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The State of the Plutocracy: The Kabuki President on Money in Politics

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The promotional build up to Obama’s January 12, 2016 State of the Union speech promised something completely different than his previous performances. Yet, on the day, it seemed completely the same, but more so. The WP noticed it was not “structured quite as imaginatively as advertised.”  One might say, “Of course. It’s Obama.” The propagandist in chief’s deed is typically the opposite of his word. But in a way the difference of this SOTU was that perfect completeness of the similarity to what has gone before, even if structured differently for the occasion.

Obama gave his last full dress performance in the midst of a campaign where the state of plutocracy is the central issue. This SOTU presented the full version of the propaganda memes by which, throughout his presidency, Obama has disguised that, although campaigning in 2008 and pretending ever since to do the opposite, he has loyally and effectively served as a “puppet of corporate plutocrats,” as Cornel West puts it.

Propaganda is Obama’s art form, which we saw in its fullest flower on Tuesday night. Obama’s performance of the propagandist art is world class. His defense of plutocracy from Bernie Sanders’ historic campaign for democracy constituted the art form’s equivalent of a few triple axel leaps and flying spins.

Obama’s likely future role, when freed from the constant reality check of his contrary deeds, will be to use his undeniable verbal skills to seize the eloquent high ground on issues important to the country, and then apply his influence to lead people still gullible enough to believe him after eight years of contrary evidence away from realistic solutions for those issues. His final SOTU served, in part, as an audition for, preview of, and transition to this new role.

Obama “promise[s] that, a little over a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I will be right there with you as a citizen.” Obama even lists the constituencies, “voices,” which he will be misleading in the future. Obama’s soaring concluding refrains beginning “I see it in,” expressly evoked Martin Luther King’s epochal first person vision of a democratic future. Obama’s dream envisions as his target constituency, workers, students, teachers, ex-cons, protesters for justice, and seniors without, of course, abandoning his Clintonesque triangulating lifeline to the bosses, business owners and “cops” (as metaphor for the MIC), which will enrich him as it has the Clintons.

Both to appreciate a propagandist for plutocracy performing at the very top of his game and to caution against the future role that Obama intends to assume, it is worth closely parsing Obama’s response to what Bernie Sanders has made the central issue of 2016, the key to the power of plutocracy: money in politics. To do so is to study the most important propaganda memes of our time served up by a master.

A. The issue of plutocracy

The Sanders campaign has identified the single paramount issue that faces the country. His electoral revolution against an oligarchy of the “billionaire class,” i.e, a plutocracy, defines what the 2016 campaign is about, and why Sanders is currently winning that campaign.

Sanders is, on domestic issues, running against Obama’s status quo record of extending plutocratic power. Obama’s single SOTU paragraph promoting a specific policy spoke for the purely plutocratic TPP, which Sanders thoroughly opposes. Obama authoritatively conveyed to Congress the command directly from their mutual bosses: “approve this agreement.”

Obama concluded his speech with “I believe in change.” But plutocrats understand that, if it is a belief, it is like most self-professed beliefs of Obama. It does not affect his actions as president, unless the change is to deceptively tighten the grip of plutocracy.

The overall purpose of this SOTU was to deflect attention from the central goal of Sanders’ campaign, and aim a subtle, almost subliminal, criticism of it. Obama did so by discussing subsidiary policy goals where only plutocratic ends can be achieved, until that one goal of getting private money out of politics is achieved. He preceded his discussion of democracy by packing various issues within three broad themes of the economy, technology, and foreign affairs.

On the fourth, democracy, we see the reason for this broad packaging. Obama paints a veneer of anodyne good government exhortations for citizens to vote and participate in politics. But most important, he deploys the propaganda memes by which the corrupt politicians he addressed have for two generations disguised their failure to clean up the growing mess they have made of the former American democracy.

B. “money in our politics

It would have been too obvious if Obama had entirely ignored any mention of the one goal that defines the 2016 election. So he did actually pronounce the words, as he has several times in the past, before moving away from them as quickly as possible to deception about achieving that goal: “I believe we’ve got to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families or hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.” But he is the president who has raised the most money in politics ever from those interests who “bankroll our elections.” What Obama has done in exchange for that money is the exact opposite of his claimed belief. Obama has proven that whatever he may ‘believe’ is irrelevant. The duly reviled George W, by signing BCRA (McCain-Feingold) in 2002 and leaving the destruction of anti-corruption laws to the Supreme Court, produced far more action consistent with that professed belief than has Obama.

A year ago in his 2014 “Obomnibus” appropriations bill, a President of the United States signed a law, for the first time in history, that increased by 10 times the amount of money that these families and interests Obama mentions can give to political parties. At the same time he gave those interests who would be paying off the parties an enormous Christmas gift from which they could easily finance their kickbacks to politicians who enacted the gift.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi blasted Obama at the time, saying she was enormously disappointed that the White House feels that the only way they can get a bill is to go along with…. privatizing the gain and nationalizing the risk” for Wall Street while also signing on “to practically unlimited contributions to political campaigns just at a time when we are trying for reform to reduce the role of … money and increase the voice of the American people.” She said that Obama’s CRomnibus would “give donors the opportunity to spend endless money, undermining the confidence the American people have in our political system, at the same time … as we say to Wall Street, you can engage in risky activity with your derivatives and the FDIC will ensure your action.” While Pelosi was organizing the votes to stop it, she was undercut by Obama’s announcement that he would not veto this horrendous CRomnibus. It was his bill.

Obama struck forcefully again for plutocracy in the 2015 appropriations. Not even a month ago he lobbied for and signed the sequel to last years’ CRomnibus. This “Obomnibus II,” signed on December 18, assured the increased influence of those “hidden interests” that Obama would claim to “believe,” on January 12, should have their influence reduced. Not allowing any such popular belief to actually affect his conduct, his new law assured that they could legally remain “hidden.” “Obomnibus II” contained three separate provisions stripping executive branch powers to require disclosure of the corporate “hidden” or “dark money” which has corrupted the enormous federal procurement process specifically, as well as politics more generally.

Members of Congress and activists had formally asked Obama to use his authority, not lose it. After these provisions appeared in early drafts of the appropriations bill even the NY Times advised,The president has no time to waste” in ordering disclosure. Obama did not fight against these provisions. Quite the contrary. Obama opened his State of the Union speech by giving a nod to his closest colleagues in service of plutocracy by “appreciat[ing] the constructive approach” of Speaker Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership in helping him pass his “Obomnibus II” legislation, helping him formally legalize and institutionalize the influence of dark money in American politics.

The Supreme Court did not prevent Obama from ordering disclosure. Even its most infamous Citizens United decision permitted use of this power. Before his own legislation legalized dark money, Obama, since 2010, had merely refused to exercise his recognized presidential powers to outlaw the anonymous “hidden” investments in politics that Citizens United had otherwise, perhaps unwittingly, legalized.

So much for Obama’s beliefs. Stating such beliefs is a common device he uses to cover up his actual deeds. This tactic lies at the core of many of Obama’s propaganda efforts. He knows he can get free support for his vague and hypocritical statements of what he “believes,” provided the plutocratic mass media, and liberal allies, will publicize his contrary beliefs while covering up what he actually does for plutocrats.

But there was much more than hypocrisy in our Kabuki president’s performance.

C. “pass muster

Obama goes on to say after the sentence quoted above: “And if our existing approach to campaign finance reform can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution, because it’s a problem.” Multiple important deceptions are embedded in this single statement qualifying his previous profession of belief.

1. No strategy. Although this statement implies there is a strategy that Obama shares, in fact there is no currently “existing approach to campaign finance reform” which Obama has so much as whispered in public. What exists are deliberate diversions from effective campaign finance reform strategy, diversions which have no conceivable chance of being adopted and/or of being effective if they were. These diversions have been promoted by Democrats, like Hillary Clinton, and their professional activist allies to prevent any effective reform.

The most futile “existing approach” is the soundbite proposal for “a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United” or, even worse, to abolish “corporate personhood” which is no part of the problem. Enthusiasm for this diversion waned after it abjectly failed to get through even the Democratic Senate in 2014. A majority of Democrats who supported the amendment approach showed their true allegiance to plutocracy by voting for “Obomnibus I” at the end of the year. This demonstrated the ineffectiveness of an amendment to cause any actual positive change. The activist cartel gave this formerly most promisingapproach a quiet burial under a grab-bag of ineffective piecemeal reform proposals.

Another “existing approach” is the Democrats’ Disclose Act, for disclosure of corporate dark money, which was not needed had Obama simply exercised his existing presidential power to require disclosure. This bill was and remains a diversion from and excuse for Obama’s resistance to anything that would depart from the plutocrat agenda he serves.

The politicians’ favorite “existing approach” involves them taking taxpayers’ money, although in 2011 the Supreme Court foreclosed any effective public funding of campaigns. As Harvard constitutional law professor Charles Fried explains, the Supreme Court “declared unconstitutional the only way that states and the federal government might make public financing of elections at all attractive to candidates.”

2. No opposition. Amendments to the constitution, which Obama once feebly contemplated, do not have to “pass muster in the courts.” Disclosure, which means nothing where political corruption is already legal and therefore systemic, has for generations been specifically and repeatedly approved by the Supreme Court. There is no opposition from “the courts” to that non-reform passing “muster.” Nor does the Court take any issue with the existing public funding approaches that comply with the Court’s ruling that made public funding of politicians ineffective, but give subsidies that tend to counterproductively increase the cost of campaigns. The trouble with all these approaches is that they are useless, or counterproductive, which is precisely why they do “pass muster in the courts” of plutocracy.

3. False hypothetical. What does not “pass muster in the courts” is not any currently “existing approach to campaign finance reform,” since no authentic approach does exist, especially not anything emanating from Obama’s office. It is the prior approaches going back as far as a century that the Supreme Court has overturned. Obama knows there is no hypothetical “if” about any actually effective, previously “existing approach to campaign finance reform … pass[ing] muster in the courts.” Since Buckley (1976) the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down, for its own inventive reasons, law and precedent that might restrain the triumph of plutocracy. The Roberts Court has advanced this project aggressively since 2006 without opposition. Former constitutional law instructor Obama knows full well that there is no “if” involved in the matter. The Supreme Court will continue to strike down any effective restraint on plutocracy as long as he and Congress continue to allow them to do so. The rules are all in place to do so, and the Roberts Court averages about one sweeping defense of money in politics for their own creative new reasons per year.

4. Avoidance. This false hypothetical construction of Obama’s is frequently used by him and others to pass the buck or delay fashioning, adopting and pursuing an effective strategy on the subject of money in politics. He used two such blatantly false hypotheticals in a row in his above-mentioned reference of a “need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United (assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t revisit it). Even if the amendment process falls short, it can shine a spotlight on the super-PAC phenomenon and help apply pressure for change.”

After seven years Obama still fails to inform us what that hypothetical “change” should be. He only says that, depending upon a new false hypothetical, some unspecific “we,” which diffuses responsibility away from him, “need to work together,” which is not going to happen without leadership on the that is lacking, “to find a real solution.” Why is former instructor Obama not capable, to drop all these false contingencies, and tell us specifically what is his “real solution” for the nation’s greatest problem of political corruption? That is what his favorite president Teddy Roosevelt did in his final annual message to Congress over a century ago. This was what Obama was elected to do. But he quickly re-interpreted his job description as expanding the power of plutocrats and not limiting that power in any minor way.

D. “a real solution, because it’s a problem

These four considerations lead to the single question of a strategy that Obama’s SOTU statement, like all his previous statements on the issue, is intended to avoid by assigning it to others, in the future: how to effectively rein in a Supreme Court majority which is operating outside of its constitutionally separate judicial powers on spurious grounds to systematically overturn any anti-corruption legislation that could interfere with continued plutocratic control of United States politics.

Obama serves plutocracy by pretending that the difficult problem, beyond his capacity, is “to find a real solution,” as if none existed right now. If the former constitutional law instructor would simply open the Constitution he would find a couple of solutions there. A Supreme Court majority that violates the constitutionally mandated separation of powers can be stopped by TheExceptions Clause of Article III, which permits the stripping of jurisdiction from the Supreme Court, especially to prevent the judiciary from deciding political questions that fall outside its proper powers. The Eleventh Amendment prohibits the Court from interfering with the sovereign interests of states in preserving their republican form of government. And the former instructor should also know that it takes no constitutional action at all for each house of Congress to adopt effective conflict of interest recusal rules that would prohibit any member from acting on any matter for which payment of any kind has been received.

After ticking off his three propaganda memes – 1) that there currently exists no “real solution” for plutocracy, 2) that even if there were a “real solution,” systemic political corruption is someone else’s problem in a galaxy far away from Obama, and 3) that the judicial supremacist Court must be deferred to in military fashion rather than resisted in democratic fashion – Obama goes for comic relief. He off-handedly presents an insider’s white lie that provides a bonding moment among crooks. “And most of you don’t like raising money. I know. I’ve done it.”

All politicians operating the corrupt system share their occupation of the center of power in the universe because they are the best at raising money and at pretending that it is just a nuisance of the job that does not really affect what they do anyway, chuckle, chuckle. In fact their fundraising is the greater part of their job and talent, selling policy to plutocrats and lying and rationalizing to voters as necessary to disguise the facts about what they give in return. An essential part of their lie is that there is no real solution to political corruption.

E. The “Fix”

Panning back from these specific deceptions about money in politics, contained in the two sentences quoted in B and C above, Obama next displaces attention from the central issue of the 2016 campaign to a broader context of the need to “fix our politics.” So for Obama, corruption is not the single important issue, it is only one of several details of the broader problem of fixing politics. This suggests we should shift attention to some of these other issues where “real solutions” perhaps exist. We can forget about plutocratic corruption and still “fix politics.”

The additional details involve voting rights, gerrymandering, and most important of all, the issue which took most of Obama’s time on the issue of democracy, and even comprised a general theme of the SOTU: the partisan polarization that prevents “rational, constructive debates.”

Voting rights – especially after the highly offensive judicial supremacist decision of Chief Justice Roberts in Shelby County which shamelessly drew on the lowest judicial excrescence ofDred Scott — is a legitimate issue. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act runs parallel to its gutting of anti-corruption laws to promote plutocracy. In the absence of plutocracy, which disenfranchises everyone but plutocrats, it would not be nearly as possible to revive the project of legally disenfranchising minorities. One of the benefits of the two party system is that it enormously empowers a minority willing to swing its vote on the single issue of its democratic rights. This was how the civil rights movement obtained the civil rights act before the curtain of plutocracy fell in 1976. But the right to vote can solve nothing on its own when the system itself is thoroughly corrupt, as it is now, unless all votes are focused on that issue. It was due to loss of voting power, not voting rights, that is the reason why – even prior to Shelby County – civil rights were already suffering serious decline, as demonstrated in killings like Trayvon Martin‘s and a line of cases like Parents Involved, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).

Similarly, gerrymandering has an easy legislative fix. But in a corrupt environment that fix will not be administered. Gerrymandering is not as important as voting rights since voters can effectively still prevail within both packed and cracked gerrymandered districts by organizing swing issue voting blocs and use of primaries. In Obama’s hands gerrymandering makes for more of a verbal whipping post that an authentic cause of political dysfunction. Besides, gerrymandering offers an excuse only for the House, not the Senate.

Far more important, indeed central, to Obama’s propaganda objectives is his appeal to the high Kabuki drama of partisan polarization, often presented in a plea for bipartisanship. In this ritualized “problem” a pretense is made that the duopoly which rules jointly for plutocrats and regularly gets together to do Wall Street’s will under Obama’s leadership, such as in the annual “Obomnibus” laws, actually are deadlocked. This appearance is conveyed by highlighting those other issues that either Wall Street does not care about, or it prefers to retain the status quo. Partisan polarization is the “problem” which is “solved” whenever the two parties periodically join to serve plutocracy.

Mark Leibovich‘s entertaining and non-partisan peek behind the Kabuki curtain of the corrupt capital exploded this favorite myth of the Kabuki president. His book This Town (2013) displayed that the “city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected” in its systemic joint embrace of corruption. “Everyone ultimately is playing for the same team.”Obama’s highminded encouragement of “bonds of trust” and “willingness to compromise” is actually an advertisement for the city’s Kabuki theater business which is designed to obscure the fact enduringly exposed as a lie by Leibovich of the deeper unity of purpose and bipartisan service to plutocracy that Obama regularly leads.

Obama is the star of the capital’s Kabuki theatrics, regularly advertising the partisan polarization myth that is essential to sustaining the politics by plutocracy. The divide and conquer strategy on hot button issues diverts the electorate from the single issue of importance, to which Sanders and the public are now reverting after two generations, whether the country should be a democracy or a plutocracy. It cannot be both.

Only apologists for rule by plutocrats, like Obama, espouse the diversionary theory that partisan polarization is an independent factor that needs an independent “fix” by having everyone just behave better in class. As George Carlin warned: “Bipartisan usually means that a larger-than-usual deception is being carried out.” When Obama gets gooey about “a better politics,” hold on to your wallet. He’s covering up another Obomnibus.

F. “the system is rigged

Obama takes this propaganda meme one step further to defend plutocrats from direct attack from those who would defend democracy. Although on the surface aimed at Republicans, Obama’s concern with democratic civility “if we think that our political opponents are unpatriotic” can also be aimed at those complaining against the overthrow of democracy by systemic corruption. Plutocracy is unpatriotic. It violates the Declaration of Independence insistence on the “consent of the governed” for which patriots fought and which underlies the Constitution they made. That the oligarchic opponents of democracy are unpatriotic was the principle political theme of the early generations of Americans, until it was reconfigured within the political cauldron of slavery, secession and reconstruction.

Building slowly to his switch from criticizing Republican primary candidates, for which Paul Ryan criticized him, to “persuad[ing … Bernie Sanders to stay the Obama course – during the campaign and beyond,” Obama flips the implied criticism of fascist-leaning primary Republicans. In his triangulating bipartisan fashion, Obama turns left to criticize those who are fighting the historical 2016 campaign to reclaim the country from the plutocracy that Obama serves. He says, directly after his Kabuki dramatization of the perils of partisan polarization: “And most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some special interest. Too many Americans feel that way right now.” (emphasis added)

Making this statement about feelings, rather than the reality of these views, immediately following the context of complaining about extreme partisan polarization, Obama certainly seems to be advocating that Americans should not “feel” that way. That the blame for those (implicitly false) feelings falls on the highly partisan Democrats from whom the plutocratic centrist Obama recoils. Obama implies that he thinks how those “too many Americans feel” is wrong, and uncivil, and dangerous to democracy. It takes a master like Obama to suggest, albeit deniably ambiguously, that it is undemocratic to use democratic elections to regain democracy from plutocrats.

Even worse than the fascist attacks on Muslims and Mexicans, anti-science rants, hate radio and so forth, the behavior to be avoided “most of all,” in Obama’s view, is the recognition of the truth, and to pronounce it, that in the current plutocracy the average person’s voice does not matter, and that as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said the political system obviously is rigged in favor of the rich by the legalization of political corruption. Is Obama really not only denying the reality of the plutocracy he serves, but actually implying that fighting against the plutocracy, as Sanders is doing, causes “democracy break[ing] down?” This meme is designed to define the battle lines where Obama will protect his legacy of increasing the level of plutocratic corruption from Sanders’ attack.

F. The counterfeit

Obama does make this statement in a deniable way. Take it from its context and explain away the word “feel” and someone could defend it as maybe a lament, not a criticism. But Obama makes his point less ambiguous, when he turns immediately from this apparent attack on Sanders to cover three propaganda memes at once. He says, “It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency — that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office.”

1. Sanders rancor.

This statement doubles down on the immediately preceding, but possibly ambiguous, accusation against those anti-plutocrats, Sanders and “too many Americans.” It bookends their views by associating it with his immediately following reference to “rancor and suspicion between the parties.” This emphasizes the switch from addressing Republican examples of partisan polarization to including Democrats, which “has gotten worse.” Its not Clinton that’s worse.

Before moving on from the previous statement, he should rather have affirmed the undeniable and intolerable reality of the feelings he described, and offered, even promised to lead, an effective “real solution” for a corrupt plutocracy where the opinions of ordinary voters do not count but money does. This is the very heart of the matter in 2016. But instead of the expected follow-up, Obama nails down his recharacterization of the central issue of American politics as a problem of partisan polarization, rancor and suspicion. Somehow if we would all just calm down and mind our manners, democracy would fix itself without getting money out of politics, for which there is no “existing … real solution” anyway.

2. The hapless president.

This statement then spins off in an entirely different direction to subtly play off the liberals’ favorite excuse for Obama’s consistent betrayals, that he is hapless, means well, tries hard “to be better,” but is just not quite up to the job. Nice guys finish last. Of course the standard he self-deprecatingly does not meet is that of the two greatest presidents, thereby leaving plenty of room in the standings for his legacy to score high, but just not high enough to get the job done – or rather, even start the job – of restoring democracy as he was expected to do after the broad repulsion from Bush II that swept him into office in 2008.

These references make another distant echo. Obama’s most powerful critics like Cornel West and Cynthia McKinney complain that Obama campaigned as a Lincoln or Roosevelt but gave us another neoliberal like Clinton. Obama’s defense is that he does not have the “gifts” of Lincoln and Roosevelt. This evokes Obama’s exculpatory cover image as the benign but ineffectual supporter of progressive popular reform against an entirely different grounds for criticism.

3. Counterfeit gifts.

The American people in 2008 enthusiastically disagreed with this assessment of Obama’s “gifts” as being in any deficient. As his popularity declines, rarely are his “gifts” the subject of criticism. Americans powerfully judged that he did indeed have the “gifts” required to do the job of a Lincoln or Roosevelt, which the times required after Bush had played a role even worse than Buchanan and Hoover of starting the stupidest war in U.S. history and causing economic and fiscal disasters. What Americans misjudged about Obama, which his statement is supposed to disguise behind his apparent self-effacement about his deficient “gifts,” is that Obama would also have integrity, in addition to his obvious gifts of charm, eloquence and intelligence. West describes Obama as a “counterfeit” who “posed as if he was a kind of Lincoln.”

Americans did not anticipate that Obama would be a fraud in the loyal service of Wall Street, while also restoring an image of dignity and charm to the office as a token consolation for misrepresenting his conduct on matters of substance. Voters were entitled to their mistaken assumption, since there had never been such a fraud elected to the presidency who did the direct opposite of what he promised, and then even continued to talk up “beliefs” that were the direct opposite of his contemporaneous deeds.

Both Lincoln and Roosevelt, who said they were opposed to slave power oligarchs or economic royalist plutocrats, fought and won historic victories against these forces. Though some criticized them for not going far enough in important details of their policies, what they did accomplish were essential advances for democracy of historic dimension. That integrity of achievement consistent with their words made them our greatest presidents, not other gifts they possessed. John Quincy Adams was perhaps the most gifted president, but his presidency is largely forgotten because it lacked such achievements.

Though Obama campaigned against the way Washington does business, his most historic advances have been for the militarized plutocracy that he campaigned against. The difference between him and the greatest presidents is therefore not his considerable “gifts,” as he deceptively and purposefully suggests, but his lack of integrity in leveling with the people about the purpose for which he intended to use those gifts. This is the reason he failed to fulfill the role history offered him as the man of the hour that the nation needed. Instead he served as the man the plutocracy needed. Woodrow Wilson is the only president who survived such a switch in roles with any reputation left that was still worth debating. It is a small niche.

Obama himself thus defines the other key issue in this campaign. Bernie Sanders exudes authenticity and integrity. Cornel West and those who agree with his view of Obama are prioritizing, for 2016, the qualities of authenticity and integrity, even if it does come in an uncharismatically crusty package with few demonstrable other gifts than the requisite experience and capacity for running a winning campaign for the restoration of democracy.

* A previous version of this article was published by Nation of Change

Rob Hager is a public interest litigator who filed an amicus brief in the Montana sequel to Citizens United and has worked as an international consultant on anti-corruption policy and legislation.

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