“We’ve Got the Message:” America’s Plutocrats and Politicians at the Same Trough

Artwork from book cover | America at War with Itself

Artwork from book cover | America at War with Itself

Thomas Frank has a piece in The Guardian, at once sobering and hilarious, on the tranche of hacked emails relating to Hillary Clinton released by WikiLeaks.

Frank focuses on the emails sent to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chief, for decades a consummate Washington power broker and wheeler-dealer, former White House chief of staff to her husband, and longtime consigliere to the Clinton syndicate.

Many of the emails reveal what we’ve known for some time, for instance, that the Clinton Foundation is a glorified “pay to play” shake-down operation, that Hillary Clinton is much practised in the art of a deeply elegant curtsy whenever a Wall Street mogul is in the room, and that for decades some hedge-fund billionaire or “venture capitalist” has probably known more about this or that scheme being hatched in the Oval Office than the people who work there.

Least surprising of all, however, is just how important and useful it is to have the email address of John Podesta, or one of the hundreds like him greasing wheels in the US capital for those fortunate (i.e. wealthy) enough to be “in the loop”. Here’s Frank on the people who have this privilege:

[They] go from foundation to government to thinktank to startup. There are honors. Venture capital. Foundation grants. Endowed chairs. Advanced degrees. For them the door revolves. The friends all succeed. They break every boundary.

If there is one thing uniting Democratic and Republican insiders it is this unalloyed cronyism.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election the New York Times published a report on the three fundraisers held on the same day for Mitt Romney by the Koch brothers and a couple of other tycoons on their estates in the Hamptons. The lunch at the estate of Revlon chairman Ronald Perelman cost a mere $25,000 a person, the others $50,000 per ticket, with the Kochs giving couples a generous discount at $75,000 per duo.  The plutocracy answered the call and turned out in force. Here are some snippets from the New York Times article.

A woman in a blue chiffon dress poked her head out of the black Range Rover here on Sunday afternoon and yelled at an aide to Mitt Romney. “Is there a V.I.P. entrance? We are V.I.P.”

“He [Obama] is a socialist. His idea is find a problem that doesn’t exist and get government to intervene,” Mr. Conklin said from inside a gold Mercedes, as his wife, Carol Simmons, nodded in agreement.

Ms. Simmons paused to highlight what she said was her husband’s generous spirit. “Tell them who’s on your yacht this weekend! Tell him!”

Over Mr. Conklin’s objections, Ms. Simmons disclosed that a major executive from Miramax was on Mr. Conklin’s 75-foot yacht, because, she said, there were no rooms left at the hotel.

The packed day of fund-raisers seemed to create some confusion among donors. As he pulled up outside Mr. Perelman’s estate, Ms. Schwartz’s companion initially wondered if he was at the home of the Koch brothers, a fund-raiser scheduled for several hours later.

Oh, he said, not yet.

“We are going to all of them,” Ms. Schwartz explained.

The Los Angeles Times also covered these Romney fundraisers in the Hamptons, and provided the following gem:

A New York City donor a few cars back, who would not give her name… said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.”

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

There were no V.I.P. entrances at any of the Hampton venues that day for those eager to bray out their claim to this elevated status, though it won’t take a genius to surmise that “V.I.P. entrances” are a humdrum formality for the ritzy owners of the Range Rovers, (gold) Mercedes Benzes, monster-sized Chevy Tahoes, and Ferraris parked in the driveway of the Koch estate.

Surely someone, somewhere, in America must be itching to set fire to the mansions, yachts, and luxury vehicles of such people? (November 5th is Guy Fawkes Day in the country issuing my passport, so incendiary scenarios of this kind tend to well-up around this time of the year.)

If there were someone with this itch, it won’t be Chelsea Clinton or that Clinton super-donor owning the property near the Koch brothers, the latter in case sparks flying from the ensuing conflagration descended on their own palace and turned it into an absolutely glorious bonfire.

Such neighbours in the Hamptons are more than likely to have their snouts in the same trough, regardless of official party affiliation and rivalries.

Who knows, in some fantasy scenario perhaps, that “college kid” mentioned by the LA Times reporter, disconnected from his parents’ politics and “not getting it” according to his carping mother, may decide it’s high time he gave this itch a damn good scratch?

Given events like the above-mentioned soirees on the estates of the 1/10th of the 1 percent, and the charmed circle around John Podesta, a friend just reminded me that Harvey C Mansfield, the conservative Harvard political theorist and member of the Hoover Institution, once wrote of America’s happy marriage of democratic form with oligarchic substance.

At best this proposition, which must surely be the only remotely radical sentiment expressed by Mansfield in his long career, encompasses a half-truth.

With the removal of any caps on the monies that can be deposited in a candidate’s election coffers, the Supreme Court’s absurd ruling that a corporation has the same standing in law as a person, routine gerrymandering and voter suppression, and so on, America is now oligarchic in both form and substance.

Mansfield will probably say that America still retains the democratic form as long as regular and relatively free elections are held, in which politicians submit themselves to the supposed test of public opinion.

But this is akin to those tests, shown on TV commercials, in which blindfolded individuals are asked to state a preference after sampling the two or more kinds of virtually identical diabetes-inducing beverages placed in front of them.

Some choice, some democracy!

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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