The GOP Debate is What Oligarchy Looks Like

Republican presidential candidates (L-R) Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Donald Trump and Jeb Bush participate in the first prime-time presidential debate hosted by FOX News and Facebook at the Quicken Loans Arena August 6, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The GOP Debate is What Oligarchy Looks Like

In the run-up to the first Republican presidential debate, a flurry of news stories about the candidates offered glimpses of oligarchy in action. Consider:

  • Jeb Bush's largest Super PAC has already raised $103 million, most of it collected before he even officially declared that he was running for president. (That may explain the exclamation point in his "Jeb!" logo.)
  • At least 20 individuals wrote checks to Bush's Super PAC for $1 million or more, and an estimated 236 checks were received for $100,000 or more.
  • Roughly a third of the more than $380 million already raised for the 2016 election comes from less than 60 donations, according to the Associated Press.
  • For the first time in more than a century, most of the funding for a presidential election is being donated in amounts of six figures or more from corporations and wealthy individuals.
  • It took Ted Cruz three months to raise $10 million, according to the same AP account. He then more than doubled the size of his coffers by collecting $11 million with a single check from a hedge funder.
  • Donald Trump says he's financing his own campaign - despite the fact that Trump-led corporations have filed for bankruptcy four times.

John Kasich's super PAC raised $11 million in a little more than two months. Out of 166 reportable contributions, 34 were for $100,000 or more. A number of donors gave $1 million or more.

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Several leading Republican presidential candidates received most of their funding from a few high-dollar donors. Marco Rubio and Scott Walker each received most of their backing from just four donors. The campaigns of Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee and Rick Perry have each largely been financed by a single donor.

Some political high rollers don't understand why that might be a bad thing. Silicon Valley investor Scott Banister, who gave $1.2 million to Rand Paul's Super PAC, said, "I'd think that the fact that I'm willing to spend money in the public square rather than buying myself a toy would be considered a good thing."

Mr. Banister may be well intentioned, but many Americans would rather see him buy a toy than let American democracy become a plaything of the rich.

For his part, Jeb Bush wasn't apologizing. "I'm playing by the rules of the game, the way it's laid out," he said of his PAC fundraising. "And if people don't like it, that's just tough luck."

But it's not "luck" at all. It's the product of a deliberate effort to undermine our democratic system of government and replace it with the rule of the rich. This is something that is being done to us - and, through the public financing of elections, it can be undone.

Recently five Republican presidential candidates paraded themselves before a group of mega-donors convened by the billionaire Koch brothers in Dana Point, California. The network run by Charles and David Koch has budgeted nearly a billion dollars ($889 million) to influence the outcome of next year's election.

It was left to Trump, of all people, to play the role of truth-teller. "I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch Brothers," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Puppets?"

Charles Koch has begun speaking of "injustices" and claiming that civil rights movements serve as his moral models. But his actions - in the form of donations and campaign contributions - belie those words. The Koch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has pushed laws that benefit both corporate America generally, and Koch Industries specifically. It has also promoted voter ID laws that make it more difficult for lower-income citizens to vote - even as the Koch network spends hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the political process.

The interests of the big-money donors were reflected in Thursday's debate - in what we heard, and even more so in what we didn't hear. There was no mention of the great income transfer to the wealthiest among us, the perils of climate change, the economic threat posed by big banks, or the struggle of a declining middle class. The candidates never offered specific proposals to help working Americans, even when asked to do so by the moderators.

But then, is that any wonder? We're told that the wealthy donors who gathered in Dana Point last week failed to line up behind a single candidate - and there are many other donors out there. With all that money still in play, this week's debate wasn't just a pitch to voters. It was also an extension of the Kochs' California beauty pageant.

Charles Koch's high-flown vagaries seem designed, more than anything else, to improve the brothers' suffering public reputation. He seems determined to send the message that, while he and his friends may be our new oligarchs, they will be benevolent ones.

Thanks, Mr. Koch, but we'd rather take our chances with democracy instead.

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