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Big Money versus Democracy

Dusty Sklar
April 1, 2016

by Dusty Sklar

Reviewed in this essay: Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It, by Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman. 2016, Bloomsbury Press, 288 pages.

2011-02-20MANY AMERICANS are finally beginning to realize that the game is rigged against them and that the government is often not on their side. Along come Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman to tell us that we’ve gotten it exactly right.

By now, we are well aware of super-PACS and the damage they do. Although politicians were scrambling for money well before Citizens United, the Center for Responsive Politics makes it plain that “spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors has increased from less than 5.2 million dollars in 2006 to well over 300 million dollars in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than 174 million dollars in the 2014 midterms.” The need for politicians to raise astronomical sums has transformed politics.

Perhaps not so apparent is the fact that special interest groups increasingly control every level of government. The wedding of great wealth to political influence has choked the political process, making it difficult to deal with urgent issues like climate change or the growing wealth gap, which is greater here than anywhere. “How much attention do people who have little or no money get in such a system?” ask the authors. “We know that the banks wield enormous power over politics and policy decisions in D.C. But who’s representing the families facing foreclosure?”

Potter and Penniman are supremely qualified to deal with this subject. Potter is a senior analyst at the Center for Public Integrity. He used to be a newspaperman, as well as an executive with the health insurance industry who fought for health care reform. Penniman, a journalist, co-founded and directed the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, founded and published the Washington Monthly, and founded the American News Project. He is executive director of Issue One, which is trying to reduce the influence of money in politics and to restore our control of America.

They remind us that rather than spend their time engaged with legislation and governance, our elected officials are preoccupied with fundraising. “Who are they calling?” the authors ask. “Probably not you. Certainly not us. Mostly, very wealthy donors in the richest cities in America.” Of these, there are plenty in both major parties. The authors quick Senator Dick Durban (D-IL): “We sit at these desks with stacks of names in front of us and short bios and histories of giving... and we make calls to our faithful friends and ask them to give money or host a fundraiser.

“Former representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat,” they continue, “compared his party’s call center to a sweatshop with thirty-inch-wide cubicles set up for the sole purpose of begging for money.” And the people throwing the fundraising parties are “the very industries [poiticians] are supposed to be regulating, based on their congressional committee assignments. The Finance Committee members rake in contributions from the bankers and their lobbyists, the Natural Resources Committee members from the oil and coal executives and their lobbyists...”

The authors quote Ray Plank, former founder and chair of the Apache Corporation, who told the conservative journalist Peter Schweizer (whose book, Extortion, was the subject of a 60 Minutes episode): Campaign cash and corporate contracts with well-connected lobbying firms are “protection money. It’s what you expect from the Mafia.” To which the authors add: “And it’s done in broad daylight.”

WITH THE STRANGLEHOLD that special interest groups have on our government and society, how can we fight back?

Reform begins at the local level. Potter and Penniman point to LGBTQ strategists, who were able to change the political culture not only through laws and federal court rulings, but by changing public attitudes, so that there was much more tolerance towards their people. Here’s what Potter and Penniman recommend:

What we can do is restore our power — the people’s power — within the system by limiting the most egregious sources of the money, by creating new ways to of financing politics that reorient politicians to their voters back home, by demanding total transparency in the giving and spending of political cash, by enacting new ethics and lobbying laws that reduce conflicts of interest and shut down the most transactional forms of political giving, and by making sure that campaign and lobbying laws are evenly and effectively enforced.

For these types of executive actions and state-based efforts to take root, we must immediately build a much stronger — and politically broader — citizen army. There is already a battalion of reformers working hard every day. But they are waiting for major reinforcements to arrive. That means you. And your friends. It will take you, and us, and millions of other kindred spirits to create a patriotic force powerful enough to reorient the power in this country back to ‘We, the people.’

Just as we won our right to self-government by fighting the British monarchy more than 240 years ago, we will lose it if we fail to fight to reclaim it now.

Imagine what would happen if we don’t. Can any one of us truly claim that we will be able to revitalize our country as long as this problem worsens? Does anyone believe fixing our democracy is optional? Who among us would surrender ourselves, our children, our communities, to an oligarchy?”

In the final two chapters, “It’s Fixable” and “The Makings of an All-American Movement,” the authors propose specific solutions to the crisis. They claim that it’s a matter of political will. They believe that we can retrain our representatives to favor Main Street over wealthy political donors. Not that it will be easy. But they hope that all their readers will find it in their hearts to join the struggle for American democracy.

WHAT FOLLOWS is a brief e-mail interview I conducted with Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman.

Q. What are your thoughts on the popularity of Trump and Sanders? Advocates of both are alienated from government.

A. Each candidate has tapped into something Americans have been vocal about for years -- a fundamental mistrust of politicians who, they feel, only answer to the wealthy and their interests in Washington.

On the one side exists Donald Trump’s “take no prisoners” attack against cronyism, super PACs, and so-called bought-and-paid for politicians and their poll-tested message. His supporters have flocked to his rallies in no small part because he’s tapped into the anger and gut feeling that the game is rigged against the middle and lower class in the United States.

On the other side, there’s Bernie Sanders, who has spent his political career calling out what he believes are the bad actors -- whether they’re corporations, politicians, or private interests. Similar to Donald Trump, supporters for Bernie Sanders believe the fundamental contract between government for and by the people -- not for and by wealthy interests -- has been broken.

Both politicians approach what they see as the problem of too much pay-to-play in Washington -- and we believe both should pay attention to the short- and medium-term solutions instead of just focusing on what’s negative. They should rally their supporters behind issues they can fix -- such as broadening political disclosure through executive actions, expanding accountability by strengthening the Federal Election Commission, and working with Congress to ban lobbyist contributions during the session.

Q. On the national scene, the money moguls are not always successful in electing their politicians. How do you account for that?

A. The influence of money in politics isn’t as straightforward as “the candidate with the most money wins.” And having access to to all that money doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good candidate or that voters will automatically support you. That said, having more cash is a strong indicator of a candidate’s viability, which is why so many of the presidential candidates have (or had) super PACs raising unlimited dollars to support their bids and why even non-competitive Congressional races still feature huge amounts of fundraising (to discourage potential challengers). Further, a lack of money almost ensures good candidates are shut out of the race. Finally, money strongly influences who chooses to run, who wins and what those people focus on once in Washington.

Q. How has the wedding of great wealth to political influence choked the political process? Is money the culprit, or is it hard-core conservative ideology? And is conservative ideology the product, mostly, of money?

A. As a bipartisan organization, Issue One does not believe any particular ideology is to blame for the current democratic crisis we face. Rather, money (and extreme partisanship) has driven the agenda to the margins in both parties. Congress in particular is broken because of the burdens of fundraising: the threat of primary challenges fueled by big spending billionaires and outside groups prevents collaboration and compromise; leadership positions are often assigned based on fundraising prowess rather than expertise; all the time members spending dialing for dollars is time not spent reading and writing legislation, building bipartisan relationships or reaching out to constituents. The result is no policy, or bad policy, which benefits only those who can afford to pay to play.

Q. Do you have the same view of wealthy liberal benefactors as you do of rightwing ones?

A. We believe there is an overly large influence by wealth in the political process, especially during the election, regardless of ideology or party. Whether it is framing the debate and deciding which ideas receive air-time, or choosing candidates based upon who they support or attack -- too much money alienates voices from all across the political spectrum. The simple fact is when lawmakers only hear from, and are only responsive to, those who can bankroll elections, the problems of this population will take precedent over everyone else -- and a wealthy liberal is just as far from the average American as a conservative one.

Q. Reversing Citizens United plays a major role in your thinking about solutions to the problems you pose. Wouldn’t Big Money still be an enormous influence? What else is likely to restore our democracy?

A. Addressing Citizens United is a long-term goal, and there are plenty of solutions we could enact with it on the books, with the current Supreme Court. Even if it were overturned tomorrow, many of the problems we see in our politics would continue. As we like to say, few people would relish returning to the political glory days of 2009.

Instead, we focus on short- and medium-term goals that would revitalize our democracy from the local level all the way to Washington DC. First, everyone has to participate in funding campaigns. That’s why we support small-donor empowerment programs that incentivize politicians to collect low-dollar contributions, like the systems in Maine, New York City and Tallahassee, FL.

Next, everyone should know who’s spending what. Even the late Justice Scalia was a proponent of disclosure and transparency -- he called it “civic courage.” Revealing where every dollar spent on politics comes from and where it goes is an important step to ensure voters can make informed decisions at the ballot box.

Everyone also needs to follow common-sense rules. That means following South Carolina’s lead by banning contributions from lobbyists to lawmakers. Other fixes include jamming the revolving door between Congress and the interests they regulate and ensuring all members of the influence industry are called lobbyists.

The strongest rules won’t mean much without an effective watchdog, so we need to strengthen and empower agencies that hold rulebreakers accountable. At the federal level, that means fixing the Federal Election Commission, which is hopelessly mired in gridlock.

Finally, we need to seed a pro-democracy jurisprudence so that every Supreme Court upholds these values. That means working with law schools, journals and within the nomination process so that the next Citizens United is decided correctly.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. Her most recent articles for us dealt with American corporate collaboration with Nazism, the American eugenics movement’s influence upon Nazism, and Mahatma Gandhi’s views on Zionism and the Holocaust.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.