Maybe I Was Wrong…

Over the past fourteen months, I have been writing, teaching and speaking on the state of American politics. Buoyed by decades of successes in many policy battles, my perspective has frequently been at odds with the prevailing grim assessment: however dismal the current state of U.S. politics, I reasoned, this condition is part of a cycle from which we will emerge when a more enlightened electorate – and special interests as well – decide there is a need for effective governance.

But several recent developments have led me to entertain the idea that I may have been wrong; that the rot goes far deeper and is more sinister, and therefore will be far more daunting a challenge to reverse.

How can a system go, I asked, from being “the most successful Congress in 75 years” to “the worst Congress ever” in just 3½ years? This same institution created historic legislation during periods of divided as well as unified government, even in the midst of bitter political campaigns. Surely that that system surely had not “failed.” Rather, the problem is that effective control has passed from skilled legislative leaders to ideological nihilists for whom failure is success because it reinforces the popular notion of governmental incompetence.

The event that has me questioning my prior optimism is the Supreme Court’s decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, but my concerns go well beyond this single case. The deeper issue is that McCutcheon, like Citizens United, enshrines a broader trend in which enormous concentrations of wealth are replacing democratic and egalitarian methods for shaping public policies. The dangers posed by the drift (or lurch) towards oligarchy are far more difficult to remedy at the ballot box than is the temporary dysfunctionality in Congress.

Abraham Lincoln warned that concentrated capital had become “enthroned” in the political system and he worried about an era of “corruption in high places … until the Republic is destroyed.”

What might Lincoln have made of the twisted opinion of Justice Anthony Kennedy who declared he saw nothing wrong with money being used to buy “influence over or access to elected officials”? What makes McCutcheon so much more appalling than Citizens United is that, at least in the case of the latter, one could naively assert (as did Chief Justice John Roberts) that little damage could come from ending restrictions on contributions.

Roberts was cringingly wrong. The 2012 election cycle was a smorgasbord of campaign gluttony, with super PACs, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations and businesses spending over $1 billion – a third from undisclosed donors. Overall, three times as much was spent to influence elections in the 2012 cycle as in the prior two. And while President Obama’s campaign raised much of his sizeable war chest from small donors, think about this: 100 of the wealthiest Americans contributed nearly $340,000,000 to superPACS.   Anonymously.

This cycle, it is estimated, groups affiliated with the Koch brothers are spending over $33 million to sustain a media offensive against potentially vulnerable Democratic senators — eight months before the election.

But this hostile takeover of elections by the super-affluent is only part of the impact of massive wealth on American democracy, part of a shift of influence, agenda-setting, and governance away from the broad majority and elected leaders and into the privileged and largely unaccountable hands of those with great private wealth: young and old, Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative. Almost every day, it seems, some multi-millionaire or billionaire is announcing a new initiative to promote his or her own private policy agenda, some laudatory, some ludicrous; some designed to benefit the country, some designed to further enrich the rich. Increasingly, political issues and political movements are created not by mobilizing the grassroots, but by creating the grassroots — with lots of green fertilizer.

When Republicans won back control of Congress in 2010, one of the first folders I made to track political developments was titled “Income Inequality.” From past encounters with Republican majorities, I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. Today, the file is bulging. The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s overall income in 2012, the highest proportion in the century for which there are records. According to a study by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Gabriel Zucman of Berkeley, affluence is now super-concentrated not just in the wealthiest one-tenth of one-percent, but the wealthiest one-hundredth of one percent.   This hyper-concentration of affluence is part of a longstanding trend beginning with the Reagan Administration’s policies that favored the rich and smashed the unions of the middle class, according to a 2010 study by economists Carola Frydman and Raven Saks, a trend that by 2012 saw U.S. CEOs earning not 11 times the salaries of their employees, as in Europe, but 200-300 times.

The Congress responded to such stunning wealth polarization by permanently increasing the threshold for the mega-millionaires’ estate tax in January, 2013 and permanently indexing it. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a similar indexing of the minimum wage or the Child Tax Credit, which benefit low- and middle-income workers (and the economy).

This concentration of wealth allows a small number of absurdly wealthy players to sling around exaggerated influence in the halls of Congress, in foundations and NGOs, in think tanks and the media – all of which they often own or control. Increasingly, given a legislative process that is hamstrung and immoveable, this private money is bypassing the electoral system and generating policy on its own.

The expanding power of concentrated affluence is evident in the growing prominence of institutions financed by the same privileged pockets – think tanks that promote self-serving issues, publish studies, propose legislation, advocate positions all without a shred of the accountability or transparency designed to be woven into the public process. That same elite funds many of the foundations and the non-governmental organizations that influence policymakers, elevate the prominence of their issues with the press and media, and determine which researchers will be funded, all without a whit of need for balance or public accountability. As dollars for public spending, including peer-reviewed research, have dried up under the relentless budget cutting, these private sources of money and influence are shaping not only the design of policy, but its implementation as well.

The influence of money is further enshrined with the ability of the super-wealthy to buy and control the increasingly partisan media outlets that allow them to amplify their agendas and their self-interests. Designed to entertain as well as to propagandize, these sources do a far more effective job at distorting the record and super-charging the public debate than most of the plodding hearings on Capitol Hill, to the extent there are hearings any more.

Affluent people and organizations obviously have the right to promote whatever activities they choose. But when they do so without any public accountability or balance, and, more ominously, when the public sector effectively retreats from a responsible role in prioritizing public policies, key decisions are dictated by elite, privileged, non-transparent private interests with private agendas. That isn’t democracy.

Balance and fairness are supposed to be safeguarded in a democratic society by chosen and accountable leadership, but that role has been crippled by the courts and the political process itself.

The dilemma of democracy is not unique to the United States, which makes the trend even more disturbing. Stein Ringen of Oxford University has noted that ancient Athens, the world’s first democracy, imploded when the “super-rich refused to play by the rules and undermined the established system of government. When money is allowed to transgress from markets, where it belongs, to politics, where it has no business,” Ringen notes, the wealthy “get two swings at influencing politics, one as voters and one as donors.”

A similar observation was issued last year by the Transatlantic Academy, a group of think tanks which ominously warned, “Democracy is in trouble” because “the collective engagement of a concerned citizenry for the public good — the bedrock of a healthy democracy — is eroding.” Harry Reid recently put it more bluntly, as Harry Reid is wont to do. “[W]hat is un-American,” the Senate Majority leader said, “is when shadowy billionaires pour unlimited money into our democracy to rig the system to benefit themselves and the wealthiest 1 percent.” 

Who can blame the cynical, frustrated, increasingly disengaged citizenry – particularly young people – for doubting whether a system of governance designed to permit majoritarian rule can flourish when government is regarded as the enemy and decision-making is usurped by those whose claim to leadership is based on their prowess at selling petro-chemicals, or pharmaceuticals, or software, or overpriced coffee. And while a new generation of billionaires has emerged from the technology boom, it is worth recalling that much of the opinionated plutocracy comes by its affluence, as Ferdinand Lundberg noted three decades ago in The Rich and the Super-Rich, not from its own wisdom and creativity, but from inheritance.

As an historian and as one who worked in government during decades of phenomenal productivity, I am reluctant to fully embrace such a profound and demoralized outlook. But it seems that the underlying reasons for much of what confronts and confounds us today lies deep in the national DNA and far from remediation by a favorable election outcome, whatever that might be. To the extent to which a revitalization of democracy requires an aggrieved (and hopefully, an informed) citizenry to mount the barricades (or at least show up to vote), I worry that the years of denigrating democracy and its product, government, have taken their toll among much of the public.   I still believe that the revitalization of the democratic spirit is possible, but it would be nice to see some evidence that such optimism is justified.