Beyond Campaign Finance

Listening to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential debates (recently concluded) this season, one can detect the distinct impression on the candidate’s part that the United States is no longer a democracy because of the inordinate political influence exercised by wealthy campaign funders in the age of the Supreme Court’s arch-plutocratic 2010 Citizens United decision. Again and again, Sanders calls for campaign finance reform (without specifying what exact reforms he favors) and the repeal of Citizens United to end the rule of “the billionaire class.” He’s been sounding almost like my high school Civics teacher, a card-carrying Common Cause member back in the post-Watergate years.

There’s truth behind the complaint and justice in the call for getting big private money out of public elections, God knows. Still, during the Citizens United era as before it, election funding is just one among many ways in which an “unelected dictatorship of money” rules the United States. As William Greider noted in his classic 1992 book Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy, the organized bribery called campaign finance is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how big corporations and financial institutions dominate U.S. politics and policy.

“The effects of [campaign] money are real enough” Greider determined, “but the debilitating impact [of corporate wealth and power] on democracy would endure, even if money were magically eliminated from politics.” The many-sided methods and modes of capitalist power include:

*The flooding of the nation’s capital and the 50 state capitals and an untold number of municipal and county governments with a gigantic army of corporate lobbyists.

*Massive investment in public relations and propaganda to influence the beliefs and values of citizens, politicians, and other “opinion-shapers” on matters of interest to corporations.

*Capture of key positions in government regulatory agencies by people who reasonably expect to work at increased levels of compensation in the regulated (and not-so-regulated) industries in the future.

*“Cognitive” (ideological) capture of state officials, politicians, media personnel, educators, nonprofit managers so as to minimize public actions and sentiments that might harm business profits.

*The use by businesses of the threat of disinvestment, capital flight, and capital strike – resulting in the loss of jobs and tax revenue – to get what they want (i.e., reduced wages, reduced taxes, reduced environmental regulations, increased public subsidies…the list goes on) from governments, unions, and communities.

*The systematic destruction and undermining of organizations (i.e., labor unions) that might offer some countervailing power to that of big business in the political and policy realms.

*The offer of jobs, corporate board memberships, internships, and other perks and payments to public officials and their families and to other “influentials” and their families.

*Control of education and publishing (a) to filter out, repress, and marginalize “populist” and “radical” (democratic) critiques of the profits system, corporations, and capitalist culture and (b) to identify the public interest and the common good with the business bottom line.

*Ownership, monitoring, and management of mass media (including “entertainment” as well as public affairs news and commentary) for the same purposes.

*The systematic advance ruling-class vetting of potentially viable candidates for top elected office before they are put up for “democratic” selection.

And this is just the short list. I could go on. I did, actually, in the fifth chapter (titled “How They Rule”) of my latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy(The chapter includes reflections on too-rarely mentioned barriers to democracy like excessively long working hours [“time poverty”], mass incarceration and felony marking, racial and ethnic divide-and-conquer, the absence of a national public and universal health insurance system, and an exaggerated emphasis on major party candidate-centered electoral contests as “politics, the only politics that matters.”)

Eighty-five years ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” Dewey rightly prophesized that U.S. politics would stay that way as long as power resided in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by command of the press, press agents, and other means of publicity and propaganda.”

Ten years later, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis made the very basic and elementary observation that Americans “must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” That was an unwitting call for the abolition of capitalism, which is marked among other things by an inherent tendency towards the upward concentration of wealth and power.

It might seem that Dewey – writing in 1931, on the eve of Franklin Roosevelt’s election and New Deal – spoke too soon. But he didn’t. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, a significant reduction in overall economic inequality (though not of racial inequality) and an increase in the standard of living for millions of working class Americans occurred in the United States.  This “Great Compression” occurred thanks to the emergence and expansion of the industrial workers’ movement (sparked to no small extent by Communists and other left militants), the spread of collective bargaining, the rise of a relatively pro-union New Deal welfare state and the democratic domestic pressures and progressive taxation required by the epic global struggle with German and Japanese fascism (WWII).

In reality, the gains enjoyed by millions of ordinary working US-Americans with the help of the popularly elected New Deal were made possible to no small extent by the uniquely favored and powerful position of the US economy and the remarkable profit rates enjoyed by US corporations in the post-WWII world.  When that position and those profits was significantly challenged by resurgent Western European and Japanese economic competition in the 1970s and 1980s, the comparatively egalitarian trends of postwar America were reversed by capitalist elites who had never lost their critical command of the nation’s core economic and political institutions. (The radicals – the best organizers – had been expelled from the labor movement in the late 1940s and 1950s). Working class Americans have paid the price ever since.

For the last four decades, wealth and income have been sharply concentrated upward, returning to pre-Great Depression levels, marking a New or Second Gilded Age that is traceable to a number of regressive and plutocratic policies that have nothing to do with any shift right in the populace. Along the way, US capitalists/corporations have globalized their production and sales operations like never before. In the US as in other nations, gross inequality and the deepened plutocracy that follows such disparity like stink on shit is a core and all-too “normal” component of capitalism understood over the longue durée.  As the liberal French academic rock-star Thomas Piketty admits, without crediting the Old Mole, that Karl Marx got it right: inequality is deeply rooted in the institutional sinews of capitalism. (So, smart eco-socialists like Joel Kovel and John Bellamy Foster remind us, is environmental catastrophe, well underway).

But it’s not just about capitalism. In his recent history of the neoliberal-corporatist horror show that is Hillary Clinton, Doug Henwood shows commendable respect for the authoritarian nature and handiwork of the United States’ aristo-republican merchant-capitalist and slave-owning Founders, for whom (it’s worth recalling) democracy was the ultimate nightmare. Henwood notes that the plutocratic Hillary Clinton (we could add Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio along with the vast majority of the nation’s not-so democratically elected “public” officials) “is a symptom of a deep sickness in the American political system, produced by the structural features designed to limit popular power that James Madison in The Federalist Papers and that the authors of the Constitution inscribed in our basic law.” Further:

“Those inhibiting Constitutional features include the division of power among the branches, judicial review, and the deeply undemocratic structure of the Senate, all supplemented with a variety of schemes over the decades to limit the franchise. Add to that the quasi-official status of a two-party Congress, the ability of the rich to buy legislation and legislators, and the gatekeeping role of the [corporate] media and you have a system that offers voters little more than the choice of which branch of the elite is going to screw them…While it’s sometimes fashionable to complain that our democracy has been taken from us, things have always been pretty much this way” (emphasis added).

This refusal to wax nostalgic about some mythical American-democratic past merits approval. So does Henwood’s emphasis on legal and institutional features that typically escape attention from those rushing to reduce ruling class power to election funding. Of special and more historically recent significance in the current era, we might mention the preposterously widespread practice of gerrymandered electoral districts, drawn to satisfy to the needs of incumbent parties and office-holders (no small part of how the noxious white-nationalist and, hard-right Republican Party manages to hold a majority in the U.S. House “of Representatives” despite that party’s extreme unpopularity). Also noteworthy is the post-1972 invention of the so-called super-delegate, whereby 20 percent of the delegates to the Democratic Party presidential convention are unelected. Most of these political superheroes are elected office-holders and/or high party officials. Hillary is certain to get the backing of the lion’s share of these ridiculously undemocratic actors with ludicrously outsized nomination influence.

As I noted in earlier CounterPunch essay, the Iowa Caucus, that much-vaunted expression of “grassroots democracy,” is deeply flawed by the fact that hundreds of thousands of working people and others (including many senior citizens and disabled) are unable to participate in the two-hour process.

Meanwhile, as since 1789, we are still stuck with the preposterously and openly undemocratic Electoral College in the final determination of “our” presidential tally once every four years

I’m all for the full public financing of US elections and other constitutional-institutional reforms to elevate the voice of the people over and above the wealthy few. Still, I must concur with John Dewey, Louis Brandeis, Karl Marx, and the late and brilliant Marxist political scientist Ellen Meiksens-Wood that we cannot talk seriously about enjoying democracy while living under the many-sided rule of the profits system. A merely “political revolution” (the nominally socialist Sanders’ recurrent phrase and slogan) won’t do the job. Only the “radical reconstruction of society itself” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. identified as “the real issue to be faced” near the end of his life can bring us to anything like the popular sovereignty (democracy) we need and deserve.

Why that strikes so many of my fellow progressives as a dark and depressing conclusion is, I must confess, a total mystery to me. What greater and more meaningful adventure could there ever be than millions upon millions of us joining together to act on King’s counsel? And if the radical reconstruction (revolution) cannot be attained, what better way could there be to die than fighting for it?

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).