Democrats were once ardent opponents—at least in word—of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which has, as the New York Times editorial board noted, "thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century." They were also proponents of the view that corporate money, no matter the intentions of those receiving it, is inherently corrupting.
They have since done much to cast doubt on what were often characterized as principled stands, making the notion that their party alone can wrest the political process from the grip of corporate America—one position they have maintained—dubious at best.
Particularly in 2016, it's hard to miss the fact that Democrats have benefited greatly from Citizens United and the great torrent of cash it sparked, and they have largely abandoned what was once their central argument against the ruling (some, like Barney Frank, have gone further, arguing not only that corporate money is not inherently corrupting, but also that those who argue the opposite are engaging in McCarthyism).
"It's an irony that's not lost on me," David Bossie, the president of Citizens United, said of the fact that "Hillary Clinton has become one of the greatest beneficiaries" of a lawsuit filed with the intention of impeding her path to the presidency.
And as the New York Times reported last week, the Citizens United ruling was far from the only hammer blow dealt to an already faltering democratic process: In 2014, the Supreme Court "struck down the aggregate limits on the amount an individual may contribute during a two-year period to all federal candidates, parties and political action committees combined." Such limits, the majority argued, constituted a violation of the First Amendment.
Again, despite their public declarations that corporate money subverts democracy, Democrats quickly pounced on the opportunity to fill their coffers.
"Democrats denounced it as an assault on democracy and a sop to billionaires," the Times noted, referring to the court's ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. "But Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party leaders are now exploiting the decision, funneling tens of millions of dollars from their wealthiest donors into a handful of presidential swing states."
As with their many other rightward lurches, Democrats have justified their embrace of what Thomas Ferguson and his colleagues call "money-driven" politics on pragmatic grounds. And, not surprisingly, some Democratic donors have taken it upon themselves to bolster this stance at every opportunity.
"Despite their public declarations that corporate money subverts democracy, Democrats quickly pounced on the opportunity to fill their coffers."
We learn from a recent analysis by the Washington Post that "10 mega-donor individuals and couples contributed nearly 20 percent of the $1.1 billion raised by super PACs by the end of August," easily besting the amount contributed in 2012. We also learn that the top two donors—hedge fund veterans Tom Steyer and Donald Sussman—are both supporters of the former secretary of state.
Steyer's interview with the Post, in which he discussed his sizable contributions, reeks of feigned reluctance; "money is corrupting our politics," he said after describing the Citizens United ruling as "terrible." But, he added, "the other side is going always to have a ton more money than us." So his hand is forced.
(The "Republicans made us do it" excuse has a long history.)
Of course, this argument—if it can be labeled as such—did not originate with backers of the Clinton campaign, nor is it purely a result of widespread fear of Donald Trump. It has been deployed by Democrats for years as a part of efforts to close the widening gulf between their public condemnations of corporate cash and their private embrace of it.
Do a quick Google search of "unilaterally disarm" and, scattered among discussions of military matters, you'll find numerous examples of Democrats insisting that to abandon big money entirely would be to eschew necessary strength in the face of an adequately equipped opponent.
"With so much at stake," said Jim Messina in 2012, when he was President Obama's campaign manager, "we can't allow for two sets of rules in this election whereby the Republican nominee is the beneficiary of unlimited spending and Democrats unilaterally disarm."
This should sound familiar, because it is precisely the same line the Clinton camp has used to justify its reliance on corporate patrons.
"There is too much at stake for our future for Democrats to unilaterally disarm," an anonymous Clinton staffer said last year.
More recently — just last month, in fact — Clinton spokesman Josh Schwerin told the New York Times that "Hillary Clinton has fought for campaign finance reform her entire career and, as president, will make it a priority to restore the role of everyday voters in elections."
But, he added, "the stakes of this election are too high to unilaterally disarm."
The point, of course, is that the stakes are always "too high." As Hal Draper noted in 1968, "Every time the liberal labor left has made noises about its dissatisfaction with what Washington was trickling through, all the Democrats had to do was bring out the bogy of the Republican right."
And for a party that often treats winning elections not as the first step in the pursuit of a more comprehensive agenda but as an end in itself, the stakes will forever be "too high." Perpetual anxiety thus becomes a tool of political coercion.
Despite Democrats' claims of practical necessity, underlying their acceptance of corporate money are deep ideological commitments. While these commitments have long been understood, the campaign of Bernie Sanders was uniquely successful in bringing them to the surface.
Specifically, the Sanders campaign demonstrated that, with a sufficiently ambitious—and, in today's political context, radical—agenda, grassroots support can compete with the most powerful political machine in the country.
"Mr. Sanders's commitment to small individual contributions," observed the New York Times editorial board in April, "has put the lie to Democrats’ excuses that they, too, must play the big money game to win."
"If there is to be any chance of fundamentally restructuring the political and economic order, neoliberals and their partners in the private sector—along with the fascists, misogynists, and racists of the reactionary right—must be defeated."
What the Times omitted is the fact that Sanders didn't have to play the big money game because his articulation of a genuinely progressive platform engendered remarkable grassroots enthusiasm, which translated into a seemingly bottomless source of small donations.
The leaders of the Democratic Party, as was made clear throughout the primary process, do not share this devotion to progressive politics, so they must rely on big money donors to make up the difference.
At bottom, the contrast between the Sanders left and the party establishment that so furiously shunned his candidacy is quite simple.
Clinton, as is made clear by her lucrative remarks to several large banks, views America's dominant institutions as partners. Sanders was explicit in expressing the opposite view: Corporate America is an obstacle to be overcome, an anti-democratic opponent that must be defeated. To join hands with big business is to undercut any progressive project.
Over the last several decades, Clinton's view has emerged victorious among the Democratic leadership, a fact that has monumental implications, spanning well beyond the confines of electoral politics; one need look no further than climate change.
Republicans, for their part, are rabid science deniers who openly side with the fossil fuel industry over the planet; Donald Trump's view on the issue is consistent with his overall lunacy and ignorance.
But Clinton, as Kate Aronoff points out, "is in her own form of climate denial."
"Among the noticeable absences from Clinton's plan are a moratorium on fracking, an end to all fossil fuel exploration, a ban on extraction on federal land and its rapid phase-out everywhere else," Aronoff writes. "Similarly missing is the change scientists are calling for most loudly: A carbon budget."
The argument is not only that Clinton's acceptance of corporate cash prevents her from embracing the radical agenda necessary to combat climate change—or income inequality, or corporate criminality, or poverty. It is also that, as Naomi Klein has argued, her "corporate worldview" makes her embrace of corporate cash perfectly normal, and her rejection of radical proposals perfectly predictable.
If there is to be any chance of fundamentally restructuring the political and economic order, neoliberals and their partners in the private sector—along with the fascists, misogynists, and racists of the reactionary right—must be defeated.
"Our movement's success," Andrew Tillett-Saks and Warren Heyman, labor organizers for UNITE HERE, conclude, "depends on how widely and how militantly we can organize workers to fight corporate power and the 1 percent, not embrace them."