The Claws of the Morbidly Rich are Deeply Sunk into American's Body Politic
The question today is whether we can twist free of them and again become a self-governing nation. Or if we’re doomed to continue to devolve into a full-blown oligarchy
“At bottom, the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.
“It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
—Justice John Paul Stevens’s dissent in Citizens United
In 2010 the United States Supreme Court wrapped up their systematic dismantling of representative democracy in America. Their job on behalf of the morbidly rich donors who put them onto the Court is now almost complete.
The symptoms are all around us:
*Climate change is whacking the world in a way never before seen by humans, and every political party in every developed country in the world acknowledges it except one: the American GOP. Why? Because only in America has a supreme court fully legalized political bribery and Republicans are taking big bucks from the fossil fuel industry and petrobillionaires.
*Fully a third of voters polled by ABC/Ipsos this month said they have no confidence that either party can honestly deal with substantive problems like gun violence, taxes, gas prices, and inflation (among others). While the “why” question wasn’t asked, it’s easy to infer the answer: politicians in both parties are on the take, or held back from meaningful action by a few colleagues (like Sinema/Manchin) who are openly on the take.
*Monopolistic consolidation of the American economy is so complete that American consumers are being openly played as the world’s suckers. We pay more — often twice to ten times more — than the citizens of any other developed country for everything from pharmaceuticals to broadband to cell service. There was a time in America when Congress did something about monopolies: that time is now gone, as lawmakers are regularly bribed by the very corporations they would have to pass laws to regulate.
*In the 1970s the American middle class made up the majority of Americans and average CEOs took home only about 30 times what their workers did because any money they made beyond that was hit with a top 74% tax bracket. CEOs back then didn’t have multiple mansions, private jets, and megayachts. Many lived in the communities where their businesses were located.
*Today fewer than 45 percent of us are in the Middle Class, one worker can no longer raise a family, and the morbidly rich pay as little a 3% in income taxes while many — like Trump — pay nothing at all for decades. This persists because those very CEOs now pay off enough politicians to prevent taxes from being raised to a historically reasonable level.
*Gun violence now kills more American children than any other cause and America is awash in weapons-of-war openly marketed to sexually insecure young white men. We’re the only developed country in the world struggling with regular mass shootings, school shootings, and a high frequency of police violence and homicide against civilians.
No other developed country in the world has these problems because no other developed country in the world allows their gun industry and some of their police unions to bribe their politicians.
In a shocking analysis on Substack, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich documents how Congress — in the 200 years before five Republicans on the Supreme Court legalized political bribery — used to regulate corporate behavior. If Congress wanted more products from muskets to computer chips made in America, or less pollution from our cars, they’d pass a law increasing tariffs on foreign guns and chips, and penalties on manufacturers whose products pollute.
Now, instead of regulating business, Reich notes, Congress subsidizes business. We gave the chip makers $50+ billion to move production here with few strings attached; we passed out hundreds of billions to subsidize green power.
Why the change from regulation to subsidy? Because instead of doing what’s best for America, Congress now does what’s best for their “donors.”
Thanks to five Republicans on the Supreme Court.
America, in short, is now paralyzed by the big money corruption of our political process. And that, in turn, is nearly 100 percent the fault of corrupt Republicans on the US Supreme Court who, themselves, were given their jobs by corrupt big-money players who wanted the Court to make America more billionaire-friendly.
It’s not like we weren’t warned.
Back in 1910, former President Teddy Roosevelt gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas telling Americans that if we didn’t take on the morbidly rich, they’d bring democracy to its knees.
“The Constitution guarantees protections to property, and we must make that promise good,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “But it does not give the right of suffrage [voting] to any corporation.”
Corporations, in other words, are not people, Roosevelt said. It was common sense back then, although, as Mitt Romney famously pointed out, the Supreme Court has turned that on its head in the past decades.
As long as corporations were able to interfere in elections and throw massive amounts of money at candidates, Roosevelt told his crowd, America would remain locked in a crisis of plutocracy.
The only answer, he said, is to “prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes,” and hold CEOs and corporate officers “personally responsible when any corporation breaks the law.”
The federal government was neither taxing giant corporations, massive inheritances, nor any other aspect of the lives of the morbidly rich, and that failure, Roosevelt said:
“[H]as tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.”
The crowd roared with approval, and word traveled across the country. Within a decade the Constitution was amended so we had both a federal income tax on the morbidly rich, a corporate income tax, and an inheritance tax.
America felt the result immediately.
During those first two decades of the 20th century, Democrats and progressive Republicans put up barriers to corporations and that generation’s equivalent of billionaires from buying and owning politicians.
The immediate result was the birth of the largest and fastest growing middle-class in the history of the world.
Americans not only knew that Teddy Roosevelt was right; they saw the evidence of growing oligarchy all around them and rejected it. Both parties had become populist when it came to protecting democracy from political bribery.
For the 200 years prior to Nixon putting Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court and its later Citizens United decision, every American voter and politician knew how money in politics could corrupt government.
As the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote in his only book, Notes on Virginia:
“With money, we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money. … They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.
“Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes. The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and claws after he shall have entered.”
The teeth and claws of the morbidly rich are now deeply sunk into the American body politic.
The question today is whether we can twist free of them and again become a self-governing nation. Or if we’re doomed to continue to devolve into a full-blown oligarchy like Russia and Hungary did, where all decisions are now made by oligarchs and a strongman leader empowered by them, and elections are just done for show and around local issues.
We went through this cycle of seizing democracy back from corrupt great wealth about 100 years ago. It was difficult last time and it will be difficult this time.
But we’re already in the midst of it: the Supreme Court has done what they have done, and it has caused an enormous social, economic, cultural, and political crisis — and even violence.
America has had an on-again, off-again relationship with political corruption that goes all the way back to the early years of this republic. Perhaps the highest level of corruption, outside of today, happened in the late 1800s at the tail-end of the last Gilded Age.
One of the iconic stories from that era was that of William Clark, who died in 1925 with a net worth in excess, in today’s money, of $4 billion. He was one of the richest men of his day, perhaps second only to John D. Rockefeller.
And in 1899, Clark’s story helped propel an era of political cleanup that reached its zenith with the presidency of progressive Republicans (a species that no longer exists) Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
Clark’s scandal even led straight to the passage of the 17th Amendment, which let the people of the various states decide who would be their U.S. senators, instead of the state legislatures deciding, which was the case from 1789 until 1913, when that amendment was ratified.
By 1899, Clark owned pretty much every legislator of any consequence in Montana, as well as all but one newspaper in the state. Controlling both the news and the politicians, he figured the legislature would easily elect him to be the next U.S. senator from Montana.
Congress later learned that he not only owned the legislators but, several historians have suggested, stood outside the statehouse with a pocket full of $1,000 bills (literally: those bills weren’t taken out of circulation until 1969 by Richard Nixon), each in a plain white envelope, to hand out to every member who’d voted for him to become one of Montana’s two US senators.
When word reached Washington DC about the envelopes and the cash, the US Senate began an investigation into Clark, who famously told friends and aides, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”
It was one of the most widely discussed political scandals in American history. Mark Twain wrote of Clark:
“He is as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag; he is a shame to the American nation, and no one has helped to send him to the Senate who did not know that his proper place was the penitentiary, with a chain and ball on his legs.”
Montana State Senator Fred Whiteside, who owned the only non-Clark-owned newspaper in the state, the Kalispell Bee, led the big exposé of Clark’s bribery. Enough of Montana’s legislators, however, took Clark’s money and ignored Whiteside’s reporting to shut down the statewide investigation.
The US Senate then launched an investigation in 1899 and, sure enough, found out about Clark’s envelopes and numerous other bribes and emoluments he’d offered to state legislators. Stunned by the national level of public outrage, they refused to seat him.
To get around that, the following year Montana’s governor — also in Clark’s pocket — appointed Clark to the US Senate seat he had previously purchased; he then served a full eight-year term.
Clark’s story went national all over again and became a rallying cry for clean-government advocates like progressive Republican President Theodore Roosevelt.
It led to the passage of the 1907 Tillman Act, providing for a year in prison for any corporate director, officer, or agent who gave any money or thing of value to any candidate for federal office on behalf of any corporation.
Clark’s story also informed the 1910 Corrupt Practices Act, also known as The Publicity Act because it required all political committees supporting candidates in more than two states to publicly reveal their finances and donations.
In 1912, progressive Republican President Taft, after doubling the number of corporations being broken up by the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act over what President Theodore Roosevelt had done, championed the 17th Amendment (direct election of senators, something some Republicans today want to repeal).
Their singular goal was to prevent Clark’s kind of corruption — rich guys buying legislators — from ever happening again.
Meanwhile, in Montana, while the Clark-corrupted state legislature was fighting reforms the people were demanding, a state-wide wave of outraged citizens put a measure on the state ballot of 1912.
Their ballot measure parroted the federal Tillman Act at the Montana state level, outlawing corporations from giving any money of any sort to Montana politicians. That same year, Texas and other states passed similar legislation (the corrupt former Speaker of the US House, Tom DeLay, R-Texas, was prosecuted under his state’s version of that law before the Supreme Court struck it down).
Montana’s anti-corruption law, along with many of those of numerous other states, persisted until 2010, when former Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the five-vote Republican majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, declared in the Citizens United decision that political corruption didn’t exist in the United States.
Kennedy, in what has to be one of the most absurd things ever penned by a Supreme Court justice, wrote that he’d examined “more than 100,000 pages” of legal opinions and could not find:
“…any direct examples of votes being exchanged for … expenditures. This confirms Buckley’s reasoning that independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate. Ingratiation and access, in any event, are not corruption.”
The US Supreme Court, following on the 1976 Buckley case that grew straight out of the Powell Memo and was written in part by Justice Lewis Powell, turned the definitions of corruption upside down.
But that was just the beginning, as I lay out in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America.
That same year they decided Citizens United, the Court overturned the Montana anti-corruption law in the 2010 American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock ruling, essentially saying that money doesn’t corrupt politicians.
This is particularly true, the five Republicans on the US Supreme Court ruled, if that money comes from corporations that can “inform” us about current issues, (literally the logic they used in Citizens United) or the morbidly rich who, presumably, must be people of the highest possible integrity (and they pay great speaking fees to Supreme Court justices).
Now we’ve reached something close to peak corruption. The 2018 midterm election saw $5.7 billion spent to elect candidates, and in a solid majority of cases the candidate who spent the most money won. The 2020 election cost $14.4 billion.
Billionaires who were largely non-political two decades ago are now making billion-dollar “investments” in politicians and political movements, as we saw with the $1.6 billion contribution a single Republican donor made to Leonard Leo’s group that I wrote about yesterday.
Billions invested in bribing politicians sounds like a lot of money (and to most of us it is!), but consider how just a few simple tax law changes made during the Reagan administration have transferred fully $50 trillion from the American Middle Class to the top 1 percent.
Even at these nosebleed-levels of bribery, buying politicians is still the best investment a corporation or morbidly rich family can make.
Invest millions, make billions. Invest billions, make trillions. It’s as close to a guaranteed return-on-investment you can get, assuming you have the kind of big money necessary to play the game.
This naked corruption of our political process should be the biggest story in America today, but our corporate media has been among the biggest beneficiaries of legalized government bribery.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act — largely written by the industry itself — let a few rightwing billionaire families take over thousands of radio stations, hundreds of television stations, a good chunk of the nation’s internet activity, and start multiple rightwing media empires.
Rightwing and anti-union billionaires now own some of our largest national newspapers, and fully half of all local newspapers nationwide are owned by a handful of billionaire-run hedge funds.
How does this end?
Viktor Orbán, when he first came to power in Hungary, helped oligarchs close to him take over the majority of that nation’s media; now he easily wins re-election, both because of rigged voting rules and gerrymandering, but — most importantly — because there’s no longer any meaningful progressive media in Hungary.
Industry after industry in Hungary was taken over by Orbán’s rightwing and often openly Nazi cronies, just like in Putin’s Russia, so that even making anti-Orbán comments at work, in public, or on social media can cause Hungarians to lose their jobs no matter how unrelated the remark may seem to media or politics.
We’re seeing similar, ominous signals coming out of American media: CNN is the most recent concerning case.
While some members of the Democratic Party have been sold out for quite a while (which is why Obamacare was a subsidy to insurance companies, rather than regulation of the insurance market or an expansion of Medicare: thanks, Joe Lieberman), that party is now pretty much our nation’s last hope.
You won’t find a single Republican willing to acknowledge this problem — even the never-Trumpers are in denial and just want to get back to the regular corrupt gravy train — but Democratic politicians are now regularly winning elections around the issue of the corruption of their Republican opposition.
There are many problems in today’s America, from gun violence to poverty and homelessness to a crisis of the middle class.
All, however, are problems of political corruption at their core. And in almost every case, a solution to these problems is being blocked by politicians being paid off in a fashion legalized by Republicans on the Supreme Court.
And it all began with a handful of Republicans on the US Supreme claiming, In a complete contradiction of the beliefs of our Founders and American history, that corporations are persons and money is constitutionally-protected free speech.
There are several approaches we could take to fix this, which I’ve discussed in the past and will again in the future.
But, like President Teddy Roosevelt did back in the day, first we have to establish a nationwide consensus that this is the crisis, the cancer at the core of our democracy, that must be dealt with immediately.