a giant public subsidy for high-tech corporations) aren’t disturbing enough, the president feels compelled in the great theatrical debates to repeat his timeworn paeans to “the free enterprise system” (capitalism, or what he calls “the  greatest engine of prosperity the world has ever known”[4]) – this despite the profits system’s long and ongoing record of savage, mass-murderous inequality, epic crises,   empire, corruption, militarism, and  (of special and unmentionable importance within official U.S. election culture) ecocide.

 

Why is it like this? John and Joan Q. Public and their downscale neighbors Joe and Jane Six Pack deserve an ‘A’ for sensing the plutocratic reality behind the dollar-drenched charade that passes for democracy in the U.S. Ask most U.S. citizens how rich folks’ disproportionate power is exercised, however, and the grade starts to drop dramatically. They will tell you primarily if not exclusively about the role that big money plays in paying for candidates’ expensive campaigns – about the role of campaign funders in the purchase of politicians.

 

Citizens Defeated: Frankenstein Eats His Creator

 

This is a very important point, to be sure. As the prolific campaign finance reform advocates John Bonifaz and Jamie Raskin noted 18 years ago in the Columbia Law Review, American “representative democracy” is subjected to “the wealth primary” – the requirement that viable candidates either personally possess great wealth or enjoy strong funding connections to those with the wealth to pay for ever-more expensive campaigns.[5]  Of course, those with the financial resources required for serious contention and victory in America’s costly “winner-take-all” elections system are hardly in the business of paying for genuinely public-oriented office-seekers who sincerely wish to reflect majority populist and progressive sentiments in government.[6]

 

The wealth primary has long imposed deep plutocratic scars on America’s dollar-democracy, but the problem is worse now than ever. With the 2012 elections on track to cost an all-time record of more than $6 billion, a tiny and disproportionately wealthy slice of the populace (significantly smaller than just “the 1%”) will account for a wildly disproportionate share of the dollars required to feed the burgeoning “money and -media election complex” that has “effectively become the foundation of electoral politics in the United States.”[7]

 

The problem isn’t just money per se. As the liberal Sunlight Foundation noted in a major campaign finance study titled The Political One Percent of One Percent last year, “It's the 1 percent of the 1 percent who account for almost a quarter of all individual campaign contributions…. There are very few Americans who can afford to write the kind of big checks that candidates depend on” (emphasis added). Reflecting on Sunlight’s finding, University of Maryland political scientist Jim Gimpel told reporters to "Bear in mind that wealth is concentrated…this donation pattern… reflects the concentration of wealth in this country.”[8]

 

The problem has been worsened considerably by the legal system. Part of the reason that 2012 is certain to be the most expensive election on record is the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic 2010 Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission decision. Passed 5-4 by the high court’s conservative, Republican-appointed majority and opposed by the Obama administration, Citizens United abolished prior longstanding governmental prohibitions against corporations digging into their treasuries to invest unlimited sums in election campaigns. The ruling has opened the door to spectacular new levels of business election spending, giving rise to giant new “Super PACs” that funnel tens of millions of corporate shareholder dollars into “independent expenditures” on behalf of candidates with the undoubted and in fact legally mandated purpose of shaping policy in the interests of corporate contributors.
 

Prior to Citizens United, corporations already invested massively in American politics and policy. They spent billions on lobbying, ‘issue ads,’ political action committees (PACs), and raising PAC money. CEOs, top executives and corporate board members contributed heavily as individuals to parties and candidates. Still, as Raskin notes in a recent special Nation issue on “The 1% Court,” there “was one crucial thing that CEOs could not do before Citizens United: reach into their corporate treasuries to bankroll campaigns promoting or opposing the election of candidates for Congress or president. This prohibition essentially established a wall of separation—not especially thick or tall, but a wall nonetheless—between corporate treasury wealth and campaigns for federal office” (emphasis added).
 

Citizens United blew up the wall. Along the way, it undid two centuries of high court doctrine upholding the special need to restrict corporations’ political contributions by claiming that “identity of the speaker” is irrelevant and an unconstitutional basis on which to limit the “free speech” rights of campaign contributors.” The decision is openly absurd because the Supreme has refused to extend free speech protections to “public employees, public school students, whistleblowers, prisoners and minor-party candidates whose free-speech rights have been crushed by the conservative Court because of their identity as (disfavored) speakers” and because it is unthinkable that the court would “allow and President Obama…[to] order the Government Printing Office to produce a book advocating his re-election” or  let” churches…or Harvard University bankroll…political campaigns.’ [9]
 

Raskin quotes the important dissenting opinion of Supreme Court Bryon White in the 1978 case First Nat’l Bank v. Bellotti. White noted that U.S. statutory and common law grants private corporations awesome legal benefits—"limited liability, perpetual life, and the accumulation, distribution and taxation of assets"—in order to "strengthen the economy generally." But a corporation empowered these ways is "in a position to control vast amounts of economic power which may, if not regulated, dominate not only the economy but also the very heart of our democracy, the electoral process." The state, he argued, had a compelling interest in "preventing institutions which have been permitted to amass wealth as a result of special advantages extended by the State for certain economic purposes from using that wealth to acquire an unfair advantage in the political process. . .The State,” White said, “need not permit its own creation to consume it."[10]

 

That remains a chilling formulation worth reflecting on as Halloween and the first $2 billion presidential election loom closer. As the Canadian law professor Joel Bakan has shown, the leading modern corporations are giant Frankenstein-like creatures whose managers are legally and socio-pathologically obligated to pursue the maximum possible profitable return for investors at all times, regardless of their actions’ outcomes for others, democracy, justice, and the Earth.[11]

 

Many-Sided Methods of Control

 

Frighteningly enough, however, even in the Citizens Defeated era, campaign finance is just one among many ways in which the aforementioned “unelected dictatorship” speaks. Other mechanisms of corporate and plutocratic rule abound. The many-sided methods and modes include:

 

  • The flooding of the nation’s capital and the 50 state capitals and an untold number of municipal and county governments with a gigantic army of corporate lobbyists.  
  •  Massive investment in public relations and propaganda to influence the beliefs and values of citizens, politicians, and other “opinion-shapers” on matters of interest to corporations.
  • Capture of key positions in government regulatory agencies by people who reasonably expect to work at increased levels of compensation in the regulated (and not-so-regulated) industries in the future.
  • “Cognitive” (ideological) capture of state officials, politicians, media personnel, educators, nonprofit managers so as to minimize public actions and sentiments that might harm business profits.
  • The use by businesses of the threat of disinvestment, capital flight, and capital strike – resulting in the loss of jobs and tax revenue – to get what they want (i.e., reduced wages, reduced taxes, reduced environmental regulations, increased public subsidies…the list goes on) from governments, unions, and communities.
  • The systematic destruction and undermining of organizations (i.e., labor unions) that might offer some countervailing power to that of big business in the political and policy realms.
  • The offer of jobs, corporate board memberships, internships, and other perks and payments to public officials and their families and to other “influentials” and their families.
  • Control of education and publishing (a) to filter out, repress, and marginalize “populist” and “radical” (democratic) critiques of the profits system, corporations, and capitalist culture and (b) to identify the public interest and the common good with the business bottom line.
  • Ownership, monitoring, and management of mass media (including “entertainment” as well as pubic affairs news and commentary) for the same purposes.

 

 

Hearts and Minds for Capitalism

 

All of this and more functions very much in accord with top corporate attorney Lewis  Powell’s semi-legendary August 1971 memo to the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Written two months before Richard Nixon appointed Powell to the Supreme Court, the memo detailed what Powell considered to be an unprecedented and “broadly based” assault on “the American economic system” (capitalism) emanating not just from radical margins but even from “perfectly respectable elements of society: the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”  By Powell’s alarmist reckoning, a dangerous anti-business uprising led by such “charismatic” threats as Ralph Nader and Herbert Marcuse meant that corporations should undertake a concerted and many-sided public relations and media counter-offensive. “It is time,” Powell proclaimed, “for American business – which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in history to produce and influence consumer decisions – to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.” Powell counseled that the struggle to win back hearts and minds for capitalism should target the universities, the publishing world, and the media, including an effort to place the television networks “under constant surveillance.”[12]

 

According to the distinguished political scientist Edward P. Morgan, Powell’s “urgent appeal helped set in motion forces that subsequently transformed public discourse in the United States for decades to come.” [13]

 

It is interesting and instructive that Powell appealed to the business class’s historic advertising prowess in connection with the project of aligning popular sentiments with the needs of the profits system, the mass acceptance or rejection of which he described as a “consumer decision,” not a citizen choice. The brilliant Australian propaganda critic Alex Carey attributed corporate propaganda’s remarkable power in the U.S. to the American business class’s distinctive and longstanding skill at reaching popular hearts and minds through advertising: As Carey noted in his aptly titled volume Taking the Risk Out of Democracy:  

 

“Commercial advertising and public relations are the forms of propaganda activity common in a democracy. In the United States over a very long time now these methods have been honed by incomparably more skill and research than in any other country. In the 1940s, Drew Dudley, then chief of the Media Programming Division of the Office of War mobilization and Reconversion, not only observed with satisfaction that ‘advertising is peculiarly American,’ but added on a note of (perhaps rather less well founded) pride that ‘Hitler…employ[ed] the technique of advertising during the pre-war and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilizing advertising’s repetitive force to the utmost.’”

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