In my time we went to public schools. My brother made it to college on the GI bill. When I bought my first car for $450 I drove to a subsidized university on free public highways and stopped to rest in state-maintained public parks. This is what I mean by the commonwealth. Rudely recognized in its formative years, always subject to struggle, constantly vulnerable to reactionary counterattacks, the notion of America as a shared project has been the central engine of our national experience.
Until now. I don’t have to tell you that a profound transformation is occurring in America: the balance between wealth and the commonwealth is being upended. By design. Deliberately. We have been subjected to what the Commonwealth Foundation calls “a fanatical drive to dismantle the political institutions, the legal and statutory canons, and the intellectual and cultural frameworks that have shaped public responsibility for social harms arising from the excesses of private power.” From land, water and other natural resources, to media and the broadcast and digital spectrums, to scientific discovery and medical breakthroughs, and to politics itself, a broad range of the American commons is undergoing a powerful shift toward private and corporate control. And with little public debate. Indeed, what passes for ‘political debate’ in this country has become a cynical charade behind which the real business goes on — the not-so-scrupulous business of getting and keeping power in order to divide up the spoils.
We could have seen this coming if we had followed the money. The veteran Washington reporter, Elizabeth Drew, says “the greatest change in Washington over the past 25 years — in its culture, in the way it does business and the ever-burgeoning amount of business transactions that go on here — has been in the preoccupation with money.” Jeffrey Birnbaum, who covered Washington for nearly twenty years for the Wall Street Journal, put it more strongly: “[campaign cash] has flooded over the gunwales of the ship of state and threatens to sink the entire vessel. Political donations determine the course and speed of many government actions that deeply affect our daily lives.” Politics is suffocating from the stranglehold of money. During his brief campaign in 2000, before he was ambushed by the dirty tricks of the religious right in South Carolina and big money from George W. Bush’s wealthy elites, John McCain said elections today are nothing less than an “influence peddling scheme in which both parties compete to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.”
Small wonder that with the exception of people like John McCain and Russ Feingold, official Washington no longer finds anything wrong with a democracy dominated by the people with money. Hit the pause button here, and recall Roger Tamraz. He’s the wealthy oilman who paid $300,000 to get a private meeting in the White House with President Clinton; he wanted help in securing a big pipeline in central Asia. This got him called before congressional hearings on the financial excesses of the 1996 campaign. If you watched the hearings on C-Span you heard him say he didn’t think he had done anything out of the ordinary. When they pressed him he told the senators: “Look, when it comes to money and politics, you make the rules. I’m just playing by your rules.” One senator then asked if Tamraz had registered and voted. And he was blunt in his reply: “No, senator, I think money’s a bit more (important) than the vote.”
And there it is. Bare naked in front of god and everybody: ‘Money’s a bit more important than the vote.’
Granny D, otherwise known as Doris Haddock, the 90-yr-old woman from New Hampshire who walked across the country trying to call attention to Campaign Finance Reform a few years ago, wrote: ‘So many of the problems we face, from an unnecessary war to a mismanaged federal budget (which impacts health care, schools, Social Security and the nation’s real security needs) directly derive from the influence of special interest groups in Washington.’
Never has this been more obvious than now. But it has gone much further in the past three years than buying access–the Bush Administration is selling the government off piece-by-piece to corporate interests: Kenny-Boy Lay got to choose the Energy Secretary, vetoing the first choice because he wasn’t friendly enough to the energy industry; Cheney allows oil and gas corporations to write the country’s energy policy in secret and the SCOTUS backs him up; he then meets with them again in Oct of ’02, five months before the invasion of Iraq, to carve up the Iraqi oil fields; the US Forestry Div is run by ex-lobbyists for the timber industry; OSHA is run by corporate lawyers who used to specialize in protecting their clients from suits by injured workers arising from malfeasance and negligence; scientific evidence developed by government agencies must be vetted by political operatives for ideological purity and withheld if it doesn’t pass the test; the list is endless and stretches all the way through the Bush government.
And don’t be fooled by Tamraz’s little excuse–‘I’m just playing by your rules’–because he bought those rules. This is a corporate government and they’re playing to win. The class war being waged in this country is their war; they started it, and they’re pressing their advamntages in every way possible. They’re not buying Congressmen, any more–they own the government lock, stock, and barrel already–they’re bidding on the Constitution itself.
So what does this come down to, practically?
Here is one accounting:
“When powerful interests shower Washington with millions in campaign contributions, they often get what they want. But it’s ordinary citizens and firms that pay the price and most of them never see it coming. This is what happens if you don’t contribute to their campaigns or spend generously on lobbying. You pick up a disproportionate share of America’s tax bill. You pay higher prices for a broad range of products from peanuts to prescriptions. You pay taxes that others in a similar situation have been excused from paying. You’re compelled to abide by laws while others are granted immunity from them. You must pay debts that you incur while others do not. You’re barred from writing off on your tax returns some of the money spent on necessities while others deduct the cost of their entertainment. You must run your business by one set of rules, while the government creates another set for your competitors. In contrast, the fortunate few who contribute to the right politicians and hire the right lobbyists enjoy all the benefits of their special status. Make a bad business deal; the government bails them out. If they want to hire workers at below market wages, the government provides the means to do so. If they want more time to pay their debts, the government gives them an extension. If they want immunity from certain laws, the government gives it. If they want to ignore rules their competition must comply with, the government gives its approval. If they want to kill legislation that is intended for the public, it gets killed.”
I’m not quoting from Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Mao’s Little Red Book. I’m quoting Time magazine. Time‘s premier investigative journalists — Donald Bartlett and James Steele — concluded in a series last year that America now has “government for the few at the expense of the many.” Economic inequality begets political inequality, and vice versa.
That’s why the Stanleys and the Neumanns were turned off by politics. It’s why we’re losing the balance between wealth and the commonwealth. It’s why we can’t put things right. And it is the single most destructive force tearing at the soul of democracy. Hear the great justice Learned Hand on this: “If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: ‘Thou shalt not ration justice.’ ” Learned Hand was a prophet of democracy. The rich have the right to buy more homes than anyone else. They have the right to buy more cars than anyone else, more gizmos than anyone else, more clothes and vacations than anyone else. But they do not have the right to buy more democracy than anyone else.
Unfortunately, legally Mr Moyers is wrong: Solicitor General Ted Olson stood up in front of the Supreme Court a couple of years ago and argued with breath-taking arrogance that money=free speech. He as much as said that Americans have exactly as much free speech as they can afford to buy and no more.
The SCOTUS agreed with him and struck down the $$ limits on corporate-paid political ads.
So the rich now have the legal right to buy more democracy than the rest of us. And they’re exercising that ‘right’ every chance they get.