Can America Take On & Defeat the New "Economic Royalists"
Can we reverse Citizens United and other decisions that have handed America over to our oligarchs? Will it start with a solid progressive Democratic majority in Congress?
Rightwing billionaires have seized control of our Supreme Court and, through that, pretty much other every other aspect of American political and economic life.
For example, Heidi Przybyla reported this week on Politico that the wife of Clarence Thomas — the deciding vote on the Supreme Court with their 2010 Citizens United decision — was ready and waiting for that decision. Just a few weeks before it was handed down, she set up a corporation to take full advantage of it.
Citizens United, of course, finished the job the Court had started in the 1970s when Lewis Powell wrote the decision in Bellotti that initially and partly legalized corporations buying and owning their very own politicians. Those decisions overturned more than a hundred years of good-government anti-bribery legislation, handing control of much of American politics over to the morbidly rich.
According to Przybyla’s reporting, Thomas set up the corporation with help from Leonard Leo and a half-million dollars from American oligarch Harlan Crow. It sure looks like all three of them were preparing to benefit big-time from Clarence’s tie-breaking vote that would come a few weeks later.
Oligarchy is the form of government you get when you allow billionaires to take over the political process, directing politicians to run the country for the benefit of the oligarchs instead of average working people. (If you want a deep dive, check out The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.)
Eight years ago, President Jimmy Carter told me that’s where we are now because of that Citizens United decision:
“It [Citizens United] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. …
“So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Carter is right, but this isn’t the first time oligarchs have reached out to corrupt and then take over America. That was in the first half of the 19th century, when the invention of the Cotton Gin allowed southern plantation owners to mechanize cleaning cotton: one Gin could do the work of 50 enslaved people.
Those plantations that could afford a Gin quickly wiped out their smaller competitors until virtually the entire South was under the control of around a thousand very rich families. Upset with abolition rhetoric in the North and convinced that they were rich because their god wanted them to rule, these southern oligarchs then declared war on the United States itself.
Lincoln fought and defeated them, so the oligarchs across the country went back to doing business and making money. Until sixty years later, when Republican Warren Harding ran for president on the twin slogans of a massive tax cut for the morbidly rich (from 91 percent down to 25 percent) and deregulation of banking and Wall Street.
Harding won that election and during his, Coolidge’s, and Hoover’s administrations taxes were slashed, regulations cut, and government services privatized. This orgy of activity of, by, and for the top one percent ended up tipping the entire economy over, resulting in the Republican Great Depression of the 1930s.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office in 1933 to clean up their mess and remediate their theft; he fought back against his generation’s oligarchs, declaring in 1936:
“For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. New kingdoms were built upon concentration of control over material things. … It was natural and perhaps human that the privileged princes of these new economic dynasties, thirsting for power, reached out for control over Government itself.”
FDR took on those “economic royalists” and defeated them. He explicitly called them out when the Democratic Party renominated him for president in 1936 in Philadelphia:
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”
He paused for a moment, then thundered, “Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power!”
The crowd roared, delighted that he’d turned back the Republican Great Depression and put millions to work while undoing the climate-destroying Dust Bowl by creating, among other three-letter agencies, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to plant millions of trees across the country. And he raised their top tax rate back up to 90 percent, while stopping an effort to kidnap him and turn the government fascist.
“In vain,” Roosevelt said, “they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the Flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
The American oligarchs again went back to doing business and getting rich, until Nixon put Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court and Powell began the process — from the bench — of turning America into a full-blown oligarchy.
In the years since Powell’s 1971 memo, both the GOP and the Supreme Court have taken a hard turn to the right. None of this was an accident: American billionaires have invested literally billions of dollars in their project to capture the US government and reinvent it to their benefit.
— In the 1980s, Reagan cut the top income tax rate down to 27 percent (while repeatedly raising taxes on working-class people), kicking off an explosion of billionaires.
— In 1983, he largely ended government enforcement of a century’s worth of antitrust and anti-monopoly laws, so that today the average American family pays around $5,000 a year more for everything from cell service to healthcare to internet access than do citizens of any other developed country in the world.
— In 1986, Reagan ended enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine. Combined with the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — which made it impossible to regulate or sue social media sites for the content they carry and ended limits on how many newspapers and radio and TV stations a single oligarch or company could buy — this led to our having 1,500 rightwing radio stations, three rightwing television networks, hundreds of rightwing TV stations, and the capture of half the nation’s newspapers by rightwing New York City hedge funds.
— The now-deregulated investor class has aggressively monetized single-family homes, exploding their cost and raising rents across the nation, leading to a crisis of homelessness.
— America spends roughly twice as much — 18 percent of GDP — on healthcare as any other country in the world. This is great news for people like “Dollar Bill” McGuire, who walked away from his gig as CEO of UnitedHealthcare with over a billion dollars, but sucks for everybody else.
— In 2003, George W. Bush proposed privatizing Medicare with his Medicare Advantage scam, which fools seniors into thinking they’re still on Medicare when in fact they’re now on private insurance programs that frequently refuse to pay for procedures and medications. When the Biden administration took steps to end $75 billion a year in overcharges by these Advantage programs, ripping off our government as well as you and me, one of the largest insurers sued to keep the overcharges in place.
— Bought-off politicians have put into place over $600 billion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. The industry and the billionaires it’s made are using some of that money to fund climate denial groups, including producing curricula that’s now being used in public schools in Red states whose GOP legislators are also funded by the same industry and oligarchs.
— One American billionaire (with the help of Saudi investors) has now seized control of the nation’s largest short-form social media platform and turned it into a Nazi-friendly place where hate and antisemitism flourish. He also used US government subsidies to build a worldwide web of satellite-based internet providers, and then used his position of power to block Ukraine from attacking the Russian fleet in Crimea and several other places. It’s a pretty clear violation of the Logan Act, but billionaires are almost never held to account in America.
— Another American oligarch’s social media site is widely credited with having been the main tool used by Vladimir Putin to hand the 2016 election to Putin’s boy Trump. This billionaire regularly had secret White House meetings with Trump, but never seems to meet with Democratic politicians.
— Using their extraordinary economic power, rightwing billionaires have packed our courts with ideologues trained in universities and law schools they fund; those judges and justices, in turn, shower gifts and immunities on their billionaire patrons.
In a refreshing change from the Clinton and Obama administrations — which both embraced Reagan’s neoliberalism — the Biden/Harris administration has been working on virtually all of these fronts to roll back the power and impact of America’s rightwing oligarchs.
The bad news is that they’ve met with fierce resistance, including from the now-packed court system, in everything from trying to enhance voting rights to reducing healthcare costs to strengthening government support for unions.
The cancer at the core of all of this is that tie-breaking vote Clarence Thomas cast in 2010 in Citizens United, just as his wife and Harlan Crow were setting up political and legal operations to benefit from Thomas’ vote.
In 2022, the House passed the For The People Act that would have significantly dialed back the power of big money in government. It received 51 votes in the Senate — every Democrat and VP Harris — but two on-the-take Democrats (Manchin and Sinema) refused to go along with breaking the GOP filibuster, so the legislation died.
Everything from the absurd amounts we pay for healthcare and drugs, to a billionaire short-circuiting American foreign policy, to the inability of Congress to do anything about the billions a day in subsidies taxpayers send to fossil fuel companies and their billionaires are simply symptoms of the original sin of legalizing political bribery.
It’s now reached the point where the only real and meaningful solution will be to revisit the For The People legislation (or something even stronger) and reverse Citizens United and other Supreme Court 5-4 decisions that have handed America over to our oligarchs. And that is going to take a solid progressive Democratic majority in Congress.
This is within our power to accomplish through grass-roots political action over the next 14 months, but we must be clear-eyed about the problem itself.
Tag, we’re it!