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Ari Berman: The Politics of the Super Rich

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More than 300 super PACs are now registered with the Federal Election Commission. The one financed by the greatest number of small donors belongs to Stephen Colbert, who's turned his TV show into a brilliant commentary on the deformed super PAC landscape. Colbert's satirical super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, has raised $1 million from 31,595 people, including 1,600 people who gave $1 each. Consider this a rare show of people power in 2012.

Otherwise the super PACs on both sides of the aisle are financed by the 1% of the 1%. Romney's Restore Our Future Super PAC, founded by the general counsel of his 2008 campaign, has led the herd, raising $30 million, 98% from donors who gave $25,000 or more. Ten million dollars came from just 10 donors who gave $1 million each. These included three hedge-fund managers and Houston Republican Bob Perry, the main funder behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, whose scurrilous ads did such an effective job of destroying John Kerry's electoral prospects. Sixty-five percent of the funds that poured into Romney's super PAC in the second half of 2011 came from the finance, insurance and real estate sector, otherwise known as the people who brought you the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Romney's campaign has raised twice as much as his super PAC, which is more than you can say for Rick Santorum, whose super PAC -- Red, White & Blue -- has raised and spent more than the candidate himself. Forty percent of the $2 million that has so far gone into Red, White & Blue came from just one man, Foster Friess, a conservative hedge-fund billionaire and Christian evangelical from Wyoming.

In the wake of Santorum's upset victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri on February 7th, Friess told the New York Times that he'd recruited $1 million for Santorum's super PAC from another (unnamed) donor and upped his own giving, though he wouldn't say by how much. We won't find out until the next campaign disclosure filing in three months, by which time the GOP primary will almost certainly be decided.

For now, Gingrich's sugar daddy Adelson has pledged to stay with his flagging campaign, but he's also signaled that if the former Speaker of the House goes down, he'll be ready to donate even more super PAC money to a Romney presidential bid. And keep in mind that there's nothing in the post-Citizens United law to stop a donor like Adelson, hell-bent on preventing the Obama administration from standing in the way of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, from giving $100 million, or for that matter, however much he likes.

Before Citizens United, the maximum amount one person could give to a candidate was $2,500; for a political action committee, $5,000; for a political party committee, $30,800. Now, the sky's the limit for a super PAC, and even more disturbingly, any donor can give an unlimited contribution to a 501c4 -- outfits defined by the IRS as "civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare," and to make matters worse, that contribution will remain eternally secret.  In this way, American politics is descending further into the darkness, with 501c4s quickly gaining influence as "shadow super PACs."

A recent analysis by the Washington Post found that, at a cost of $24 million, 40% of the TV ads in the presidential race so far came from these tax-exempt "social welfare" groups. The Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads, a leading conservative super PAC attacking Democratic candidates and the Obama administration, also runs a 501c4 called Crossroads GPS. It's raised twice as much money as its sister group, all from donations whose sources will remain hidden from American voters. Serving as a secret slush fund for billionaires evidently now qualifies as social welfare.

The Income Defense Industry

In his book Oligarchy, political scientist Jeffrey Winters refers to the disproportionately wealthy and influential actors in the political system as the "Income Defense Industry." If you want to know how the moneyed class, who prospered during the Bush and Clinton years, found a way to kill or water down nearly everything it objected to in the Obama years, look no further than the grip of the 1% of the 1% on our political system.

This simple fact explains why hedge-fund managers pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, or why the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a single-payer universal healthcare system, or why the planet continues to warm at an unprecedented pace while we do nothing to combat global warming. Money usually buys elections and, whoever is elected, it almost always buys influence.

In the 2010 election, the 1% of the 1% accounted for 25% of all campaign-related donations, totaling $774 million dollars, and 80% of all donations to the Democratic and Republican parties, the highest percentage since 1990. In congressional races in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the candidate who spent the most money won 85% of House races and 83% of Senate races.

The media loves an underdog story, but nowadays the underdog is ever less likely to win. Given the cost of running campaigns and the overwhelming premium on outspending your opponent, it's no surprise that nearly half the members of Congress are millionaires, and the median net worth of a U.S. Senator is $2.56 million.

The influence of super PACs was already evident by November 2010, just nine months after the Supreme Court's ruling. John Nichols and Robert McChesney of The Nation note that, of the 53 competitive House districts where Rove's Crossroads organization outspent Democratic candidates in 2010, Republicans won fifty-one. As it turned out, however, the last election was a mere test run for the monetary extravaganza that is 2012.

Republicans are banking on that super PAC advantage again this year, when the costs of the presidential contest and all other races for federal posts will soar from $5 billion in 2008 to as high as $7 billion by November. (The 2000 election cost a "mere" $3 billion.)  In other words, the amount spent this election season will be roughly the equivalent of the gross domestic product of Haiti.

The Myth of Small Donors

In June 2003, presidential candidate Howard Dean shocked the political establishment by raising $828,000 in one day over the Internet, with an average donation of $112. Dean, in fact, got 38% of his campaign's total funds from donations of $200 or less, planting the seeds for what many forecast would be a small-donor revolution in American politics.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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