Politics: You Lose, You Snooze

Helaine OlenApril 27, 2015
The White House: now brought to you by Koch Industries and the letter b, for billionaire. / Grufnik

The White House: now brought to you by Koch Industries and the letter b, for billionaire. / Grufnik

This past weekend, both Rick Perry and Ted Cruz went to Vegas, to kneel in homage—oops, I mean make their personal policy pitches—at gambling mogul Sheldon Adelson’s Republican Jewish Coalition spring meeting. You can think of it this way: While the political press was yucking it up at the annual embarrassment that is the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where, as CNN gushed, “the most powerful man in the world is going to tell some jokes,” a number of politicians who would like to be our next president were busy doing what really matters in American politics: kowtowing to wealth.

Americans are bored with politics and dread the 2016 presidential election. Most pundits, whose job is to make the great contest seem interesting, admit to being less than enthused. Many address the creeping malaise with coy gestures like “oh, it’s too early to say.” Over at Zocalo Public Square, Tom Zoellner gets a bit closer to root causes when he blames the media for serving “slop”—the gaffes that mean nothing, the outrage over trivial events, the obsessive attention to the personality of those who are running, while most serious issues receive a fraction of the attention. Meanwhile, writing for the New Yorker, George Packer dutifully performs its in-house scrambling move and blames some metaphysical evil he calls “the stuckness of American politics,” where nothing—not inequality, not global warming—is properly handled, or, for that matter, handled at all. Packer, of course, thinks it’s our fault. “In a democracy the public generally deserves the leaders it gets,” he claims.

Packer thinks the United States is a fully-fledged democracy? How . . . well, how fucking quaint.

Why are Americans bored? How about because they are cut off from power and don’t matter? The 2016 election is shaping up to be our equivalent of Greek mythology’s Battle of the Titans, with competing billionaire bank accounts substituting for Zeus’ thunderbolts.

This will be the first presidential election lacking an incumbent in the post Citizens United era. The most recent estimate is that a record-breaking flood of money just shy of $10 billion will be spent on the process of electing a successor to Barack Obama. The Koch brothers alone plan to unleash $889 million on the candidates and causes they hold dear between now and next November 8.  That’s an amount that, as Kenneth Vogel pointed out in Politico, is more than double what the Republic National Committee spent on the 2012 elections.

And where, might you ask, are the $25 and $50 and $100 checks the campaigns repeatedly deluge American email boxes with pleas for in this process? Do you really need to ask?

Last year a paper by Martin Gilens at Princeton University and Benjamin Page at Northwestern University put an end to the notion that the United States is a democracy in the ways that most of us are taught about in school. Sure, we enjoy freedom of speech and association, but our policymaking is all but determined by “powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans,” as Gilens and Page put it.

What do we want? Who cares? Even businesses taking our money don’t want to hear from us. Airplane companies are all but impervious to customer complaints, as Robert Reich recently pointed out at his blog. (I would add that no one appears to enforce the Do Not Call List.) “I’m struck by how utterly powerless most people feel,” Reich says. “The companies we work for, the businesses we buy from, and the political system we participate in all seem to have grown less accountable. I hear it over and over: they don’t care; our voices don’t count.” 

Need proof? Polls show Americans opposed to fast tracking the Trans Pacific Partnership, especially since they, you know, kind of, sort of don’t know what is in it. It’s secret, you know. Classified. Yet corporate lobbyists have had more access to the treaty than Congressional staff members.

It’s easy enough to find other such examples. Polling also shows Americans would like to see taxes on the wealthy raised in order to fund more generous Social Security benefits. The rich folk who would pay these bills? Not so much. Guess what doesn’t happen?  

On the other hand, if you are a multi-billionaire with money to share you will enjoy multiple opportunities to wield influence. Take a look at Chez Clinton, where a brouhaha has broken out over the more than $2 million in donations made to the Clinton Foundation, the Clinton family’s charitable arm, by a Russian firm that was ultimately successful in gaining United States government permission—including from the State Department—to take over a group of American uranium mines. All this might have stayed under wraps if it wasn’t for the oligarch Koch family. They help fund the Government Accountability Institute, the home organization of journalist Peter Schweizer, who investigated and published his results in the now bestselling book Clinton Cash.

Election 2016: The Battle of the Oligarchs. Think of us as the little people, cowering while Zeus and Atlas battle it out, hoping our little house doesn’t get destroyed in the process.

Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry, a contributing editor for Pacific Standard, and a regular Slate contributor.