Wikipedia defines plutocracy as a society "controlled by the small minority of its wealthiest members." In 2010, the Supreme Court set out to help us join the list.
The case, of course, is Citizens United. After an unseemly series of maneuvers by Chief Justice Roberts expanded the case far beyond the issues presented, a five to four majority of Republican appointees held that unlimited expenditures to elect political candidates are "speech " protected from regulation by the First Amendment. Stating bluntly in dissent that "the Court changed the case so it could change the law," Justice Stevens warned: "A democracy cannot function effectively when [voters] believe laws are being bought and sold."
The post-Citizens United conduits for such barter, Super PACs, funnel millions from the ultra-wealthy to support their human vessels -- a counterweight, one supposes, to the parlous effects of letting ordinary people vote. The ads spawned by this money now flood our airwaves: a prominent Democratic consultant estimates that his party's nominee must raise at least $1.5 billion to compete with the tidal wave unleashed by the Supreme Court. This spiraling financial arms race drives candidates away from voters in order to grovel before demanding would-be patrons in big-dollar "money primaries." And there is much groveling to be done. The 2012 campaign produced over $1 billion in soft money. 2016 will see a drastic increase: already a mere 156 families have put $176 million on the electoral table.
As anyone -- surely Chief Justice Roberts -- could foresee, this constitutionally cosseted class is overwhelmingly white and to the right. With honorable exceptions, such people are characterized by vaulting self-esteem, and tend to perceive the national interest by looking in the mirror. And while support from rich donors does not, in itself, ensure victory, at the least it badly skews the discussion of policy and issues within the campaign as a whole. It hardly matters if these donors' desires precede, or match with, the candidates' positions -- though often the symmetry is so striking as to suggest an answer. This unwholesome symbiosis between plutocrats and their pets is epitomized by two of the most well fed, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Take Cruz. As of July, pro-Cruz Super PACs had raised $38 million. $15 million came from Dan and Farris Wilkes, Texans who made billions through fracking. No surprise that they oppose regulation of pretty much anything which relates to oil and gas. Far odder is their leadership of a tiny and socially conservative cult which holds that every word of the Bible as originally written is literally true. In a nifty double pander to his patrons, Cruz calls fracking a "providential blessing." And Cruz' program for the rest of us is manna for any fundamentalist fracker: barring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases; adamant denial of climate science; disdain for reproductive rights and -- in direct response to the Court's approval of gay marriage -- subjecting justices to electoral review.
Then there is the combined $21 million from Robert Mercer, a hedge fund kingpin whose enterprise is under IRS investigation, and Toby Neugebauer, a Texas financier who decamped for Puerto Rico after it erased the capital gains tax. Cruz tax program? Abolish the IRS, enact a flat tax, and roll back the capital gains rate. Whatever his proposals might do to the country, no doubt President Cruz would strive to bring balm to this afflicted duo, liberating Mercer from the IRS while facilitating Neugebauer's repatriation.
Even so, for the experience and zest he brings to the role of rich man's avatar, Marco Rubio stands out. Here one starts with Norman Braman, who has pledged $10 million to help bring us President Rubio. Since Rubio entered Florida's legislature, Braman has funded his campaigns and subsidized his personal finances, employing Rubio and his wife and underwriting Rubio's stint as a college instructor. As a legislator, Rubio steered $85 million to Braman's favorite causes. And as a candidate for president, Rubio echoes Braman's adamant support for Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter what the issue.
But even more adamant is the billionaire Rubio is courting most assiduously -- casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, by many multiples the biggest donor of soft money in 2012. Though Adelson has other requirements -- notably a bill to ban Internet gambling now sponsored by Rubio -- it is Israel which best illuminates Rubio's political permeability.
For Adelson Is committed to investing a staggering amount in the candidate who best demonstrates absolute fealty to his hardline views. And they are not merely extreme -- they run counter to the most basic tenets of American policy with respect to Israel. An unbroken line of presidents -- all staunchly committed to Israel's security -- have supported the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state on the West Bank, home to several million Palestinians. This is no small matter. A half century of Israeli occupation has fed a festering anger which, now as before, threatens to explode in a cascade of violence which could destabilize an already dangerous region. American and Israeli national security experts believe that indefinite occupation will end in tragedy for all concerned: the collapse of the Palestinian Authority; a third intifada; the bloody intervention of more Israeli troops; and a radicalized populace bereft of hope and dotted with extremists.
But this is precisely what Adelson wants America to support: an Israeli annexation of the West Bank and the subjugation of its people. As for the nuclear deal with Iran, Adelson would have the next president rip it up. His alternative? A pre-emptive American nuclear strike on the Iranian people.
This would be so much park-bench babbling but for Adelson's resolve to spend tens of millions to elect his chosen candidate. And so Republican aspirants flock to Las Vegas in the hope that winning the "Adelson primary" will make them our next president. But Rubio goes the extra thousand miles. As New York magazine quoted an Adelson intimate, every two weeks "Rubio calls and says 'Hey, did you see this speech? What do you think I should do about this issue?' It's impressive. Rubio is persistent." And now Rubio has backed away from the two-state solution, and pledged to hamstring the multinational nuclear pact with Iran.
Rubio's panders abound. But what marks this callow candidate -- and the shame of Citizens United -- is his willingness to delegate his views on vital foreign policy issues to an ignorant and imperious donor. For once Donald Trump is trenchant: "Adelson is looking to give his money to Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet." He has every reason to hope. For Marco Rubio and Sheldon Adelson, money buys so much more than speech.