In a Plutocracy, Only Moguls Have Megaphones

Sam Pizzigati

In today’s anything-goes political fundraising world, the nation’s super rich and their favored politicos are no longer even going through the motions of maintaining ‘separate and independent’ campaigns.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s most notorious decisions have almost always rested on preposterous claims. The 1896 ruling that okayed segregation, for instance, held that imposed racial separation violated no constitutional rights since government had the capacity to keep public services and facilities “separate but equal.”

But government officials during segregation made no effort to offer anything even remotely close to equal services — and no one ever expected they would.

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United — the decision that has opened the door to letting rich people essentially spend whatever they want, whenever they want, on political campaigns — rests on another preposterous claim.

All those millions the rich are injecting into politics won’t distort our democracy, the high court assures us, because we can keep these millions separate and independent from the campaigns that the candidates the rich favor are running.

No one in politics, of course, believes for a minute that anyone can actually keep the super rich and their “independent expenditures” totally separate from any particular candidate’s campaign. But everyone involved in the political games rich people play has been playing along with this convenient fiction. Until last week.

The game-changer came at the luxurious five-star St. Regis Hotel in Colorado’s Aspen, the favorite mountain getaway of America’s awesomely affluent.

The occasion: a retreat hosted by the Republican Governors Association that brought together, Politico reports, “some of the biggest names in GOP politics,” including top advisers to the Romney campaign, and key “representatives of deep-pocketed political spenders” like the billionaire Koch brothers.

Also on hand: some 200 big donors themselves and the political strategists — like Karl Rove — who run the “independent” campaign groups that are masterminding how best to spend their money.

How can the rich and their hired guns spend a week rubbing shoulders with the top aides of the candidates they support and still claim they’re all operating independently? They can’t. Yet no one in federal campaign law officialdom seems to care. We have come to live in a political system where anything goes.

Big money, as Mother Jones analyst Andy Kroll notes, is now “flooding the political system like never before.”

But most Americans haven’t yet noticed. Only 25 percent of Americans say they’ve heard a lot about campaign spending so far this year, the Pew Research Center reported last week, and 39 percent say they’ve heard “nothing at all.”

Two just-released public interest group reports are making a noble effort to pierce this current campaign funding fog.

A new analysis from the Center for Responsive Politics is now estimating that total spending on the 2012 presidential and congressional elections — by presidential candidates, Senate and House candidates, political parties, and “independent” groups — will likely hit $5.8 billion, an all-time record.

A hefty share of that near $6 billion, concludes a new study from Demos and the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, is coming from America’s ultra wealthy and the “small number of organizations that aggregate” their power and voices.

One example: Of the $318 million so far raised this election cycle by super PACs — the political panels that can raise “unlimited sums from virtually any source” — over 60 percent has come from just 100 donors. These 100 averaged, calculates the Center for Responsive Politics, just under $2 million each in contributions.

The public interest groups following this election’s money chase all readily acknowledge that their numbers undercount the real cash the rich are heaving into the political fray. Outside “independent” spending has become “a wild card that makes predictions tricky,” notes the Center for Responsive Politics.

Nonprofits set up to harvest political campaign dollars from the super rich, watchdog groups explain, don’t have to report their donors, and they don’t even have to report how much they’re spending on any of their “issue ads” that run over 60 days before November’s Election Day.

The top execs who run America’s biggest for-profit enterprises, meanwhile, are doing their best to keep shareholders — and consumers — in the dark about how much they’ve been funneling into campaigns since Citizens United gave corporations a green light to bankroll candidates.

Just a tiny fraction of this subterfuge has so far come to light. Only an inadvertent disclosure by Aetna, to give one example, has revealed that the insurance giant has plugged an over $7 million political outlay to conservative political nonprofits that don’t have to report out their donors.

These political nonprofits are in essence operating as “megaphones for moguls and millionaires,” add Demos and U.S. PIRG in their report released last week.

“The more money they pump in,” the report explains, “the louder they’re able to amplify their voices — until a relatively few wealthy individuals and interests are dominating our public square, drowning out the rest of us.”

The new Demos and PIRG study includes a list of reforms that could reduce the megaphone volume. One of these, a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, picked up some support last week on Capitol Hill when a group of House Democrats introduced a “Restoring Confidence in Our Democracy Act.”

On the Senate side, an attempt to force wider campaign finance disclosure failed last month. Now senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, is calling on Americans to put corporations that play in the “dark money” universe under the same sort of pressure that the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s put on corporations that did business with South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Sign up for To MuchA mass movement helped crush apartheid. We need a mass movement, stresses the new Demos and PIRG report, to blunt our latest plutocratic power grab.

“We cannot maintain a democracy of equal citizens in the face of significant economic inequality,” sums up the study, “if we allow those who are successful (or lucky) in the economic sphere to translate wealth directly into political power.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality published by the Institute for Policy Studies. Read the current issue or sign up here to receive Too Much in your email inbox.

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