How far we have come, or perhaps fallen.
The Republican romp across the electoral map yesterday may or may not prove to be a defining moment in the “re-branding” of the national GOP in advance of the 2016 presidential election to which all eyes now turn, but it most assuredly marks the first national election where the candidates – Republican and Democratic – lost control of their campaigns to the growing forces of dark money, secretly spent.
The 2014 mid-terms will be dissected by pundits to assess the real message of the dispiriting campaigns. Surely the president’s vast unpopularity is a big part of the story, so too the fact that Republican Senate candidates generally won in states where Mitt Romney ran well two years ago. Barack Obama long ago lost control of his presidency thanks to inattention, missteps, lack of political skill, or just a remarkable inability to turn clumsy GOP roadblocks into hurdles that he could clear. It’s also obvious that America was not quite ready yet for “post-racial” politics after Obama’s stunning election in 2008. In fact, part of Obama’s legacy may turn out to be that he finally helped complete Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of making all the states of the old Confederacy the most dependable part of the Republican base.
Still the real and lasting import of 2014 is hidden right in plan sight on our televisions – the attack ads, the depressing repetition of half-truth and distortion that is the uncontested central feature of our politics. Of course, all the distressing multi-billion dollar sleaze is financed by more money than ever before from fewer and fewer sources about whose motives we can only make educated and cynical guesses.
Back to the Future…
I’m betting not one American in million has heard of William Scott Vare of Pennsylvania, but the pudgy machine politician of the early 20th Century makes as good an object lesson as any over which to scratch our heads and wonder again what’s happening as a result of the pernicious influence of money – really vast amounts of money – in our politics.
Before Franklin Roosevelt’s revolution reordered the nation’s political map in the 1930’s, Pennsylvania was a dependably Republican state dominated by old style machine politics. The GOP machine chose the candidates, lined up the money, managed the voting and sent its favorites to Harrisburg and Washington. In 1926 it was William Vare’s turn to reach the big time. Vare had spent most of his life moving through the chairs of Pennsylvania politics – Philadelphia city jobs, recorder of deeds, state legislature, then Congress. He was the Republican candidate for the Senate in 1926 when the odor of corruption hanging around him finally wafted into the U.S. Senate.
In a wonderful little essay on the Vare case, the Senate historian says that Mississippi Democratic Senator Pat Harrison took to the Senate floor in 1926 to denounce the influence of vast money involved in the primary election won by Vare in Pennsylvania. “Harrison pointed to reports that a staggering $2 to $5 million had been poured into the campaign and reminded his colleagues that in an earlier election a far smaller amount expended by Michigan’s Truman Newberry had been labeled excessive.” Imagine that. In 1926 the U.S. Senate actually debated whether too much money in a Senate race was a bad thing.
Not only that but after a series of Senate investigations stretching over more than three years, William Scott Vare was denied his seat in the Senate when a strong bi-partisan majority – 66 to 15 – determined that Vare’s vast expenditures from dubious sources were “harmful to the dignity and honor of the Senate.” These were the days before there was much of any type of campaign finance disclosure, but the Senate did determine, big surprise, that most of the money spent in Pennsylvania came from a handful of extremely wealthy individuals, including the Bill Gates of his day Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. Imagine that. The Senate actually once policed its own membership when presented with proof that one member had simply spent too much money to secure his election.
A Cancer on Democracy…
One gets the sense that American’s instinctively know that vast, unregulated amounts of money, secretly contributed and used almost exclusively to pummel one candidate or the other is the main ingredient in our politics of cynicism, dysfunction and hyper-partisanship. The numbers back up what instinct suggests:
The recent election involved the expenditure of more than $4 billion, much of it untraceable as to source. The North Carolina Senate race became the nation’s most expensive with $65 million spent. In Arizona, which had an open gubernatorial seat, the outside, “dark” money swamped what the two principle candidates were able to raise and spend. One Arizona reporter said trying to unravel the strands of money resembled “a Russian nesting doll” where every disclosure leads to another mystery.
As if we didn’t already know that a handful of modern day oligarchs – the Andrew Mellon’s of the 21st Century – have come to dominate American politics, the Brookings Institution has produced a helpful guide to the guilty – the U.S. Billionaires Political Power Index. The Index is led by the Koch Brothers, Michael Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, Sheldon Adelson and on and on. The Koch boys spent $240 million this go round, Bloomberg about $50 million, Steyer about $55 million. Look at the list, see who these folks are supporting and draw your own conclusions about who is shaping American politics and policy.
Republicans had a big day Tuesday and Democrats took a real whipping, but the real winner was money. It may take a few more election cycles for public disgust at all this excess to finally begin to register, but it will happen. Just as William Vare perverted American democracy with vast amounts of money in the 1920’s and Richard Nixon used his secret stashes of campaign cash to try to keep the Watergate burglars from talking in the 1970’s, too much money in politics eventually leads to scandal. It will happen again, perhaps already has happened and we just don’t know yet.
In the post-Watergate period of American politics there were two schools of thought about political money. One view held that the amounts and sources of money should be heavily regulated to prevent politicians from being too beholden to any one source of campaign cash. The other view held that the amounts of money weren’t a problem as long as there was real transparency about where the money came from and how it was spent. Now post-Citizens United the U.S. Supreme Court has left us with neither approach – no limits and no disclosure – and Mitch McConnell can celebrate both his rise to majority leader and the triumph of the kind of unregulated political money that he has long championed.
Rather than limits and sunlight controlling political money the American democracy increasingly resembles Putin’s Russia or a Central American banana republic where a few really, really rich people lavish their money on candidates and causes.
Some will argue that American democracy is so resilient that it can withstand the corrupting nature of too much money from too few people, and one hopes against all evidence of how human nature works that such might be the case. What the system cannot survive, however, is a growing belief among the voters that their individual role in the process is being systematically replaced by the ability of a few billionaires to write massive checks to advance their own narrow, special and personal interests. That is not democracy, but we are about to see what it does to democracy.