Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's All About the (Corporate) Benjamins, Baby: Politics & Government

The most commonly recognized type of corporate influence in American democratic institutions is in politics. I recall learning in Mrs. McCarthy's US Government class at DC's Wilson High School that special interest groups or PACs (Political Action Committees) wielded a certain amount of influence. It wasn't until the past couple of years that I realized how many of these are funded by corporations. Furthermore, it has become impossible to successfully run for office without gobs of corporate money. It has oft been said that the media is the fourth branch of government. That idea needs updating: corporations and their lobbyists, including conglomerates with holdings of media companies, now make up the fourth branch of the U.S. government. And it looks like the new branch on the block may increasingly be pulling the strings of the other three branches.

In my post about the death of journalism, I rather pooh-poohed this essay by Naomi Klein entitled "How Corporate Branding is Taking over America" as sensationalist and conspiracy-theory crazed, but I really shouldn't have. I am, I admit, late to the party here (or perhaps now I'm the conspiracy-theory crazed one). Klein was right to point out that while George W. Bush was criticized for incompetence and "acts of destruction," that he was very effective in privatizing many essential functions of government. It's true that Obama marketed and branded his campaign better than many ad campaigns for popular products do. I agree with her that,
"This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much. . . . Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organization and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued 'bipartisanship' with crazed Republicans once in the White House." 
Obama didn't only take money from Wall Street, but, according to Mother Jonesfrom corporations such as BP as well. I don't feel as strongly as Klein and Chris Hedges do (an essay by Hedges started me down this path of blog posts about corporate influence in American democratic institutions). For example, I assume, perhaps naively, that Obama preferred not to take money from corporations, but that his m.o. was to get into a position of power first, no matter with whose money, and then fix things from the inside. The only problem is that "fixing things" has become next to impossible. This Vanity Fair article gives some insight into what Obama's presidency grapples with.

If the most recognized type of corporate influence is in government and politics, then corporate money in Congress seems to be the most easily identifiable manifestation of corporate influence in American politics. Members of Congress routinely take enormous sums from corporations to fund their campaigns--just take a look at this Campaign Cash Seating Chart in the September/ October 2010 issue of Mother Jones.

In a 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court allows corporate money to flow unchecked into campaigns. Another less publicized case, previous to the Citizens United one, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life did essentially the same thing. According to The New York Times, the Roberts court is the most conservative and corporate-friendly Supreme Court justice we've had in decades. One of the principal themes of Jeffrey Toobin's recent profile in The New Yorker of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is that the Roberts Court is looking to get rid of one of the primary reforms of the Roosevelt era: government regulation of our economy. As New York University Law Professor Barry Friedman and SCOTUS expert Dahlia Lithwick tell it in this recent piece in Slate, what's particularly dangerous about the Roberts Court is how sneaky it is in hiding its conservatism as it chips away at U.S. citizens' fundamental rights.

And that's only what the three "official" branches have been up to.

According to this recent article by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker, prominent members of the unofficial fourth branch of government, Charles and David Koch, who are the almost sole owners of owners of the Wichita-based oil conglomerate Koch industries, have been funding organizations that advocate for lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and less oversight and regulation of industry, as well as funding ones that fight health care reform and economic stimulus programs. They fund Americans for Prosperity Foundation, Tea Party organizations and training sessions, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, as well as many other conservative and/or pro-corporate organizations. One former Koch adviser cited in Mayer's article was quoted as saying,
"They're smart. This right-wing, redneck stuff works for them. They see this as a way to get things done without getting dirty themselves." 
Just as in the Civil War when mostly poor non-slave-owning men were drafted to fight for the Confederacy, it looks like middle and working class white people are allowing themselves to be the lackeys of the powerful, rich, and corporate, even as they are railing against that kind of influence. Although Mayer shows that billionaires, like George Soros, who fund more liberal causes are more transparent and less likely to fund studies and programs that are only self-serving, she still makes the case for the increasing danger of politics, politicians, policies, and programs being bought and sold by a few wealthy individuals.

Matt Taibbi also wrote about the Tea Party with a focus more on its followers than on funders, but he came to a conclusion similar to Mayer's: "The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation."

Now, what to do about all of this? I agree with Chris Hedges that it's not just the G.O.P. and Tea Partiers who are responsible for the current state of affairs, but the Democratic Party too. Lawrence Lessig, a Berkeley law professor, is one of the leaders in the fight against corporate money in Congress. His organization, Fix Congress First is doing good work. The Fair Elections Now Act could also help get us out of this pickle. Finally, Hedges's giving Ralph Nader a voice in his essay is a nod to the idea of moving beyond our two-party system. I don't think that we were quite ready for it in 2000 and the idea that there was no real difference ideologically between Al Gore and George W. Bush was wrong and ended up causing a great deal of harm. But now members of both parties seem equally beholden to corporate interests, neither party has halted the privatization of government functions or adequately upheld the idea that the government, while flawed, is the best institution we have to maintain our democracy and represent the needs and rights of the American people.

The solution may be to move beyond our two-party system, to divide into neo-liberals, liberals, greens, social democrats, moderates, conservatives, neo-conservatives, right-wingers, and the like.  But would this even work? Is our two-party system also "too big to fail"? Are we too deep in what Taibbi describes as "an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change"?

Unfortunately, this won't happen in time for the upcoming mid-term elections. For now I feel I've been thrown a small bone. In my congressional district, the 7th of Virginia,  Eric Cantor is facing two challengers: a Tea Party candidate named Floyd Bayne and a Democrat, Rich Waugh, a former social worker who has said that he has taken no corporate money. Is this maybe what we could consider a step in the right direction? I hope so.

Rick Waugh, you have my vote.

(photo from Public Citizens photostream on flickr)


Joey Mornin said...

Rachel, thanks for the shout out. We're looking forward to fighting alongside you.

One correction: Lessig is a professor at Harvard, not Berkeley.


Joey Mornin
Fix Congress First

Rachel Levy said...

Thanks, Joey! I guess that's what I get for using an unpaid, Harvard-educated fact-checker, a.k.a., my husband :)