Democracy for sale – or billionaires’ folly?

By Nicholas Wapshott
March 30, 2012

It was said of Andrew Carnegie that he gave money away as quietly as a waiter falling down a steel staircase carrying a tray of tall-stemmed glasses. Not so the sotto voce superrich donors who are spending so much to keep Mitt Romney from declaring himself the winner of the Republican nomination.

With their chosen candidates out front, swinging at each other as they glad-hand from state to state, the multimillionaires and billionaires a mere million is nowhere near enough to join this exclusive club – keep themselves out of sight, sitting around in a smoke-filled back room playing high-stakes hold ’em for the soul of the GOP. Not literally, of course, though many of them made their fortunes gambling everything on their hunches.

It is the common view, heard nightly around dinner tables of liberal-leaning citizens, that democracy is being bought and sold in front of our noses and that the Founding Fathers – most of whom, by the way, were comfortably well off and happily paid their way into politics – would be spinning in their mausoleums if they knew how the monarchy they defied has been replaced in the brave republic they founded by an aristocracy of the super-wealthy they never could have imagined.

Yet recent evidence suggests that Citizens United and related relaxations on campaign spending have done little more than allow the ultrarich to waste their money. Consider A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of the Univision TV network, who sank $2.1 million into the short-lived bid by Jon Huntsman Jr. to storm the White House. Perenchio’s losses match those of Jon Huntsman Sr., father of Jr., who gave a total of $2.2 million in 10 easy payments to bolster his son’s forlorn ambitions. Money can’t buy you love, perhaps, but in the Huntsman family it has surely bought eternal devotion.

The same sense of loss, both political and financial, could be said of Harold Simmons, the Texan chemicals and metals magnate, who poured $1.1 million into Rick Perry and his five-point – or was that four-point – plan for shrinking the federal government. Oops. But Simmons is not done. He made an each-way bet, backing not just the forgetful Perry but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, too.

Simmons may soon find himself Gingrich’s lone big-bucks paymaster. His co-sponsor, the owner of casinos from Vegas to Macao Sheldon Adelson, has let slip he thinks Gingrich’s candidate is “at the end of his line” and will not throw good money after bad. For Adelson, who doesn’t like Santorum’s social conservatism and is irritated by being fobbed off by Romney with “I’ll take a look at it,” the $15 million he and his wife Miriam have thrown at Gingrich is chump change amounting to just 0.04 percent of his $25 billion fortune.

Gingrich, now penniless and pointless, has joined the ranks of the living dead, fueled by his grudge against Romney. Santorum, too, is in denial. Does anyone, even his wife Karen and their seven children, genuinely believe he can defy the math and become the candidate? Yet he keeps marching on thanks to the generous checks of the Wyoming mutual fund investor Foster Friess and Louisiana energy executive William Doré, who have thrown more than $3 million at him.

Friess is one of the few free-spending billionaires who didn’t check the no-publicity box, though his off-color jokes about women using an aspirin as contraception – “between their knees” – and his one-liners about Romney’s Cerberus approach to policy have hardly advanced the debate on the future of conservatism.

Ron Paul’s persistence in the face of not winning a single state is a different story. He is not in it to win the top slot, or even to wangle a place on the ticket, but to promote his Hayekian worldview. He is, perhaps, hoping to build the foundations for a presidential bid by his son Senator Rand Paul in 2016 or beyond. Paul’s angel donor, Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal – should that have been PayPaul? – has given the former Libertarian Party candidate nearly $3 million.

All of the above are like rich kids playing a game of Monopoly with real money except that all of the above seem to have lost. But the real question for democrats, and Democrats, is what motivates the silent billionaires backing Romney? What do Julian Robertson, William Koch and John Paulson – who have each given him $1 million or more – expect if their malleable champion makes it to the Oval Office? Perhaps when Romney reboots after the Tampa convention and new images begin to appear on his Etch-a-Sketch, we will find out.

PHOTO: Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson speaks during a luncheon at Gaming Expo Asia in Macao, June 8, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

11 comments

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“What do Julian Robertson, William Koch and John Paulson – who have each given him $1 million or more – expect if their malleable champion makes it to the Oval Office?”

The obvious answer is that they want the laws written in their favor. One needs to look no further than the Senate’s vote on oil tax breaks to see the DIRECT correlation between getting billions from an industry and doing anything to protect that industry’s interests.

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

I agree with RexMax46. Despite the fact that donor’s money doesn’t guarantee a win, large donations to winning candidates DOES influence a politician once in office. This isn’t free speech. It is, in fact, expensive speech that is out of reach of the vast majority of voters. Not only is this a bizarre interpretation of what free speech should mean today, it is a bastardization of the founding father’s belief in who should represent us. So, while it is true that initially only white land owners were entitled to vote, every evolution of the principals of voting and free speech since then has brought us closer to a truer Democracy. Unfortunately, in this light, it is also evident that Citizens United has pushed our free market ideal toward the failures of a Capitalist Republic and further away from a Representative Democracy. In my view this is just another form of fascism that fails to appreciate the benefits of diversity, equality, or justice, which is odd since it came from the highest court in the land.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

The fact that it requires such financial backers and massive sums of money to buy one’s way through the Presidential election is disgusting. We are not electing leaders on their merits, we are electing them (or shunning others) based on 30 second ads that say little and distort much.

Shrugging it off by noting many of the backers end up being big losers or that many of our founding fathers purchased their posts does not solve the larger issue: Money in America buys elections.

You cannot win today without a massive war chest of dollars and willing financiers and uber wealthy Superpacs (aka multimedia attack dogs).

But money isn’t the root of election evil. Evil is the collective unwillingness of the average American to delve deeply into the issues and understand them at something more than a superficial-soundbite level. Evil is the pervasive willful ignorance of the average American voter.

Just ask those who promoted the notion of Death Panels, then compare their definition of government employee “Death Panels” against the Private Healthcare coverage/Big Insurance practices with sick people the past 20 years.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

We need fundamental electoral reform in the USA.

How about a Parliamentary system that gives 7.5% of the votes nationwide 7.5% of the seats? Proportional representation. Now these wealthy people pick a King for 4 years, one with no restrictions too.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

The article says nothing about how the Tea Party is funded by Newsmax (Arnaud de Borchgrave, Moonies etc) Murdoch, Koch’s, and Mellon Scaife or about ALEC. ALEC has had plenty of success writing laws for state legislatures and is in fact responsible for the law that allowed Zimmerman to walk after bagging Martin. Essentially that’s what the billionaires club is all about…. bagging people.

Posted by montoya66 | Report as abusive

What American Democratic Elections ? BS.
The whole world is laughing at us Stupid Americans.

Posted by GMavros | Report as abusive

The invocation of Cerberus is apt. It looks like we may be located on the wrong side of the Styx.

Posted by TobyONottoby | Report as abusive

I think your implied characterization of the US being reduced in value to that of a game of Monopoly, but played with real money by the wealthy, is a very apt description of how bad our political system has become.

What you are describing is nothing more than “legalized bribery” of public officials that are supposed to represent the 99%, not the 1%.

No wonder the American people are so disgusted with their government when it has become abundantly clear that we are for sale to the highest bidder, just like in the medieval times when the serfs came with the land.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

“Yet recent evidence suggests that Citizens United and related relaxations on campaign spending have done little more than allow the ultrarich to waste their money.”

Hmmm…I don’t think your thesis holds up very well, Mr. Wapshott. You left out the most pertinent piece of the puzzle: Mitt Romney raised the most money and will ultimately be the nominee, and that’s no coincidence.

There’s not a whole lot I can add that hasn’t already been mentioned on this board, but I will anyway. I particularly like the poignant and eloquently worded post of LEEDAP’s. Despite the discriminatory system that our Founding Fathers designed as the cornerstone of our democracy, it was still the most democratic system of its time and I think it’s clear that our Founders knew that it couldn’t stay as restricted as it was because it went against their/our core STATED values. This argument was made when debating the issue of slavery (which, according to Michele Bachmann, the Founders worked tirelessly at until slavery was no more. Very cool, Michele. Now about that Civil War…)

We’d always been a progressive society, whether people want to admit that or not. Our Founding Fathers embodied the very definition of progressivism. But there are monied interests who see progressive thought as a threat to their profiteering, the same interests that have used their money to make Romney the Republican nominee.

The big money in our elections is just one of several ways wealth is being used to undermine our democracy. There’s a lot of propaganda, too, that has proven essential to the formation of our unique American style of fascism. Corporations own most of the mainstream media and corporations are for making profit, so the media is going to be slanted to a view that protects their corporate interests.

For example, the media sure did a piss-poor job of questioning Bush’s many justifications for going to war with Iraq, something that should only be undertaken as a last resort. At the time questioning Bush’s motives was very unpopular so if a tv news broadcast, newspaper, or magazine really zoomed in on the tough, unpopular questions, they ran the very real risk of hurting their bottom line. That’s a no-no. The propaganda, with a lot of help from the Republicans, was that if you questioned the President’s motives, your were unAmerican or a terrorist sympathizer. So the media played it safe and we were a lot worse off for it, especially the 4,500 American soldiers who paid the ultimate price in Iraq.

It’s because of this corporate “influence” we won’t, for example, get a single payer healthcare system even though that’s really the only way we’re going to get all Americans covered at a manageable cost. Right now the “message” is, if you can’t afford your healthcare, tough. If you don’t have insurance you’re just lazy (even though 60% of bankruptcies in the US are due to healthcare costs–over a million a year–and a majority of those are people with health insurance.)

Progressivism puts people first and America’s major industries put profits first. They have our economic system so fine-tuned that they’re extracting every bit of profit from every available source that they can. So the two ideologies are at loggerheads, but only one has real power, power acquired through wealth and ownership of our ears. When the progressive side starts making noise, the corporate elite in power simply informs the more docile majority that those wanting to change our system, a system that’s making that corporate elite very wealthy indeed, are a threat to American values, anti-American, etc., etc., etc. I’m afraid they’ve got things pretty well wrapped up.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

[...] Democracy for sale – or billionaires' folly? Consider A. Jerrold Perenchio, the former CEO of the Univision TV network, who sank $ 2.1 million into the short-lived bid by Jon Huntsman Jr. to storm the White House. Perenchio's losses match those of Jon Huntsman Sr., father of Jr., who gave a total … Read more on Reuters Blogs (blog) [...]

RexMax46′s comment is spot on. At a time of record deficits how in the world could you possibly justify a special tax break for Big Oil. The break is relative small, about $2B a year. Exxon had revenue of $434B last year with profit just slightly south of 10% (of course without more research, I have no idea what all they’ve packed into the “Cost of goods sold” line item). So the tax break couldn’t possibly be much more than pocket change to them. Yet they were among the first to vent when the subject of eliminating the tax break came up. Their complaint is petty. Greed gone amuck.

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

It is about to become a felony for having this kind of discussion in the presence of the elected and even the candidates. Orwell? Lenin? Obama?! Sad day for everybody.

Posted by YoungTurkArmy | Report as abusive