How much does money matter in a democracy? Just 200 rich individuals, each contributing an average of $500,000, are responsible for over half the $182m donated to Super PACs. These fundraising vehicles came into existence two years ago, after the Supreme Court ruled restrictions on the amount of money given to political organisations violated the first amendment right to free speech. But that freedom of speech, denominated in cash, inevitably limits the influence of everyone not a millionaire.
Super PACs now dominate Republican fundraising, which has the effect of concentrating power into ever smaller and richer circles. Newt Gingrich’s PAC, amazingly, received almost all its money from just one man, Sheldon Adelson (and his wife). The casino billionaire, who calls himself “the richest Jew in the world,” is a fervent Netanyahu supporter. Might that explain Gingrich’s television comment that Palestinians are an “invented” people? Might it also influence the Federal criminal investigation now focused on Adelson’s casino empire?
Follow the money. If you want to explain the dramatic rightward shift of political discourse in the past 30 years, you could do worse than look at the memo written in 1971 by a lawyer for the US Chamber of Commerce. Lewis Powell (who a few months later became a Supreme Court Justice) noted that business and the free enterprise system were losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people. The media and the academy, he said, were rife with anti-capitalist propaganda and the business community was doing nothing to fight back.
He suggested that business leaders should put their money behind their ideology, and that is what they did. Today, we have well-funded right-wing magazines like the Weekly Standard, a host of right-wing think tanks, and of course right-wing television networks like Fox News. The plethora of conservative foundations mean you can make a fine living today as a right-wing intellectual.
The right-wing foundations also provide sinecures for unemployed government officials. None of the “thinkers” that got us into Iraq have suffered for their idiocy. They are still presenting papers and flying first class on some foundation’s dime. The synergy between right-wing TV stations that interview right-wing “intellectuals” funded by right-wing foundations has forced political discourse towards positions that, when Powell wrote his memo, were just the province of the loony right.
The punditocracy likes to maintain that the Occupy Wall Street crowd has no concrete ideas, that their proposals are vague and inchoate. But, when the representatives of Occupy Wall Street were asked to define their central goals, they were able to respond immediately: campaign reform, to reduce the power of great wealth over political decision-making. This will be a tough sell. Television stations (who make a fortune off campaign advertising), incumbent politicians, and corporate America all profit greatly from the current system. But without drastic change in the way we fund elections, “the rule of the people” will become nothing more than a pleasant fiction and cynicism will continue to eat away at our political system.