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Andy Kroll: A Democracy of the Wealthy

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(Article changed on May 16, 2013 at 11:52)


This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

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Once upon a time, the election season began with the New Hampshire primary in early March and never really gained momentum (or much attention) until the candidates were chosen and the fall campaign revved up. Now, the New Hampshire primary is in early January, and by then, the campaign season has already been underway for a couple of years.

Consider campaign 2016, the next 1% presidential election of the twenty-first century. It's more than underway with congressional hearings that are visibly organized to skewer possible Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and that special table-setter, the first Karl Rove super PAC attack video/ad, also lighting out after the former secretary of state. Looked at another way, like recent presidential campaigns, the 2016 version actually began before the last election ended. The initial media handicapping of future candidates by reporters and pundits, for instance, hit the news well before the first voter emerged from a polling booth in 2012 -- and it's never stopped. Similarly, the first Iowa poll for the next campaign season made it on the scene within days of the 2012 vote count (Hillary was ahead), and the first attack ads in early primary states are already appearing. With thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of polls to follow, Americans will repeatedly "vote" in contests set up by companies, often hired by political parties or politicians to take the pulse of the public in the unending serial ballots that now precede the actual election.

And don't forget the single most obvious characteristic of supersizing American democracy: money that will flood the zone. Billions of dollars will go to "political consultants" (in 2012, an estimated $3 billion) and billions of dollars in ads will inundate TV, radio, and almost any other medium around ($6 billion in 2012 and expected to climb in 2016). Billions of words of punditry and commentary about the election (always) "of the century" will flow from well-funded TV news outfits stoked by all those ad dollars. Above all, there will be the money pouring into super PACs and the dark side, which will inundate everything else, shaping the new landscape in which U.S. elections now take place. The sums are staggering, and the limits on how much a wealthy person can "contribute" are rapidly falling away.

As a result, "earlier" and "more" are likely to be the operative political words for 2016, which means that, in a sense, American "democracy" couldn't be more vigorous. Unfortunately, it's the vigor of the wealthy, as TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll makes clear. Increasingly, it's their system, politically speaking and in every other way, and welcome to it. Tom

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Billionaires Unchained
The New Pay-As-You-Go Landscape of American "Democracy"
By Andy Kroll

Billionaires with an axe to grind, now is your time. Not since the days before a bumbling crew of would-be break-in artists set into motion the fabled Watergate scandal, leading to the first far-reaching restrictions on money in American politics, have you been so free to meddle. There is no limit to the amount of money you can give to elect your friends and allies to political office, to defeat those with whom you disagree, to shape or stunt or kill policy, and above all to influence the tone and content of political discussion in this country.

Today, politics is a rich man's game. Look no further than the 2012 elections and that season's biggest donor, 79-year-old casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He and his wife, Miriam, shocked the political class by first giving $16.5 million in an effort to make Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nominee. Once Gingrich exited the race, the Adelsons invested more than $30 million in electing Mitt Romney. They donated millions more to support GOP candidates running for the House and Senate, to block a pro-union measure in Michigan, and to bankroll the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative stalwarts (which waged their own campaigns mostly to help Republican candidates for Congress). All told, the Adelsons donated $94 million during the 2012 cycle -- nearly four times the previous record set by liberal financier George Soros. And that's only the money we know about. When you add in so-called dark money, one estimate puts their total giving at closer to $150 million.

It was not one of Adelson's better bets. Romney went down in flames; the Republicans failed to retake the Senate and conceded seats in the House; and the majority of candidates backed by Adelson-funded groups lost, too. But Adelson, who oozes chutzpah as only a gambling tycoon worth $26.5 billion could, is undeterred. Politics, he told the Wall Street Journal in his first post-election interview, is like poker: "I don't cry when I lose. There's always a new hand coming up." He said he could double his 2012 giving in future elections. "I'll spend that much and more," he said. "Let's cut any ambiguity."

But simply tallying Adelson's wins and losses -- or the Koch brothers', or George Soros's, or any other mega-donors' -- misses the bigger point. What matters is that these wealthy funders were able to give so much money in the first place.

With the advent of super PACs and a growing reliance on secretly funded nonprofits, the very wealthy can pour their money into the political system with an ease that didn't exist as recently as this moment in Barack Obama's first term in office. For now at least, Sheldon Adelson is an extreme example, but he portends a future in which 1-percenters can flood the system with money in ways beyond the dreams of ordinary Americans. In the meantime, the traditional political parties, barred from taking all that limitless cash, seem to be sliding toward irrelevance. They are losing their grip on the political process, political observers say, leaving motivated millionaires and billionaires to handpick the candidates and the issues. "It'll be wealthy people getting together and picking horses and riding those horses through a primary process and maybe upending the consensus of the party," a Democratic strategist recently told me. "We're in a whole new world."

The Rise of the Super PAC

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She needed something sexy, memorable. In all fairness, anything was an improvement on "independent expenditure-only political action committee." Eliza Newlin Carney, one of D.C.'s trustiest scribes on the campaign money beat, didn't want to type out that clunker day after day. She knew this was big news -- the name mattered. Then it came to her:

Super PAC.

The Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision is often blamed -- or hailed -- for creating super PACs. In fact, it was a lesser-known case, SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission, decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals two months later, that did the trick. At the heart of SpeechNow was the central tension in all campaign money fights: the balance between stopping corruption or the appearance of corruption, and protecting the right to free speech. In this instance, the D.C. appeals court, influenced by the Citizens United decision, landed on the side of free speech, ruling that limits to giving and spending when it came to any group -- and here's the kicker -- acting independently of candidates and campaigns violated the First Amendment.

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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 (more...)
 

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