A front page story in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times begins with the following:
Fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.
It has always been well known that the concentration of wealth almost inevitably leads to the concentration of political power; and both of these have now come to a head in the “democratic” United States.
This New York Times piece, headlined “Small Pool of Rich Donors Dominates Election Giving,” comes just days after former Democratic president Jimmy Carter belatedly called the United States an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery,” a pronouncement which comes about a year after Princeton released its revealing study which concluded that,
majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread(if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.
The study’s conclusion was quite mild, and perhaps if the researchers were to update the study with the fundraising numbers already achieved by candidates vying for the 2016 presidential nomination in mind, their closing remarks would presumably be a bit more radical.
Here’s The New York Times again:
The intensifying reliance on big money in politics mirrors the concentration of American wealth more broadly. In an era when a tiny fraction of the country’s population has accumulated a huge proportion of its wealth, the rich have also been empowered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other regulatory changes to spend more on elections.
America’s claims to being a democratic society are not merely threatened, as the Princeton researchers suggested, they flattened on their deathbed, gasping for life. Corporate control of the political process has reached its peak in the buildup to the 2016 presidential election, and if it is allowed to continue, the United States will be democratic in name, only.
Theodore Roosevelt, a figure revered by many on both the right and the left but seemingly never read, issued many warnings on this very topic, warnings which should be heeded by his worshipers, but, if history is any guide, won’t be.
Roosevelt is often seen as a warmongering bigot and a charlatan, which, in many ways, he was; but he also had important things to say about the rise of the corporation and money in politics.
Reading his caustic and forceful words today demonstrate how far our political system has shifted to the right.
If Roosevelt were to emerge from his grave and give the same speeches he gave in the early 20th century, they would be as relevant as ever, but he would likely be condemned by “conservatives” and “libertarians,” called a socialist or a Communist, and barred from achieving political prominence.
Roosevelt, a Republican, is often considered a key leader of the Progressive Era (a fact that would be considered an oxymoron in today’s political discourse), an era swept in after the infamous Gilded Age, a time of incredible concentration of wealth and political power that served to corrupt government, much as it is doing today.
Teddy condemned the influence of corporations in the political process, saying,
There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.
The solution was simple: Impose stricter regulations and force transparency.
In the interest of the public, the Government should have the right to inspect and examine the workings of the great corporations engaged in interstate business.
Publicity is the only sure remedy which we can now invoke.
Roosevelt wasn’t “anti-business,” as he would likely be called by the right today. He was, in his own words, “against misconduct, not against wealth.”
And Roosevelt didn’t just speak on this topic; he acted.
He proposed that the government enact legislation banning all political contributions from corporations; a proposal which, ironically, came after he was accused of receiving corporate contributions during his own campaign for the presidency.
Whether they were words of sincerity or shameless hypocrisy, Roosevelt’s proposals can serve as a guide today.
Let individuals contribute as they desire; but let us prohibit in effective fashion all corporations from making contributions for any political purpose, directly or indirectly.
It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced.
Yet more and more it is evident that the state, and if necessary the nation, has got to possess the right of supervision and control as regards the great corporations which are its creatures; particularly as regards the great business combinations which derive a portion of their importance from the existence of some monopolistic tendency.
The right should be exercised with caution and self restraint; but it should exist, so that it may be invoked if the need arises.
This culminated in the Tillman Act, which altogether banned campaign contributions from corporations; though it fell flat due to lack of enforcement capabilities. Today, in theory, such a problem would not be as inevitable as it was in the early 20th century.
Roosevelt was not just against corporate contributions to political campaigns.
He was in favor of regulating corporations strictly to “rid the business world of crimes of cunning.” Many today would see this as overreach of the federal government, or interference in the “free market.” Roosevelt, however, saw it as self-evident that we should regulate the actions those whose interests are in many cases the opposite of the interests of the public at large.
There once was a time in history when the limitation of governmental power meant increasing liberty for the people.
In the present day the limitation of governmental power, of governmental action, means the enslavement of the people by the great corporations, who can only be held in check through the extension of governmental power.
In the age of corporate personhood and money as a form of speech, these words appear to be radical; but they are merely a return to democratic values, the core of which is the idea of “one man [and one woman], one vote” rather than “one dollar, one vote.”
Years after Teddy left office, his distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, facing the Great Depression, issued condemnations of corporate greed that mimicked Teddy’s in their force and eloquence, condemnations that are incredibly important and relevant in the present.
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.