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Democracy for sale | The World Weekly

In the days following the reporting of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual offences, Democrats were amongst the most vocal voices lambasting the media mogul. The reason? Mr Weinstein has donated over $1 million to liberal political figures and causes since 2000, and $1.5 million through indirect “bundled donations.”

There was a flurry of offloading of Weinstein money in the aftermath, with two leading prospective Democrat 2020 presidential candidates Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren notably giving their Weinstein donations to women’s charities. However, it seems that Mr. Weinstein’s alleged crimes have been something of an open secret for many years, which raises questions about why Democrats continued to solicit his support. How far was party rhetoric defending civil rights a façade - a public display hiding an expedient rationale of welcoming anyone if they financially supported the party?

Turning on the tap

Ever since a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1976, American democracy has held that spending vast amounts of money on political campaigning is constitutionally protected free speech.

In 2010, two cases dramatically escalated this phenomenon. First, the Citizens United ruling overturned a slew of restrictions forbidding corporations and unions from spending as much as they wanted on elections. Then, Speechnow.org eliminated all spending limits on donations to independent expenditure groups.

Political campaigns themselves are heavily regulated, with strict rules on maximum donations and on full disclosure of donors. But, as Dr. Emily Charnock, an expert on interest groups in US politics at the University of Cambridge, told The World Weekly, the 2010 rulings allowed outside groups to “spend as much as they like to support a particular candidate, as long as they don’t directly contribute to or actively coordinate with his or her campaign.” Thus, ‘Super PACs’ were born.

‘Super PACS’ are independent expenditure-only ‘political action committees’. They are able to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations and individuals, and spend it as they please to openly advocate for or against political candidates.

Since their appearance in 2010, ‘Super PACs’ have collectively spent nearly $1.8 billion on elections across America. In addition, non-profit organisations benefited from the Supreme Court’s rulings. This allowed “social welfare” organisations, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Planned Parenthood to raise money for political causes. Already, with midterms on the horizon in 2018, these groups have spent $48 million on influencing the next election cycle.

Congressmen as “telemarketers”

In theory, a politician is elected to represent his or her constituents.

However, in 2016, a report by CBS found that members of Congress had effectively become “telemarketers,” and were spending over half their time fundraising for their next campaign. Reports from both parties indicated that new members are introduced to Congress with expected fundraising totals – particularly for those from “vulnerable” seats. Irrespective of a candidate’s promises to “change Washington”, to succeed at a federal level they have to constantly fundraise.

Key to this culture are wealthy donors. Congressmen are expected to court them, and further their interests when agreements are made. It is no coincidence that Rep. Liz Cheney (a Republican from Wyoming) has introduced the most bills in this session of Congress calling for an end to restrictions on coal: she is the top recipient of coal industry money in 2017/18 so far.

Reciprocity is universally expected. Billionaire Tom Steyer’s recent call for Democratic lawmakers to pledge to impeach President Trump if elected in next year’s midterms was lent significant weight by the vast extent of his donations to the party, including $89,794,744 to liberal ‘Super PACs’ and non-profits in 2016, and the threatened dilution of this support if they refused.

Tom Steyer speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 2012

A 2015 study by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington found that representatives were 200% more likely to meet with major donors than anyone else. During Congressional recess in February, a number of Republicans skipped scheduled forums with constituents, instead choosing to spend time with wealthy donors. Senator John Barasso skipped a town hall with his Wyoming residents for a ski resort fundraiser in Jackson Hole – with a minimum donation of $1,500 per person. House Speaker Paul Ryan ignored his Wisconsin town hall for a ‘Winter PAC retreat’ in Miami –  with an eye-watering $10,000 buy-in.

Josh Silver, director of anti-corruption group Represent.us, argues that Congress is totally beholden to special interests. “Virtually every public policy debate is between one moneyed interest and another – public interest is an afterthought.”

Democracy out of control

Indeed, when the interests driving investment are cloaked to voters they can obscure political messaging.

Testifying before the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee in June, Sheila Krumholz (Executive Director of the Center for Responsive Politics) outlined the course of ‘dark money’ in US elections. Non-profits’ ability to hide from whom they receive their money allows unlimited, anonymous funding of political messages. Georgia’s special election, for example, saw the ‘dark money’ group American Action Network give $3.5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund - a Republican ‘Super PAC’ - to fund virulent attack ads against Democrat Jon Ossoff, seeking to tie him to “liberal violence and chaos.”

“Voters quite logically evaluate campaign communications when they have information about who is promoting the message,” she explained to the committee. Anonymous funding, on the other hand, takes away “the ability of people to think critically about and possibly discount their message.”

Dark money organisations are on the march. The billionaire Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity has worked across America to block any attempts to increase fundraising regulations. In South Dakota, for example, they lobbied against a measure which proposed to lower contribution limits, increase disclosure of donors, and publicly finance elections. The legislation was approved by 52% of the electorate, but was eventually abandoned after a string of legal challenges from independent conservative advocacy groups.

Mr. Silver sees this as a “system failure” in American democracy. “Liberals and conservatives understand they are being exploited by the establishment, but they don’t know why and they don’t know how to fix it.”

Enter Trump

Donald Trump campaigned on a vow to “drain the swamp”. However that promise appears to have vanished from the moment he set foot in the White House. 

Big business lobbyists have enjoyed sweeping opportunities to shape policy under Trump. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alone has witnessed a string of borderline unethical appointments, including noted “enemy of environmentalism” Myron Ebell – chief of the Koch-backed libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute – leading Trump’s EPA transition team, and the nomination of coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as deputy of the EPA. 

Equally, documents obtained by non-profit American Oversight recently revealed that EPA chief Scott Pruitt’s schedule has been dominated by non-renewable industry lobbyists over any environmentalists. Taking the last week in April 2017 as a typical example, amidst general cabinet meetings were sessions with the National Mining Association (NMA), major CEOs from the car industry, and the misleadingly named Alliance to Restore Our Waterways (a chemical industry group seeking new clean-up rules). Mr. Pruitt is a noted climate-skeptic, using his former role as Oklahoma’s attorney general to work with the fossil fuel industry to obstruct federal regulations.

These lobbyists appear to have harvested favourable legislation from these relationships. Indeed, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the proposed ending of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan promises a significant boon to non-renewable industries.

Mr. Trump’s own personal “disdain for disclosure and accountability,” Ms. Krumholz tells The World Weekly, has added a unique flavour to the monetisation of democracy. Since the inauguration, Trump International Hotel in Washington – from which Mr. Trump refused to divest his interests – has played host to industry groups like the NMA and the American Petroleum Institute; along with an array of foreign dignitaries such as the Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Sudden increases in room prices in 2017 from projected rates hint at a shadowy world of financial interests surrounding the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Grand Opening of Trump International Hotel in Washington DC

A murky future

There is a broad consensus on the importance of money in winning elections. The disagreement lies on how to reform the current status quo.

“Until the American public embrace public financing,” Ms. Krumholz suggests, “the bargain they strike is that private and highly interested donors will pony up the money for the candidates.” Accepting this as a constitutionally protected right, it is then “up to the constituents to monitor for conflicts of interests and protect the system from corruption.”

Mr. Silver and Represent.us argue that Americans have to go further to “right the ship of American democracy.” Represent.us is a bipartisan group coordinating a “grassroots movement to change the laws about how Americans vote, and how politicians govern.” Through more than 40 branches across America, they are working for bans on lobbyist donations to politicians and total disclosure of all sources of dark money.

Regardless, a monetised democracy presents a troubled future for American democracy. A study by Harvard University and the University of Utah in 2013 illustrated that the thought of money permeating politics weakened subjects’ ethics, as societal standards of morality became obscured by a “cost-benefit analysis.” Continued reliance on wealthy individuals put all parties’ principles at risk. In the end, does a political party truly profit if it gains a fortune, but sells its soul?

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