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Jan 28 2014

How money came to so dominate politics in the US

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.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    doublereed

    Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks had a great presentation of this here, where he talks about money in politics and promoting his cause Wolf-PAC:

  2. 2
    colnago80

    I suspect that the religious conservative organizations that the Koch brothers fund would be amazed to learn that they are non-believers.

  3. 3
    jonP

    To me it seems like the politicians say anything to get votes. But they do anything to get money. The democrats talk about things like the middle class, and republicans talk about things like abortion, guns, and gay people. They talk about whatever their voters want to hear, especially in the primaries. But both parties actually implement the same types of policies. The things that they agree on are the scary things like war and domestic surveillance. These corporate power types donate money to both parties, and then it seems like all their policy wishes come true.

    The voters don’t seem to be given much of a choice. The democrats scare their voters into being afraid of republicans in power, and the republicans scare their voters into being afraid of democrats in power. They each have about 50% of the electoral support, and they both support “bipartisan commissions” that create rules to minimize the influence of other political parties. It’s sort of like we are in a one party state, and the people just get to vote on the name of the one party.

  4. 4
    colnago80

    Re jonP @ #3

    As a counterpoint, consider the recent election in Virginia in which the Democrats swept all three statewide offices against 3 Rethuglican nutcases. We already see that elections have consequences as the new Democratic AG, Mark Herring, has reversed the position of his office on same sex marriage and even gone further then California Attorney General Brown and current Pennsylvania AG Kane did and is supporting the plaintiffs in the current federal law suit seeking to throw out the anti same sex marriage law in that state. This would not have happened if the Rethuglican had won.

  5. 5
    doublereed

    @jonP

    The fact is that this is just not actually accurate. A good example is the farm bill, which contains both Food Stamps and Farm Subsidies which mostly go to massive farming corporations. Democrats fight against farm subsidies and for more food stamps (because it’s actually considered one of the most successful aspects of the safety net), and Republicans for farm subsidies and for less food stamps. These aren’t the same policies.

    There are plenty of corporatist democrats, of course. There are plenty of democrats who represent various interests, but in general you’ll find less monolithic attitudes in the democratic party.

    I get annoyed at this whole “there’s no difference between the parties” thing. It’s just not accurate, and its exactly what lead to GWB being elected instead of Gore. And while we probably would have gone into Afghanistan, I doubt we would’ve gone to Iraq under Gore. Just because there’s corruption on both sides does not mean we live in a one-party state or something. There are real differences.

  6. 6
    jonP

    @colnago80

    As a counterpoint, consider the recent election in Virginia in which the Democrats swept all three statewide offices against 3 Rethuglican nutcases.

    Ok, fair enough, point taken. I think the tea party types and nutcases that have gained prominence in the republican party are destabilizing the status quo. And I think for reasons that they did not intend. As a democratic tending voter, I would be tempted to think that it’s the democratic leaders that are scaring me away from the republican party, but it’s actually the behavior and policies of the elected representatives of the republican party.

    Conservatives in the media on the other hand, seem to be creating irrational fears of “communism, marxism, socialism, etc”, and projecting those fears onto the democrats to scare the conservative voters into supporting the republicans. That’s another difference.

    @doublereed

    I get annoyed at this whole “there’s no difference between the parties” thing. It’s just not accurate, and its exactly what lead to GWB being elected instead of Gore. And while we probably would have gone into Afghanistan, I doubt we would’ve gone to Iraq under Gore. Just because there’s corruption on both sides does not mean we live in a one-party state or something. There are real differences.

    I apologize, and I do understand why it’s annoying. I should have clarified that I didn’t intend my point to be factual, but my own opinion. I know that there are differences between the parties, especially because both parties have there own slate of leaders that are in opposition to each other. We get to vote on which slate of leaders we want.

    I don’t think we necessarily would have known how bad GWB really was before the 2000 election. However, 2004 was just a horrible debacle. Any mistakes that Gore would have made probably could have been hyped by republicans as reasons why GWB should have won. Although I’m certain they wouldn’t have been that bad.

    A good example is the farm bill

    The farm bill is an interesting example. I am however under the impression that the democrats in the midwestern farming states, especially the senators, support the agricultural subsidies. The opposition to food stamps seems to be from the tea party type crazy republican representatives in their battle against poor people.

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