Installing a President by Force: Hillary Clinton and Our Moribund Democracy

The Democratic National Committee tilted the primary season to favor Hillary Clinton. This might be seen benignly as an aberration, a negligible prank in the messy world of politics. It was not an aberration.

Unless the nation lapses into lunacy on November 8, Hillary Clinton will be our next president.

The prospect raises an alarming question we’ve never before confronted.

How can a thriving democracy conceivably elect a president who is dishonest and untrustworthy in the minds of 59% of the people? A woman shown to be a felon but not prosecuted for want of precedent? A woman who lies and contradicts herself, documented in video clips? A bold hypocrite who solicits and accepts hundreds of millions in campaign contributions from Wall Street banks, the armaments industry, and Big Pharma, and claims to abhor Citizens United which enables her to do so?

The answer: we live in a moribund democracy, not a thriving one. A conjunction of corporate political power and immense wealth is forcibly installing a president. We haven’t confronted this before, either. We will cast our ritual ballots in November, but not in a free election: the Democratic nominee was imposed upon us by the corporate and the wealthy.

No, we have not been finessed by a patrician coup d’etat nor a secret cabal in sinister conspiracy. Instead we are victimized by systemic corruption in five institutions of public practice, and it is subverting our democracy.

Of immediate concern is the corruption in the Democratic Party. Directly violating the requirement for strict neutrality throughout the primaries, the Democratic National Committee intervened in the process at every opportunity, handicapping the Sanders campaign to assure Hillary Clinton’s nomination. The effort was covert, but it was suspected, finally exposed, and ultimately successful.

This was the engine of coercion, the denial of democracy, and the reason we will likely suffer a president unworthy of our trust. The corruption was not an aberration, nor was it unique and isolated: it flourished in a matrix of decadent institutions in which democracy cannot survive.

The Corruption of Corporate Regulation

Corporations are indispensable in our economy, but they are capable of imposing intolerable social costs: savaging their labor forces, marketing shoddy or dangerous products, overtly bribing or unduly inducing governments to do their will, ravaging landscapes for raw materials, acquiring other corporations to grow without limit, and restraining the market competition that assures equitable pricing.

Corporations must be subordinated to the welfare of society at large and for most of our history they have been—through government regulation.

An epic battle between corporate enterprise and the federal government raged throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, and every single one of the listed abuses was eventually prohibited by law.

But in episodic fits and starts the legal restraints on corporate behavior were repealed or relaxed—for the most part in the anti-government frenzy of the Reagan years—or substantially ignored. Deregulation was rampant, and it continued into the Administrations of George H.W. Bush and William Clinton.

The most serious of the policy reversals was the effective termination of anti-trust enforcement. Virtually every one of our industries has been consolidated into fewer and fewer but ever larger corporate structures.

The power of ballooning corporations grew in both economic and political terms. One result is our hollowed-out, flaccid domestic economy, and the powerful upward shift in wealth and incomes it has occasioned. Another is the inordinate influence corporations exert on the political system, challenging democracy with sponsored policy think-tanks, thousands of lobbyists, unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and constantly revolving doors.

The Corruption of Objective Journalism

Nowhere is corporate concentration more pernicious than in the information industry—the “mass media.”

Print and electronic media dominate the private and public discourse of the nation with their content messaging—news, documentation, and entertainment programming—and their commercial messaging—advertising. If this massive information flow is not to threaten democracy the sources must be many, varied, decentralized, and not constrained in any way.

At one time they were: in 1983 the ownership of 90% of the American mass-media outlets was spread among fifty corporations—newspaper chains, movie studios, magazines, book publishers, and local radio and TV stations affiliated with a number of national networks.

By 2011 that 90% was owned by six gigantic media conglomerates. Today there are five.

Professional journalists seek to discover and provide objective information, and their ethic dominated the smaller companies. But the media conglomerates are driven by the MBA ethic of their professional managers: maximizing shareholder value. The programming mix underwent a sea-change, accordingly: entertainment and spectacle attract and retain far larger audiences—and hence sell more advertising—than stodgy news programming.

And such programming is far less expensive to produce: the newsrooms were savaged, the news-gatherers decimated. Bring on the Kardashians.

Investigative journalism is indispensable for well-informed democracy to thrive. If not arguably dead, it is rarely visible today.

For entertainment and spectacle, the Kardashians can’t lay a finger on professional football. For half the year the mass media are saturated with it, exploiting its irresistible attraction of ongoing conflict and suspense: the preseason, the regular season, the playoffs, the Super Bowl. The spectacle of football is unmatched for generating advertising revenues.

There is one exception: the presidential election process, which displays the same attraction of ongoing conflict and suspense. The parallels are striking: early debates as preseason, primaries as regular season, conventions as playoffs, and then a political Super Bowl in November. And the season is three times as long, advertising revenues three times greater.

The media conglomerates quickly transformed presidential politics into a spectacle of sport.

Football programming is lucrative because audiences are predictably large and constant, and they are strongly polarized. Opposing fans are enemies, and nothing in the football experience is either complex or sophisticated. The conflict is everything and resolution simple: who will be victorious, who vanquished? Could politics be fashioned into a similar experience, with divisions in the audience equally as stark?

The media succeeded in doing so.

When Rupert Murdoch replaced objective journalism with political evangelism, the process was underway. Created as the voice of hard-right conservative ideology, Fox News became the house organ for the Republican Party. Rupert Murdoch’s financial success made Fox News the template for corporate journalism, and MSNBC was soon the countervailing force of liberalism and the Democrats.

Their formats are identical: cheerleading, sarcasm, and ridicule—species of entertainment and spectacle.

The sense of collective citizenship among the American people soon yielded to vigorous, even rabid partisanship. Democrats and Republicans became the fans of opposing teams, and we follow the presidential campaign with passion and malevolence, hoping our team will crush the opponent, finally, in the political Super Bowl. Civil discourse, respectful disagreement, reasoned argument have disappeared in our culture; they are not displayed by the fans of opposing teams.

The media conglomerates have made us a nation of sports fans, uninformed, unaware of democracy’s decay.

The Corruption of the Rule of Law

Tilting the primaries in Hillary Clinton’s favor was briefly noted by the media conglomerates—after Julian Assange exposed it—and then put out of mind. No questions raised, no investigation undertaken, not even a normative comment. Breaking the rules was abjectly condoned.

It was condoned by Hillary Clinton’s appointment of DNC Chair Wasserman-Schultz to a prestigious post in the campaign. It was condoned by President Obama, who praised Wasserman-Schultz’ for her work with the party.

Monstrous violations are tolerated. President Bush lied to Congress about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The criminal behavior was massively evident, but no prosecution was suggested by the mainstream media. No questions raised, no investigation undertaken, not even normative comment. Mr. Bush then invaded two sovereign nations without provocation, violating the United Nations charter. The media corporations delighted in the spectacle, treating warfare as a mortal sporting event, but addressed the criminality not at all.

Years later the Wall Street mega-banks—in another heavily concentrated industry—were near collapse from their fraudulent activities. The Bush Administration chose not prosecute them for breaking laws but to reward them with trillions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts. By his oath of office Mr. Bush was sworn to prosecute criminality, not to encourage it, but the media said nothing.

When Barack Obama took office he elected not to pursue his predecessor’s lawlessness. He, too, violated his oath to support the Constitution, which states, “…the president shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” There are no asterisks.

The media conglomerates noted the new president’s desire, as he said, “…to look forward, not backward,” and then fell silent.

The Obama Administration did address Wall Street’s lawbreaking, but the response was a travesty. Mr. Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder joined government service from Covington, Burling, a law firm listing the guilty banks among its long-term clients. Instead of prosecuting the bank executives, he negotiated financial penalties to be paid from corporate funds. This was political window dressing; the fines were trivial, and the executives never faced trial. Mr. Holder then walked back through the revolving door to his post at Covington, Burling.

His was not faithful execution of laws, either, but the corporate media raised no questions, undertook no investigation….

Democracy is threatened by casual respect for the Constitution.

The Corruption of Campaign Finance

The total cost of the Congressional and presidential campaigns in 2008 was $5.3 billion. Two years later the Supreme Court rendered its infamous Citizens United decision, creating Super PACs and allowing corporations to make unlimited political contributions. In 2012, consequently, campaign spending jumped by nearly a third, to $7.0 billion.

Much of that money sluiced in from corporations, but America’s mega-wealthy individuals displayed their patriotism as well. $396 million—60.4% of all the funds pooled by Super PACs—was donated by 132 wealthy men and women.

On a pie chart of the 2012 campaign spending published by Demos, contributions from individual citizens totaled less than ½ of 1%.
Running for office is obscenely expensive. In 2012 the costs of a senatorial campaign averaged $10.5 million, a House campaign $1.7 million, and the presidential candidates each spent more than $1 billion each.

Elected officials strapped to such extravagant costs brush close to indentured servitude; they enter a symbiotic relationship with their various benefactors, and share an interest in sustaining it.

The extravagance and servitude are utterly unnecessary and wholly unprecedented. The Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1910 limited not contributions to political campaigns, but capped instead the candidates’ expenditures. It is pointless to raise money you can’t spend; the modest limit of $10,000 for Senators and $5,000 for Representatives could be raised quickly from personal assets, family, and friends. It had to be: corporations were explicitly prohibited in the law from making political contributions.
The law was repealed in 1971.

Moribund Democracy—the end game

The U.S. no longer displays a thriving democracy: hard evidence is accumulating to document this in rigorous, scholarly research. Studying almost 1,800 issues of public policy, political scientists Martin Gillens and Benjamin Page said this:

…economic elites and…business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

Two other political scientists, Bastiaan van Apeldoorn and Nana de Graaff, looked into the “grand strategy makers,” the 30 most influential people in cabinet-level and senior advisory positions in the last three administrations—Bill Clinton’s, Bush’s, and Obama’s. In the Clinton Administration, 25 of the 30 “grand strategy makers” (83%) were linked to 197 different corporations, as executives, directors, senior associates, or partners in law firms, either prior to their public service or after it. In the Bush Administration 27 of the 30 (90%) had connections to 157 corporations. In the Obama Administration 23 of the 30 (over 70%) had such “top-level corporate affiliations” with 111 companies. Most of the companies involved were financial institutions and transnational corporations.

Oligarchy is rule by the few. Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy. Corporatocracy is a society governed or controlled by corporations. We have all three.

The conjunction of corporate political power and immense wealth has a lock on Washington. The citizens comprising it—“the 1%” in common parlance—are prospering as never before: the upward shift of wealth and incomes continues, accompanied by expanding, apparently dominant political influence.

The people of the 1% inducted Bill and Hillary Clinton into their ranks, by enriching them over four decades with an astonishing $3 billion in various contributions, commissions, and speaking fees. (See the documentation in the Washington Post here.) All five of the Clintons’ previous campaigns have been lavishly financed by them, Hillary’s current candidacy even more so, and the Clintons over all those years have served them well.

So have the corrupted institutions. The Democratic National Committee would not and could not have thumbed the scale without the unfettering of corporations, without the distraction by entertainment and spectacle, without the cavalier respect for laws, without a grotesque system of campaign funding.

The mortal imperative for the wealthy and powerful is to keep the status quo inviolate. Hillary Clinton’s nomination would assure that. Senator Sanders’ call for political revolution was an intolerable threat, particularly when it was so enthusiastically endorsed by twelve million voters, 44% of the national total.

In the end, the imposition of Hillary Clinton was a cliff-hanger. Even after the fraudulent primaries she did not have enough democratically-elected delegates to secure the nomination. 7% short of the requisite 2,382, she needed the votes of 163 unelected superdelegates, those empowered by the Democratic National Committee.

Hillary Clinton’s presidency will change nothing of substance because she is a creature of the corruption. Corporate dominion will prevail. Entertainment and spectacle will displace awareness with delusion. Laws will be ignored for financial or political gain. Governance will be marketed. Democracy will be a myth and a memory.

Richard W. Behan lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He can be reached at: