When excessive wealth meets dysfunctional politics

By Richard White
February 26, 2014

The election is months away but figuratively, at least, the billionaires are voting early and often.

Paul Singer and Art Pope, and, of course, the brothers Charles and David Koch are busy punching ballots for the Republicans; George Soros and Tom Steyer, meanwhile, are arranging votes for the Democrats, or at least most of them, since Steyer, an environmental advocate, is focusing of climate change. Their minions are not, however, literally buying votes — the way Gilded Age operatives for George Hearst or Leland Stanford used to do.

That kind of exercise, though arguably more efficient in the “marketplace of ideas,” remains illegal. At least for now. Instead, money is transmuted into “speech.” As long as there is no specified quid pro quo from those elected with their money — and perhaps only electable because of their money — no one has broken the law.

This is modern plutocracy, or at least an attempt at plutocracy. Very rich people are trying to advance their own ideological agendas, control elections, and, through the elections, the republic itself. There is a cynical tendency to think that this is just the same as it ever was. But it is not.

The American polity has been cursed with people wealthy beyond all reason for more than a century and half. What we see now, however, is exceptional in both the amount of money spent and the ideological ambitions of the very rich. This is our polar vortex of excessive wealth, dysfunctional politics, ideological simpletons, and a Supreme Court nearly laughable in its logic and readings of American history. We may have been in bad shape before, but never bad in this particular way.

The stupendously rich once could be counted on to use politics to pursue a rather narrow self-interest. Collis P. Huntington of the Southern Pacific Railroad, for example, thought it was a mistake to have the railroad involved in politics beyond the necessary needs of obtaining subsidies, harming competitors, and avoiding taxes. To achieve his ends, Huntington cultivated politicians as “friends” to whom he gave money, information that could be turned into money, jobs and more — usually not as a quid pro quo but as a sign of common interests.

Huntington’s corruption was nasty, but grew increasingly expensive and ineffective. In part, this was because there were other equally corrupt men whose own particular friends tried to curtail his subsidies, harm his interests, and tax his companies.

Despite a conviction on the left that the capitalists of the world, unlike the workers, do unite, in fact, they didn’t. They still don’t. Hence Koch v. Soros.

What has changed is how money works in politics. Now the rich pursue either a rather expansive self-interest or a kind of “Andrew Carnegie politics” that makes them the shepherds of our well-being. Their modern “friends” are consultants, advertising agencies, public relations experts, pollsters, and people in media. They seek to disguise their own participation.

It makes me long for the days when very rich people wanted to be visible and hold office. Many senators during the Gilded Age were extraordinarily wealthy for their time. The Senate gave them an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that their real skills were in making large amounts of money.

Consider Hearst, a mining millionaire many times over and the father of William Randolph Hearst. He was able to secure his election as senator in 1887 with the help of the “Blind Boss” of San Francisco, Christopher Buckley. The New York Times, a sympathizer, summed up Hearst’s qualifications: “though illiterate and unversed in statesmanship and legislation, he is not a demagogue.”

Like Stanford, rich senators, and their opinions, often became objects of ridicule. Most eventually recognized that plutocracy is better served by having the plutocrats act as puppeteers rather than appearing as the marionettes.

The 1913 constitutional amendment allowing direct election of U.S. senators ameliorated but did not solve the problem of the wealthy interfering in elections. For most of the 20th century the electorate shared a conviction that money in politics was dangerous. It was regarded, however, as a problem that was relatively easy to solve. In 1930 the historian Charles Beard sketched out the means of doing so — now largely rendered unconstitutional by Citizens United.

Beard’s solution centered on making the candidates running for office and their parties responsible for money spent on elections and then regulating that money. The law would “fix limits to all expenditures, define the purposes for which they may be made, place full responsibility for disbursement on candidates and committees, and abolish exemptions in accounting for campaign outlays.” A Federal Elections Commission with investigatory powers would deal quickly with contested cases.

Beard thought of this as but a beginning. The ultimate solution was to eliminate private money in primaries and elections entirely.

Billionaires unable to spend their billions to advance private political agendas are not deprived of their rights as citizens, they are just reduced to the level of other citizens. Their importance dwindles like deflated balloons. Their opinions must be judged on how persuasively they are presented, rather than on how pervasive money can make them.

I happen to agree with Steyer about global warming. This is of interest largely to me. What should be of interest to all of us is the ability of a very few — the Steyers, Kochs, and Soroses of the world — to force their opinions into every cranny of public space, to manipulate public opinion, drown out contrary opinions — unless those, too, are backed with millions — and to pursue certain policies without taking responsibility for governance or the actions of those elected with their money.

Steyer may be right that there can be no unilateral disarmament in the wars of the ideological rich. But the price is the diminishment of honest debate and differences of opinion.

In exchange we get this travesty of democratic decision-making floating forward on the sophistry of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is so concerned about the rights of wealth and so unconcerned about the rest of us.

 

PHOTO (TOP): David Koch (L), Collis P. Huntington (C) and Charles Koch (R). Koch brothers credit: REUTERS. Huntington credit: Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Leland Stanford in the 1870s. Wikipedia/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 2): George Hearst. Wikipedia/Commons

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Justice Anthony M. Kennedy at the Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 8, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing


 

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