Think big money didn’t win in the last election? Think again.
It’s a pretty safe bet that the majority of Americans who voted for President Obama didn’t want unemployment to go up and the safety net shredded.
But we’re now in the midst of some extended Washington lunacy over the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, with both sides trying to whip the public into a frenzy with scary scenarios of economic hardship
Is this what the majority voted for?
I don’t think so.
This is what America’s CEOs want. If they’re going to be forced to pay slightly more in taxes, they want cuts to Social Security and Medicare in exchange – even if those programs have nothing to do with the federal government’s budget deficit.
If you’re looking for a reason why our leaders would so eagerly flout the will of the majority, you might start with the money spent in the recent election – one of the most expensive in history.
Which brings is back to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. One of the big mistakes the Supreme Court made in the Citizens United case unleashing corporate spending in politics was in its overly literal definition of how money works in elections.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said independent corporate spending does “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” and “influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt.”
According to the justices, corruption is defined only by a very specific quid pro quo.
Those who are dismissing the role of big corporate donors in the 2012 elections are making a similar misjudgment: Just because some of the most notorious big spenders, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers, didn’t win.
So the fact that Adelson, the Las Vegas mogul, and the Kochs, the energy magnates, couldn’t buy the election for Mitt Romney, means that the role of big money has been exaggerated, according to some analysts. “Spending by outside groups. it turns out,” the Washington Post reported, “was the dog that barked but did not bite.”
This isn’t the right way to view the 2012 election results, or the influence money has in our politics. Rather than focus on who wins and who loses in a particular race, or whether a particular bill is passed or defeated, we need to examine whose interests benefit, especially over a long period of time.
That’s what those big donors are after – gains over the long term. For example, the financial industry fought for 20 years before it finally won repeal of Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that kept separate publicly-insured banking from riskier bank investing.
Most donors and politicians are more sophisticated than to offer flat-out bribes. Elected officials, donors and lobbyists long ago learned to speak in code they understand but sounds innocuous to the public. In the case of Glass-Steagall, the bankers and their backers didn’t say they wanted to make gajillions while leaving taxpayers on the hook for bailouts when the bankers’ bets went bad. No, what they talked about publicly was “modernizing” antiquated banking laws.
A more recent example is the work of the man who Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik dubbed the “influential billionaire in national politics.” He’s not one of the Koch Brothers or Adelson. He’s former Nixon Commerce secretary and retired hedge fund mogul Pete Peterson, who has spent $457 million in the past 5 years in a campaign to convince the politicians and public that “entitlements” are in crisis and need to be cut. He has gathered around him leading politicians, intellectuals and corporate CEOs. What do all they share? The conviction that if there’s a problem with the federal budget, those who are most vulnerable economically should have to suffer to fix it.
That’s why we end up with our current debate and the “fiscal cliff” focused on the government deficit, not creating jobs and repairing the housing mess.
That’s why we end with a political debate that somehow manages to equate cuts to badly needed social programs for people still hurting from the recession with tax increases for the nation’s wealthiest.
Peterson isn’t focused on the result of one election or one skirmish in the battle over the safety net. He’s in it for the long haul.
As for Adelson, he is learning from his 2012 mistakes so he can invest his millions more successfully in pursuit of his anti-government agenda.
While President Obama has criticized the Citizens United ruling and supported a constitutional amendment to overturn it, neither he nor the Democrats are about do without their mega-donors and super-PACs in the meantime, nor are they about to make money in politics it a priority.
In this atmosphere, will the president keep his promises to fight for the interests of the middle class for increased economic security and better jobs?
The politicians’ chase for the big money is like the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and 60s between the U.S. and Russia, which both sides acknowledged was a disaster for their economies. Neither side was willing to give up. Meanwhile, more and more of the expensive, dangerous weapons were stockpiled. There’s an important difference, however: our politicians and corporate chieftains have grown fatter on the current money race in politics. The ones who are facing a dire threat to our existence are the rest of us.