Will American Democracy Vanish If We Don't Drain the Swamp?
No republic in history has ever survived as a functioning democracy more than a few generations once political bribery is legalized or becomes widespread
A recent poll from the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics found that a majority of Americans agree that the government is “corrupt and rigged against everyday people like me.” Sixty-six percent of Republicans and 46 percent of Democrats agreed with that statement; only 9 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats disagreed.
Independent voters, who swing from year to year and often decide elections, are also concerned that big money has rigged the American political system. Fully 63 percent agree that the government is corrupt and rigged; only 9 percent disagree.
The single most powerful platform on which Donald Trump successfully ran for president in 2016 was his argument that American politics has been corrupted by money.
In the wake of a series of money-in-politics rulings by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court, he was right and Americans knew it (although, once elected, he proceeded to make things worse).
If Democrats want to hold the House and Senate this fall and pick up seats in the states, this must be the basis of their argument.
Louise and I lived in Washington, DC at the time of the 2016 election and knew, socially, quite a few Trump voters, most of them active duty or retired military.
More than half of them were willing to vote for either Trump or Bernie Sanders: their issue was that our government had grown so corrupt that politics in DC needed a strong and incorruptible president who’d shake things up and clean house.
“Trump’s too rich to be bought,” they’d tell us, sometimes adding a variation on, “And Bernie doesn’t care about getting rich so he can’t be bought, either.”
This phenomenon is largely independent of party.
Just after the 2016 election Huffington Post contributing writer Jon Hotchkiss put together a fake Facebook account and joined a few dozen pro-Trump groups. He then put together a pro-Trump meme that asked, “What do you like about President Trump?”
“I got more than a thousand responses in 24 hours,” Hotchkiss wrote, “and the thing people wrote most is that they like Trump because he’s not a politician ― he’s a real American not corrupted by Washington, and beholden to no one.”
During the Republican primary election, Trump said of his GOP competitors:
“They will be bombarded by their lobbyists that donated a lot of money to them. Again, Jeb raised $107 million dollars, OK? They’re not putting that money up because it’s a wonderful charity. Well, it is a charity, but for them, not for America.”
That was in July of 2015 when he was considered a long-shot, fully five months before President Obama said, “I continue to believe Mr. Trump will not be president.”
Trump argued that normal, corruptible politicians would have to bend to the will of their campaign donors, even when that meant sending jobs overseas and otherwise screwing average Americans:
“So their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton, President Walker. Pretty much whoever is president other than me. Other than me. And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign, two million, five million.”
Across the auditorium heads were bobbing as Trump tossed out the punch line he used in hundreds of speeches:
“And the plant will be built in Mexico and [that’s how] we just lost lots of plants all over our country.”
Political bribery was a felony crime in the United States virtually from the beginning of our republic.
Those laws were strengthened repeatedly at both the federal and state levels over the past 100+ years, including hundreds of prohibitions on corporations bribing politicians. The 1907 Tillman Act, for example, made it a federal crime for any corporation to give any money or other support to any candidate for federal office.
Numerous state laws echoed the Tillman Act and other anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws. For example, Wisconsin’s law was quite explicit:
“No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.
“Any officer, employee, agent or attorney or other representative of any corporation, acting for and in behalf of such corporation, who shall violate this act, shall be punished upon conviction … by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of not less than one nor more than five years … and if a domestic corporation it may be dissolved … and if a foreign or non-resident corporation its right to do business in this state may be declared forfeited.” [emphasis mine]
In the wake of that decision, state courts were forced to strike down similar anti-bribery laws in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
As a result, today Democrats Joe Manchin, Kirstin Sinema, Josh Gottheimer, and the entire Republican caucus in both the US House and Senate and every Republican in every state house and senate in America are on the take.
This has been a problem for both parties since the Court’s first rulings in the late 1970s that greased the skids for the Reagan Revolution.
Democrats, losing their largest donors as Reagan waged war on unions, turned to “clean” industries like banking, insurance, and pharmaceuticals. Republicans embraced “dirty” industries including fossil fuel, chemicals, and mining.
While the entire GOP is still sold-out to big money interests, a solid half of the Democratic Party has now embraced progressive values and turned down most or all of the big money they’re regularly offered. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is now a force to be reckoned with.
The speed with which the party has moved in this direction — although many of their best efforts have been crushed by two sold-out Democrats in the Senate — has been historic. The chairman of one of the Senate’s most powerful committees — the Budget Committee — is now none other than Bernie Sanders himself.
And yet the Democratic Party hasn’t yet fully and nationally committed itself to draining the swamp of corrupt politics in the nation’s capitol and state houses. They must do so, both because it’s the politically smart thing and because the survival of our republic is at stake.
As Americans for Financial Reform recently noted:
This anti-democratic vote buying, totaling $1.2 billion in the 2020 election cycle, has expanded greatly in recent years, almost 40 times more than the $31 million billionaires donated in 2010, when the Citizens United rules were first in effect. …
Since January 6, 2021, corporations and industry-group PACs have given more than $34 million to 144 members of Congress who voted to overturn the legitimate election of Joe Biden as President.
The PACs of seven major Fortune 500 corporations have contributed a combined $1.5 million to GOP members of Congress (and their two political campaign committees) who voted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. They are UPS, General Motors, FedEx, AT&T, ExxonMobil, Merck and Chevron. These corporations made $78 billion in profits last year and paid a combined average federal income tax rate of just 2.7%.
This is a genuine crisis for American democracy. The poison of big money is seeping through the veins of our political system in ever larger quantities. If not stopped, this process can be fatal.
No democratic republic in history has ever survived as a functioning democracy more than a few generations once political bribery is either legalized or simply becomes widespread due to weak law enforcement.
Historically we’ve seen this phenomenon in Third World countries with a weak rule of law, but more recently it destroyed or is eroding democracy in Russia, Hungary, The Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and South Africa (which, with the “gift” of American corporate lawyers to help write their new constitution three decades ago, institutionalized corporate personhood and the right of corporations to fund elections, as I document in Unequal Protection: How Corporations Became Persons).
The evidence of this cancer installed into our body politic by five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court is now so obvious that it is turning elections. And if we don’t do something about it soon, America may well go down the authoritarian road Trump tried to pave and the countries listed above are now on.
There are multiple solutions to his crisis; all involve either changing, regulating, or working around the corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court.
Congress has the power to regulate the Court and make “exceptions” to its Justices’ authority. As I lay out in detail in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America, Congress can add or subtract Court members, term-limit members, and even define issues (like money in politics) on which it forbids the Court to rule.
Article 3, Section 2 of the Constitution is unambiguous:
“[T]he supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.”
The core of the problem for the remaining corporate-funded Democrats is that five corrupt Republican appointees on the US Supreme Court legalized political bribery in 1976 and 1978 with their Buckley and Bellotti decisions, then tripled down with their notorious Citizens United decision in 2010.
That began a great bifurcation of the Democratic Party into “clean” progressive and “corrupt” corporate wings.
A solution to this problem is to openly acknowledge it and work to fix it.
A big step forward would have been passage of the For The People Act, which would have ended much of the big money corruption the Supreme Court legalized, and provided for public financing of federal elections. It was defeated by a united front of every single Republican in both the House and Senate, and two corrupt, bought-off Democratic senators (Speaker Pelosi got it passed through the House).
With a large enough Senate Democratic majority next year, it might pass. And as Republicans continue to push forced birth and encourage more school- and mass-shootings, that majority may well be in sight.
We can’t blow this election, and Republicans have handed Democrats the perfect issue, as Trump proved in 2016. (It didn’t work for him in 2020 because Americans knew he’d made the corruption worse rather than better: we all saw his tax cut for billionaires, for example.)
There are few issues that animate American voters more than corruption in politics.
Young people know, for example, that climate action is stalled by every Republican in the Senate and Joe Manchin making piles of cash from his coal business while being the largest Senate recipient of fossil fuel money in Congress.
Minimum wage workers and people on Medicare know that every Republican in the Senate was helped by Kirsten Sinema, who shot down their hoped-for minimum wage raise and regulation of drug prices because of the big bucks she got from the same billionaires and industries that fund the GOP.
If the Democratic Party wants to win this fall and in 2024 in a big way, their best bet is to fully oppose corruption in all its forms and make the Supreme Court the public face of our current plague of today’s political disease.
“Drain the swamp” has a nice ring to it. Democrats embracing it — in both similar rhetoric and full substance — is the best way to begin our republic’s recovery from its near-death experience with Trump and his neofascist enablers.