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Sunday, April 17, 2011

How the Oligarchs Took America: Part 4 of 4

Part 4: Citizen United's Brave New World


Hacker and Pierson ably guide us through 30 years of "winner-take-all" policymaking, politicking, and—from the point of view of the wealthy—judicious inaction. They offer an eye-opening journey across the landscape that helped foster the New Oligarchs, but one crucial vista appeared too late for the authors to include.


No understanding of the rise of our New Oligarchs could be complete without exploring the effects of the Supreme Court's January Citizens United decision, which set their power in cement more effectively than any tax cut ever could. Before Citizens United, the rich used their wealth to subtly shape policy, woo politicians, and influence elections. Now, with so much money flowing into their hands and the contribution faucets wide open, they can simply buy American politics so long as the price is right.


There's no mistaking how, in less than a year, Citizens United has radically tilted the political playing field. Along with several other [23] major court rulings [24], it ushered in American Crossroads, American Action Network, and many similar groups that now can reel in unlimited donations with pathetically few requirements to disclose their funders.


What the present Supreme Court, itself the fruit of successive tax-cutting and deregulating administrations, has ensured is this: that in an American "democracy," only the public will remain in the dark. Even for dedicated reporters, tracking down these groups is like chasing shadows: official addresses lead to P.O. boxes; phone calls go unreturned; doors are shut in your face.


The limited glimpse we have of the people bankrolling these shadowy outfits is a who's-who [25] of the New Oligarchy: the billionaire Koch Brothers [26] ($21.5 billion [27]); financier George Soros ($11 billion [28]); hedge-fund CEO Paul Singer (his fund, Elliott Management, is worth $17 billion [29]); investor Harold Simmons (net worth: $4.5 billion); New York venture capitalist Kenneth Langone [30] ($1.1 billion [31]); and real estate tycoon Bob Perry [32] ($600 million).


Then there's the roster of corporations who have used their largesse to influence American politics. Health insurance companies, including UnitedHealth Group and Cigna, gave [33] a whopping $86.2 million to the US Chamber to kill the public option, funneling the money through the industry trade group America's Health Insurance Plans. And corporate titans like Goldman Sachs, Prudential Financial, and Dow Chemical have given millions [34] more to the Chamber to lobby against new financial and chemical regulations.


As a result, the central story of the 2010 midterm elections isn't Republican victory or Democratic defeat or Tea Party anger; it's this blitzkrieg of outside spending, most of which came from right-leaning groups like Rove's American Crossroads [35] and the US Chamber of Commerce. It's a grim illustration of what happens when so much money ends up in the hands of so few. And with campaign finance reforms soundly defeated for years to come, the spending wars will only get worse.


Indeed, pundits predict that spending in the 2012 elections will smash all records. Think of it this way: in 2008, total election spending reached $5.3 billion [36], while the $1.8 billion spent on the presidential race alone more than doubled 2004's total. How high could we go in 2012? $7 billion? $10 billion? It looks like the sky's the limit.


We don't need to wait for 2012 to arrive, however, to know that the sheer amount of money being pumped into American politics makes a mockery out of our democracy (or what's left of it). Worse yet, few solutions exist to staunch the cash flow: the DISCLOSE Act [37], intended to counter the effects of Citizens United, twice failed in the Senate this year; and the best option, public financing of elections, can't even get a hearing in Washington.


Until lawmakers cap the amount of money in politics, while forcing donors to reveal their identities and not hide in the shadows, the New Oligarchy will only grow in stature and influence. Left unchecked, this ultimate elite will continue to root out the few members of Congress not beholden to them and their "contributions" (see: Wisconsin's Russ Feingold [38]) and will replace them with lawmakers eager to do their bidding, a Congress full of obedient placeholders ready to give their donors what they want.


Never before has the United States looked so much like a country of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich.

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