American elections have long been fueled by corporate money.
In the election of 1904, on the heels of the Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt was accused of bowing to the influence of railroad magnates and insurance giants in an effort to shore up his campaign coffers; Eugene Debs would later write that "Theodore Roosevelt was made president by the industrial captains and the robbers in general of the working class."
Roosevelt did eventually, in the face of concerns about his geniality toward those he later called "the malefactors of great wealth," put in place restrictions on corporate contributions, but they were tepid and easily subverted. Far from receding into the distance in response to Roosevelt's forceful rhetoric, corporate influence only continued to expand.
"As wealth and income have become tightly concentrated at the top, so has political power..."
In 1931, John Dewey remarked in an essay for the New Republic that both parties had "accepted the gospel truth of the doctrine that prosperity descends from above" and that they "committed themselves to the policy of alliance with big business."
"Masses of voters have been more than apathetic; they have been jaded," Dewey added. "They have lost all confidence that politics can accomplish anything significant."
It is striking how well these comments map onto today's circumstances.
Dewey noted that much of the public had "accepted the cynical belief that the parties are dominated by big business." Cynical beliefs often have the advantage of being accurate, and this case is no exception.
We have entered what many have termed a new Gilded Age; each year, campaign contributions flowing from billionaires and corporations to not-so-independent super PACs grow in number and size, even as America's two dominant parties are more fervent than ever in their insistence that they, alone, represent the interests of the general public.
"It's estimated that the $6.3 billion record set for election spending by presidential and congressional candidates in 2012 will be surpassed by at least a billion dollars this year," the New York Times editorial board noted last week, "driven by affluent mega-donors whose insider heft with politicians grows with each seven-figure check they write."
The rapid growth of the Republican money machine has been well-documented, and its effects have been quite as one would expect: Although the GOP is now contending with what Michael Kazin calls the "racial-nationalist strain of American populism" empowered by the rise of Donald Trump, the ultra-wealthy's stranglehold on the party's ideological bent remains firm.
But the emergence of the Democratic Party as the preferred bank account of many corporate hot-shots, celebrities, and billionaire "philanthropists" has been, if not surprising, quite impressive.
"Democrats have built the largest and best-coordinated apparatus of outside groups operating in the 2016 presidential campaign, defying expectations that conservative and corporate wealth would dominate the race," observed Nicholas Confessore and Rachel Shorey in Sunday's New York Times. "More than two-thirds of the total money that groups supporting Mrs. Clinton have raised — $133 million — comes from just 30 families."
"Clinton," Politico's Shane Goldmacher notes, "has built the biggest big-money operation ever"; the Democratic nominee's "club" of bundlers, he adds, "has expanded to the point where Clinton would now struggle to fit all of [them] into a single ballroom."
It is with this context in mind that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, appearing together at a rally in Colorado, warned that "if we do not get our act together, this country is going to slide into oligarchy, where a handful of billionaires will control the economic and political life of this nation."
Though such words are refreshing given the usual platitudes about the robust nature of American democracy, they don't go far enough. Plenty of research suggests that the "slide into oligarchy" has not only already begun, but is quite close to completion.
Well-known is the 2014 study conducted by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, who argued that "average citizens' influence on policy making...is near zero." And when policies favored by "average citizens" are enacted, it is "only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically-elite citizens who wield the actual influence."
Given these facts, Gilens and Page conclude, "America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously
A working paper by Thomas Ferguson and several of his colleagues at the Institute for New Economic Thinking bolsters this conclusion.
Referring to corporate cash as "political system's equivalent of crack cocaine," the paper examines the effects of fundraising on the outcomes of congressional elections. The findings strongly suggest that the United States has, as the authors put it, "entered a Post-Democratic age," in which "the relations between money" and the outcomes of congressional elections "are well approximated by straight lines."
"In our new Gilded Age," the authors write, "many features of the political landscape point so obtrusively to the dominance of the superrich that the real state of affairs is hard to miss without special training."
Such training has frequently surfaced throughout this election year, particularly as Democrats adjust to their newly-adopted role as corporate influence denialists: They have suggested — conveniently, given the numbers cited earlier — that corporate money does little to alter their positions on the issues. Courting the nation's wealthiest, they insist, is simply a practical necessity.
They have also taken on the role of reflexively defending American democracy from those who would dare to question its legitimacy. Trump's claim that the political process is "rigged" has been denounced fiercely by Democrats and Republicans alike.
In one obvious way, they are right to reject Trump's line: The notion that American elections are rigged by dead people, or by illegal immigrants, or by poor minorities, as Trump has been quite explicit in suggesting, is nonsensical, not to mention paranoid and bigoted.
But the fact that Trump is wrong about who does the rigging does not mean that he is wrong that elections are, in fact, rigged. As the research of Gilens, Page, and Ferguson suggests, it is people like Trump — and, indeed, people like Hillary Clinton — who are rigging elections in the interests of their own class, the super-rich.
(It is also necessary to mention the point made by Ari Berman: That "voter suppression" — which is imposed from above — "is a much bigger problem than voter fraud.")
Unlike the United States' extensive record of undercutting (and, in many cases, utterly destroying) democracy overseas, subversion of the democratic process at home takes a more subtle form — a silent coup, a thorough gutting of the process over a period of decades.
As wealth and income have become tightly concentrated at the top, so has political power: Ever-lenient campaign finance laws — thanks, often, to an increasingly corporatized judiciary — have allowed business giants to flood campaign coffers with cash, and to flood Washington with lobbyists. So much so, in fact, that Lee Drutman, writing for The Atlantic in 2015, could assert without exaggeration that "corporate lobbyists conquered American democracy."
This system, cultivated over a period of decades, has been remarkably reliable in its ability to send forth candidates that are at once appealing to the business class and appalling to much of the population, not least because of the necessity of endless fundraising. With few exceptions, the most notable being Bernie Sanders, the only candidates that can mount effective presidential campaigns are those who are already rich and those who are willing to reach out to the oligarchs.
Most Americans, according to a Pew survey, believe that the "[h]igh cost of presidential campaigns discourages good candidates," and this view is reflected in voting patterns. As the New York Times reported in August, "Just 14 percent of eligible adults — 9 percent of the whole nation — voted for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton" in the primaries.
And this year is no anomaly: Voter disaffection, as Thomas Ferguson and Walter Dean Burnham noted in 2014, has soared in recent years, indicating widespread contempt for a political order shaped by the wealthiest and unresponsive to the rest.
"Increasing numbers of average Americans can no longer stomach voting for parties that only pretend to represent their interests," Ferguson and Burnham wrote. "They crave effective action to reverse long term economic decline and runaway economic inequality, but nothing on the scale required will be offered to them by either of America's money-driven major parties."
In short, the obvious rejoinder to Sanders and Warren is that the United States is already, in effect, an oligarchy; corporate money is not merely an element of the process, it is the driving force.
A political system so thoroughly captured by organized wealth cannot, with any seriousness, be called democratic.