Last evening I went to talk given by Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. He is a prolific author on the media and politics and he was speaking about the ideas in his new book (co-authored with John Nicholls) titled Dollarocracy: How the Money-and-Media Election Complex is Destroying America in which he argues that the idea of ‘one person, one vote’ has now become ‘one dollar, one vote’.
He argues that up until around 1970, the wealth and income inequality gap in America was actually decreasing but after 1970 it started rocketing upwards. What happened around that time? He said that the democratizing, social justice, and anti-war movements of the 1960s had alarmed the business community that the world they were comfortable with, in which the wealthy elites ran the government, was under threat so they commissioned a corporate lawyer named Lewis Powell to think about how to combat this trend. The brief and confidential memo that Powell came up with in August 1971 laid out a blueprint for the business community that they must be willing to spend huge amounts of money in lobbying, campaign funding, creating business-friendly think tanks and the like because democracy was too dangerous in that the ‘wrong’ people could get elected. The business community took his advice and started pouring money into the electoral process and to influence the courts, local, state and national elections, public opinion, academia, secondary education, TV, books, articles, and so on. No area was to be left along from corporate power. (I wrote about the Powell memo back in 2008.)
When a vacancy to the US Supreme Court opened up shortly thereafter, president Nixon nominated Powell to the vacancy in 1972. Powell was from Virginia and he was presented as a ‘moderate southerner’ which in those times, McChesney joked, meant a white guy who was not a member of the KKK. He was approved by a 99-1 vote of the US Senate. On the court and until he retired in 1987 he began arguing tirelessly that there should be no limits whatsoever on campaign spending, a position that was too radical even for his conservative colleague and later chief justice William Rehnquist. But with the 2010 Citizens United verdict, Powell’s dream has almost reached full fruition. As a result, when compared with other countries, the US now spends on its elections 34 times that of Germany, 29 times that of Norway, and 49 times that of the UK, even though the turnout here (in the low-to-mid-50%) is much lower than in those countries. A lot of this money goes into TV advertising. TV stations now get 25-40% of their revenues from political ads compared to just 2% in 1992. When combined with the cutbacks in journalism that might give people more informed and objective information, this has led to the serious degradation of democracy in the US.
McChesney says that people might be surprised to learn the big business interests like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson that spend huge amounts of money on elections actually have liberal views on social issues but that when it comes to funding candidates they pour money into those who support low taxes for the rich, want to break trade unions, and eliminate regulations, even if those candidates have positions on social issues they totally disagree with.
For such people, the desire for more money trumps everything else.