Obama’s Wonderful Wealth Primary and “The Essence of American Politics”

In his 1999 book on Bill and Hillary Clinton, No One Left to Lie To (Verso), the still Left Christopher Hitchens wrote something interesting about “the essence of American politics.  This essence, when distilled," said Hitchens, "consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism. That elite is most successful,” Hitchens explained, “which can claim the heartiest allegiance of the fickle crowd; can present itself as ‘in touch’ with popular concerns; can anticipate the tides and pulses of opinion; can, in short, be the least apparently elitist.”  

Sometimes the absurdity of United States elitism masquerading as populism gets bad enough to make you wonder if you are hallucinating.   Yesterday morning I went to check my e-mail off yahoo.com.

Down on the lower left side of my yahoo screen I saw a picture of Barack Obama next to the following:  “WHAT’S YOUR ANSWER? Barack Obama asks: ‘How can we engage more people in the democratic process?’ Submit your answer.”

There was a link for people to answer Senator Obama’s question on citizen engagement.

“Well, “I said to my myself, “we could start by reducing the insanely expensive nature of our election extravaganzas and by abolishing the private funding of public elections. The way it is now, with candidates relying  on big money contributions from the wealthy few to pay for astronomically expensive media- and consultant-driven campaigns, most ordinary U.S. citizens determine they can’t possibly compete for meaningful influence in our ‘dollar democracy.’ It's not rocket science. They understandably figure they can’t win in this plutocracy. For this and other and related reasons, they disengage.  It’s pretty questionable whether we really have a ‘democratic process’ given the undue power of concentrated wealth in a nation where the top 1 percent owns more than a third of the wealth and a probably greater share of the politicians. Ordinary working class people know this and they just check out.”

To clarify my thoughts on this matter, I went to the website of the National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI) and was reminded that the U.S. electoral process is “subject to a de facto ‘wealth primary’ that effectively excludes nonwealthy voters and candidates from meaningful participation in the political process.”“The wealth primary,” the NVRI explains, “is the process by which the person who collects the most money — the ‘winner’ of the wealth primary — almost always goes on to capture his or her party's nomination. It also means that those campaign contributors with the most money or access to money, choose the candidate who almost invariably goes on to win. Candidates who cannot compete in the wealth primary stand little or no chance of competing in the formal state-run elections. While all US citizens nominally enjoy the right to stand for elective office, exponential increases in the cost of running for office now ensure that low income citizens cannot mount viable campaigns on their own behalf, nor can they identify candidates reflective of their own backgrounds on the ballot. Those who cannot compete in the wealth primary cannot find representation in government.” 

According to NVRI: “Our current system of financing electoral campaigns now stands where the poll tax and the high candidate filing fee systems once stood.” The facts speak for themselves:”

* “Less than 1% of the population provides over 80% of all money in federal elections.”

 * “Over 60 percent of contributions to winning congressional candidates came in amounts over $1000.”

 * “Only one-ninth of one percent of the voting-age population — nearly 232,000 people — gave $1000 or more to federal candidates in 1999-2000.” * “Less than two percent of Americans give candidate contributions over $200.”

* “A 1997 national survey of major congressional campaign contributors (i.e. those who give $200 or more) revealed that 95% of such donors are white, and that 81% have annual incomes of $100,000 or more.”

  * “In 2000, winners of seats in the U.S. House out-raised and out-spent their opponents by almost 3-to-1, as winners raised an average of $916,629 and losers on average raised $309,213. In the Senate, winners raised $7,307,402 while losers raised $3,594,447.”

* “Candidates who raised the most money won 93 percent of the seats up for election in Congress in 2000.”

 * “The funding of political campaigns is now increasing at roughly four times the annual inflation rate.” 

“There are moments in our nation's history,” NVRI continues “when a tradition once thought of as constitutional becomes constitutional no more. The history of the right to vote in this country includes, in fact, a series of such moments. Once held only by white male property owners, the right to vote has been expanded continuously as disenfranchised peoples have organized and struggled for an America that lives up to its legal and moral promise of political equality. Over time, the nation has seen the elimination of numerous barriers to voting rights — from property, race, gender, and age qualifications to exclusionary white primaries, poll taxes, high candidate filing fees, and vote dilution schemes.”

“Today, we must face up to the newest voting-rights barrier: the ‘wealth primary.’ Those who do not raise enough money — that is, who lose the wealth primary — rarely appear on the ballot, much less win office. The rest of us, the vast majority of American people, are shut out of a critical part of our election process. Our right to vote, including our right to equal and meaningful participation, is debased and undermined. Like the poll taxes of the past, our campaign finance system has been assumed to be constitutional. Legislators, citizens, and ultimately the courts must recognize the reality of our degraded electoral system, must acknowledge that it discriminates against those who cannot ‘pay-to-play’, and must admit, at last, that this system is constitutional no more.”

AFTER reviewing all this material, I returned to the yahoo main page – the same one with Barockstar's question: "How can we engage more people in the democratic process?"Right there in the middle of the same www.yahoo.com  page I read an Associated Press story that made me wonder if I'd inadvertently slipped some acid into my morning coffee: 

“Obama Pulls in 20 Million Dollars for 2008 Race”

Associated Press via Yahoo/April 3/2007/9:53 AM ET

"Democratic Senator Barack Obama (news, bio, voting record) reportedly pulled in 20 million dollars in donations for his White House campaign, only a few million shy of front-runner Hillary Clinton.”

"Citing unnamed aides of Obama, who seeks to become the country's first-ever African-American president, the New York Times said Obama brought in 20 million dollars (15 million euros) in the first three months of the race, compared to Senator Clinton's 26 million, ‘enough to ratchet up the anxiety in the Clinton camp.’”

“Clinton reported the size of her war chest as of a key fund-raising deadline on Saturday, while Obama has yet to officially reveal his takings on the campaign trail.”

“But the Obama estimate confirmed that this race, with the Democrats and Republicans both showing large fields of candidates for their respective nominations, is smashing all records in the arena of fund-raising.”

“His 20 million would put the total raised to 108 million dollars, with the first primaries to decide the candidates nine months away, and the presidential election itself 20 months down the road.”

“The previous record in money raised for all Republican and Democratic candidates at the corresponding period of presidential campaigns was 30.9 million, set in 2003.”

Ok, you can be sure that most of that $108 million and most of Obama’s $20 million comes from a proportionately small and heavily privileged group that sees investment in politicians as a key way to influence policy in their own interests. Back when I used to study political money for a living (for a brief period in the late 1990s), I recall learning that the top 1 percent accounted for about 85 percent of the total campaign contributions in federal U.S. elections.  More than half of federal candidates’ contributions came (then) in contributions of $1000 or more, well beyond what ordinary working class people are able or willing to contribute.

According a recent New York Times article on Obama's phenomenal fund-raising (money-whoring) prowess, "nearly half of the more than $5 million" Obama raised to win his primary race for the U.S. Senate in 2004 "came from just 300 donors" (Christopher Drew and Mike McIntire, "Obama Built Donor Network From Roots Up," New York Times, April 3, 2007).  

For those of you who are interested, $2.45 million divided by 300 equals $8,166. 

The charmed circle of 300 included the Pritzker family, founders of the Hyatt Hotel chain.  The Pritzkers donated $40,000 and Penny Pritzker is currently Obama's national finance chairwoman. 

Obama got a total of $112,500 from the family of James S. Crown, whose "investments include a major stake in the militaty contractor General Dynamics."  Crown told the Times that his "family members normally avoided taking sides in a primary, in part because it was good for business.  But, with Mr. Obama, they made an exception…"(Drew and McIntire, "Obama Built Donor Network"),  

We don’t have a full breakdown of the candidates’ latest contributions, but here’s a look – from the Open Secrets website of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP)– at Obama’s top contributors from 2001 to 2006 (apologies in advance for the way this data is going to look…I cannot seem to bring in the proper tabular formatting):


Kirkland & Ellis (elite law firm) $143,138
2 University of Chicago (longtime employer of Obama) $139,554
3 Sidley Austin LLP (elite law firm) $100,932
4 Henry Crown & Co (publisher of Obama’s 2006 book Audacity of Hope) $79,500
5 Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal (elite law firm) $74,950
6 Exelon Corp (giant Midwestern electrical utility, massive nuclear plant operator) $71,850
7 Northwestern University $70,430
8 Mayer, Brown et al (elite law firm) $69,960
9 Jenner & Block (elite law firm) $62,710
10 Soros Fund Management (elite human rights agency funded by global super-capitalist George Soros) $61,605
11 Goldman Sachs (elite Global investment banking, securities, and investment management firm) $61,500
12 Clifford Law Offices (elite law firm) $59,550
13 Simmons Cooper LLC (elite law firm) $58,500
14 Tejas Securities (elite global investment banking and brokerage house) $57,250
15 JP Morgan Chase & Co (elite global financial services firm) $56,600
16 Ariel Capital Management (elite Chicago based  investment firm) $55,650
17 Skadden, Arps et al (elite law firm) $54,071
18 Winston & Strawn (elite law firm) $52,450
19 Piper Rudnick LLP (elite global law firm) $45,600
20 Holland Capital Management (elite global investment firm) $43,3


The top industries supporting Barack Obama since 2004 are listed as follows by the CRP:


Lawyers/Law Firms $2,526,760
2 Securities & Investment $1,137,782
3 Retired $879,151
4 Real Estate $644,060
5 Education $571,696
6 Business Services $525,316
7 Misc Finance $422,248
8 Health Professionals $371,763
9 TV/Movies/Music $303,983
10 Commercial Banks $286,753
11 Printing & Publishing $189,043
12 Insurance $188,582
13 Non-Profit Institutions $186,320
14 Misc Business $157,041
15 Civil Servants/Public Officials $150,269
16 Hospitals/Nursing Homes $146,175
17 Lobbyists $127,800
18 Computers/Internet $126,883
19 Construction Services $119,910
20 Retail Sales $106,800


The cognitive dissonance between Obama’s question on yahoo (how do we get ordinary folks more involved in U.S. politics?) and Obama’s campaign finance data (richly indicative of harsh plutocratic realities that keep ordinary folks out of U.S. politics) is pretty intense.   

What does Obama think about the absurdity of it all?  Hard to say.  In his creepy Janus-faced campaign book (see my detailed review) The Audacity of Hope – published by his fourth largest campaign contributor, Henry Crown & Co. (which has an obvious vested interest in his political success) – he speaks against the undue political influence exercised by the wealthy and advocates campaign finance reform.  But the master triangulator Obama also commends “the need to raise money from economic elites to finance elections” for “prevent[ing] Democrats…from straying too far from the center” and for marginalizing “those within the Democratic Party who tend toward zealotry” and “radical ideas”… ideas like peace and justice.  

It’s all pretty goddamned absurd.  But the absurdity makes sense: democracy cannot be real under capitalism, for reasons explained again and again.

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