Can We Stop the 27 Men Who Run America?
In 1776 we declared independence from the world’s richest man and the planet’s largest corporation. Today, we again confront a similar challenge…
Now it’s official. Twenty-seven men run this country.
Pundits are fond of saying, “The President of the United States is the most powerful person in America.”
He’s not and hasn’t been for over a decade. Political power in this country, since five Republicans on the Supreme Court fully legalized both overt and secret political bribery in their 2010 Citizens United decision, is now centered in the money bins of the morbidly rich.
Political pundits also say that, for example, Val Demmings outraising Marco Rubio in the Florida Senate race bodes well for her and bad for Rubio in the upcoming election. In fact, it’s only marginally relevant because billionaire dark money doesn’t show up in official fundraising numbers. And Rubio has multiple billionaire backers.
A small number of rightwing billionaires today run the show, at least for the moment, and, according to a new study, 27 of them basically own the GOP and thus the ability to block most positive and forward action by the Biden administration.
In 1776 we declared independence from the world’s richest man and the planet’s largest corporation, which his family started (Queen Elizabeth I chartered the East India Company in December, 1601) and in which he owned the largest percentage of shares.
Today, we’re confronting a similar challenge. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1936 of the last time wealth and political power was as seriously concentrated as it is today:
“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. They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. In its service new mercenaries sought to regiment the people, their labor, and their property. And as a result the average man once more confronts the problem that faced the Minute Man.”
And here we are. Americans for Tax Fairness just published a shocking report that opens with this statement:
“The nation’s roughly 750 billionaires are increasingly using their personal fortunes and the profits of connected corporations to drown out regular voters’ voices and elect hand-picked candidates who further rig the nation’s economy—especially the tax system—to make their wealthy benefactors even richer. This anti-democratic vote-buying, totaling $1.2 billion in the 2020 election cycle, has expanded greatly in recent years.”
The rate at which billionaires are pouring money into elections has taken a sharp upward turn, they note, since Trump’s election just six years after Citizens United:
“Billionaires pumped $1.2 billion into the 2020 elections, almost 40 times more than the $31 million they donated in 2010, when the Citizens United rules were first in effect. In the 2020 election cycle, billionaires contributed nearly $1 out of every $10, while making up just 0.01% of all donors contributing more than $200.”
Almost half of all the money donated to the two main super PACs supporting the GOP came from just 27 rightwing billionaires.
Investing in politicians and ballot initiatives, since the practice was legalized by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court, turns out to be the very most profitable investment a billionaire can make.
For example, in 2020 Democrats in Illinois put up a ballot measure called the “Fair Tax” that cut state income taxes for people earning under $100,000 a year while it raised state income taxes on those making over $1 million from 4.95% to 7.99%.
The ballot measure’s main supporter — Governor (and progressive billionaire) JB Pritzker — hoped the measure would raise around $3 billion in tax revenue to help the state close a budget hole.
But Illinois resident and rightwing billionaire Ken Griffin (one of Ron DeSantis’ largest donors) spent $54 million of his own money to defeat the measure.
His campaign to carpet-bomb the state with a message to the effect of “Democrats can’t be trusted; they just want to raise your taxes” worked and the measure was defeated.
The proposed billionaire tax would have cost Griffin $51 million just in that one year of 2020 and, as ProPublica noted:
“In especially good years — in 2018, Griffin reported income of almost $2.9 billion — he might have been forced to pay more than $80 million more.”
In other words, it wasn’t an expenditure for Griffin: it was a low-cost investment.
America has ceased to be a functioning democracy, as a direct result of a series of decisions by Republicans on the Supreme Court claiming that when billionaires buy politicians it’s no longer bribery or corruption but merely “First Amendment-protected free speech.”
Money, according to the Republicans on the Court, isn’t money: it’s speech. And whoever has the most money in America today has the most speech, particularly in the world of politics.
This corruption of American politics by the Supreme Court’s novel doctrine (we’re the only developed country in the world, outside of Hungary and Russia, that tolerates this) isn’t just staying in the US.
For the past year or more, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has been working with her peers in governments around the world to end corporate tax-avoidance schemes that let a company doing business and making billions in profits in, for example, America to avoid paying American taxes by claiming a different country as their tax “home.”
Over 100 nations had signed on, including every member of the European Union, until a group of American corporations spread some “free speech” around the GOP. Because the EU operates by consensus — a single dissenting nation can kill a deal — the one European country that also allows dark-money contributions to politicians has now put the shiv into Yellen’s project.
The two top Republicans on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, Adrian Smith (NE) and Mike Kelly (PA), reached out to their Hungarian peers and essentially recommended they use their veto to block the EU’s ratification of the deal.
It worked, guaranteeing hundreds of billions in ongoing tax-avoidance for US corporations and their billionaire owners. Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, echoed the American corporate line when he announced on July 1st that:
“We are constantly consulting with the Republicans. There is a constant professional consultation on this issue. We think that the lower the taxes on labor and businesses the more it helps in terms of competitiveness.”
The deal now looks dead, as economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote:
“Think about it. One of America’s two political parties has been in cahoots with Europe’s most authoritarian government, to allow global corporations based in the United States to avoid paying ever more of what they owe the United States.”
This is not democracy, or “rule by the people.” It’s oligarchy, aka “rule by the rich.”
As President Jimmy Carter told me seven years ago when we were discussing the Supreme Court’s corrupt 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.”
Which brings us to the nub of the issue, the true crisis facing America today:
Once a democracy has transitioned into the middle stages of oligarchy — as it appears America has done since those five Republicans on the Supreme Court sold us out to the morbidly rich men who helped put them on the Court — is it possible to recover our democracy?
Does it take left-wing billionaires to counter the right-wing billionaires? Is that the solution?
Sure, there are a few progressive billionaires who are willing to invest some of their money in promoting democracy rather than simply enhancing their own wealth: Illinois’ Governor JB Pritzker, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and Tom Steyer are the best-known examples.
But they’re so massively outnumbered by rightwing billionaires whose main interest is in keeping their taxes and regulations low that their impact is small and diminishing daily. As noted earlier, 27 rightwing billionaires account for about half of all the money raised by the two main Republican super PACs this year.
There has to be another way.
America has fought this battle before, and beat the morbidly rich back by with the power of an informed and energized electorate. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood up to the oligarchs of his day, raising taxes all the way up to a top 91% rate on the morbidly rich and calling them out:
“They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
The morbidly rich of his day backed down, and FDR, Eisenhower, and LBJ all passed massive programs that improved the lives of average Americans: Social Security, Interstate Highway System, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Medicaid, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Peace Corps, National School Lunch Program, Head Start and others.
But in 1976 (Buckley v Valeo) the Supreme Court opened the door to political bribery by declaring, for the first time in American history, that rich people could, on a limited basis, own politicians. In 1978 (First National Bank v Bellotti) they extended that privilege to corporations in a decision authored by Lewis Powell himself.
The tsunami of money from the rich and America’s largest corporations floated Reagan into office in 1980, and Congress hasn’t passed a single major program to benefit America’s working people since.
In 2010 the Supreme Court’s five corrupt Republicans tripled-down on embracing billionaire money, their Citizens United decision expanding how extensively billionaires and corporations could own politicians and even allowing foreign money into American politics for the first time.
Can we overcome the damage the corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court have done to our nation with their twin doctrines of corporate personhood and money-as-speech?
It turns out that Supreme Court opinions aren’t carved in stone. Congress can change and regulate the Court (as I detail extensively in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America), a big lift, but it can also simply pass laws that, in most cases, can reverse Supreme Court decisions.
It’s within the power of Congress — if it can overcome the corruption injected into it by five Republicans on the Court — to undo much of the damage of Citizens United and the Court’s preceding decisions that set the stage for it.
Our best recent shot at doing it was the For The People Act, which would have reversed large parts of the Citizens United decision and publicly funded federal elections. But billionaires poured their cash into the coffers of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — and every single Republican in the Senate — and the legislation, which passed the House, died to a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
It’s still possible, if Democrats take a large enough majority this fall, to pass that legislation or something like it and begin the process of reclaiming our democracy from this corrupt Supreme Court and the billionaires it has handed our country over to.
If we fail, America will almost certainly devolve into a full-blown oligarchy like Fox’s beloved Hungary, and our democratic experiment will be suspended for another generation and perhaps irretrievably.
The stakes have never been higher. If ever there was a time to engage in politics, this is it.