Money Talks in Many Ways: Election-season reflections on how the ruling class rules

Journalists’ abject failure in this regard was one of many disturbing themes in William Greider’s classic 1992 book Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy, dedicated among other things to showing readers that the organized bribery called campaign finance was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how big corporations and financial institutions dominate U.S. politics and policy. “The effects of [campaign] money are real enough….but the debilitating impact [of corporate wealth and power] on democracy would endure, even if money were magically eliminated from politics,” Greider determined. [15]


A recent front-page New York Times report relates a curious way in which corporate and specifically corporate communications power has penetrated the current White House. It tells the story of Anita Dunn, a close Obama confidante who is both a leading White House campaign advisor and a top corporate strategist. Ms. Dunn has played key roles in helping get Obama ready for his debates and in plotting the attack on Romney, particularly in regard to issues of gender and health care. She is also a leading partner at SKDKnickerbocker, a communications firm that has “built a growing list of blue-chip companies — food manufacturers, a military contractor, the New York Stock Exchange and the Canadian company developing the Keystone XL pipeline — willing to pay handsomely for help in winning over federal regulators or landing government contracts.”

The company offers corporations what SKDK partner and leading Obama ally Hilary Rosen calls “help in navigating the political landscape in Washington.” Thanks in no small part to Dunn and SKDK’s close ties to the administration, the Times reports, the firm has recently doubled in size to 60 employees and “hired a dozen Washington insiders tied to the Obama administration or the Democratic Party, including Ms. Rosen, a former lobbyist; Jill Zuckman, a senior Transportation Department official; and Doug Thornell, a former senior aide to House Democrats. And it took on corporate clients including General Electric, AT&T, Time Warner, Pratt & Whitney, Kaplan University and TransCanada, which is developing the Keystone XL pipeline…The firm has also helped run industry coalitions seeking to influence federal policy on particular issues, working with lobbyists and other media specialists that represented companies like Oracle, Google, Disney, Pepsi and Microsoft.”

In one particularly ugly episode, SKDK helped food manufacturers and media companies “block [Obama administration] guidelines intended to curb food commercials for unhealthy products like sugared cereals that are aimed at children.” The White House “dropped the proposed limits, after the coalition [assembled by SKDK] successfully pushed lawmakers to oppose the plan.”

Other shining moments in SKDK’s noxious history include “helping the New York Stock Exchange seek [administration] approval for a merger with a German exchange” and “representing a business coalition seeking to reduce tax rates on about $1 trillion in offshore earnings.” The latter assignment included direct communication with the Treasury Department.

According to Times reporters Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton, “Ms. Dunn’s dual roles show the limits of Mr. Obama’s attempts to change the culture of Washington. Even as he pledged to curb the influence of special interests in the capital and has restricted the role of lobbyists in his administration,” Lichtblau and Lipton add, “the president and his top aides continue to rely on political operatives like Dunn who also represent [corporate] clients seeking to influence public policy.” Obama may have opened a few more White House records to public scrutiny and at least slowed down the revolving door between the lobbyist sector and the federal government, but the administration’s “rules…do not apply to the army of consultants, advisers, communication strategists and others who represent clients with federal agendas. Unlike lobbyists, they are not required to disclose their activities, clients or issues, a freedom that has allowed them to become even more influential in recent years…”

Other top Obama advisers who combine their administration roles with corporate careers include Eric Smith and Broderick Johnson. The former is the “founder of a communications and issue advocacy firm whose current and former clients include Citigroup, Ford, Delta Air Lines and Genentech.” The latter is a senior White House aid and former lobbyist who has “a consulting shop promising ‘a wealth of public and private relationships’ that corporate clients can use ‘to secure useful intelligence.’”[16]

Beyond the Quadrennial Extravaganza

The corporate-state insider-outsider game has defined the Obama administration from day one, [17] consistent with Obama’s previous record as a “deeply conservative” conciliator of the corporate and financial sector.[18] If he loses the upcoming contest with Wall Street darling Mitt Romney (and there is a more-than-marginal chance that he will), part of the explanation will be the demoralization and demobilization of his “progressive base” that has resulted from the seminar his presidency has given those who care on who really rules and runs the nationbehind the manipulative populist-sounding rhetoric he and other Democratic politicians bandy about at election time: the wealthy corporate and financial few.

We should not doubt that a Romney victory would be a disaster for the nation and the world, particularly if it is accompanied by a Republican victory in the Senate. Many progressives will understandably vote “for” Obama to block Romney in the relatively small number of states (nine by TIME magazine’s count[19]) “in play” this November.

Still, one of the more unpleasant prospects of an Obama victory would be the significant extent to which it will validate smug corporate Democrats’ “pragmatic” insistence that those who raise serious issues of social justice, equality, peace, and environmental sustainability must “sit down and shut the f*&# up” in the name of political “realism.”

At the same time, it should be realized that the quadrennial big money-big media-candidate-centered and mass-marketed “electoral extravaganza” is itself a critical mode whereby the money power rules. Eight years and three days ago (I am writing on October 24, 2012), the great American left intellectual Noam Chomsky noted that:

“Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.’ But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”

“[George W.] Bush and [John F.] Kerry can run because they’re funded by similar concentrations of private power. Both candidates understand that the election is supposed to stay away from issues. They are creatures of the public relations industry, which keeps the public out of the election process. Their task is to focus attention on the candidate’s ‘qualities,’ not policies. Is he a leader? A nice guy? Voters end up endorsing an image, not a platform.”

“The regular vocation of the industries that sell candidates every few years is to sell commodities…. [and hence] to create uninformed consumers will make irrational choices.”[20]

As we prepare for a final 2012 voting decision likely to be determined more by superficial personality factors, race (Obama is far behind Romney with white voters and decisively lost the white presidential vote even in 2008), and marketing than by any real policy and ideological distinctions, Chomsky’s depressing observation seems no less accurate today than it was two election cycles ago – this even as the nation and world continue to the struggle with the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s and the evidence becomes ever more incontrovertible that the officially invisible problem of anthropogenic climate change is creating an environmental apocalypse for current generations and not just “our grandchildren.”

Intersecting with a national tradition that predates the rise of the modern advertising and public relations industries, the “quadrennial extravaganza” sells the false notion ‘that,’ in the late radical American historian Howard Zinn’s rightly mocking words, ‘the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us.”

“Would I support one candidate against another?” Zinn asked. “Yes,” he answered, “for two minutes-the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. But before and after those two minutes,” Zinn added, “our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools…..”[21]

We would do well to recall that last year was “the year of the protestor” (TIME) from Tunisia, Cairo, and even Tel Aviv to Madrid, Athens, Madison, Wisconsin, lower Manhattan (Zucotti Park) and then across more than 1000 U.S. locations. Millions were in the streets, united by what the leading liberal economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “a common understanding that…the economic and political system had failed and that both were fundamentally unfair…There are moments,” Stiglitz is inspired to comment at the beginning of his latest bookThe Price of Inequality, “when people all over the world seem to rise up, to say that something is wrong, to ask for change.”[22]

It was unsettling for America’s rich to hear so many citizens openly and angrily discuss how the American economic and political system is set up – rigged, for all intents and purposes – to serve and protect the wealthy few. The capitalist elite could not have enjoyed the wide and initially fairly positive media coverage given to activists who criticized the nation’s savage disparities and plutocracy[23] and the rising attention given to economic inequality. It could not have been pleasant for the financial and corporate bourgeoisie to see so many Americans show that they did not think they’d been given a remotely adequate voice in public affairs.

It has certainly been a relief for the masters to see the elite-managed, narrow-spectrum presidential contest moved front and center a year later. By the late summer this year, one could almost hear the great authoritarian sucking sound of the latest quadrennial election spectacle, moving up the decibel chart in the wake of the London Olympics. The din is now at peak, deafening intensity. We might think of it as a kind of citizen-dispersing sonic cannon, designed to keep the population managed, divided, distracted, depressed, and deluded.

Let us look forward to the passing of the current “election frenzy” (Zinn) and the hangover that always follows. Hope resides in a return to the more serious political action that matters most: popular movement-building for a democratic and participatory society in which elections among other things (including no less relevantly the organization of work and the broader shape of socioeconomic life) might seriously align with popular wishes and needs. That project requires hard and detailed organizing every day, not just once every 4 years. That work should be informed by an understanding that the nation’s de facto dictatorship of concentrated and organized money never sleeps in its relentless, many-sided assault on democracy (what’s left of it), justice, and a livable Earth.

Selected Endnotes:

[1] This phrase is used with some irony in Michael Scherer, “Blue Truths, Red Truths,” TIME (October 15, 2012), 26. Scherer documents endemic lying and deception on the part of both the Mitt Romney and the Barack Obama presidential campaigns. “So it goes,” Scherer writes, “in the world’s most celebrated democracy: another campaign day, another battle over the very nature of reality.”
[2] Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Riding the ‘Green Wave’ at the Campaign for Peace and Democracy and Beyond,”Electric Politics, July 22, 2009.

[3] Bruce Dixon, “Closer Than You Think: the Top 15 Things Romney and Obama Agree On,” Black Agenda Report (August 29, 2012). Dixon elaborates on the false assumptions behind these shared positions and on how most of what passes for differences between the two parties on these issue amount to contrasts of style, not substance. See also Bill Quigley, “15 Issues This Election is Not About,” Black Agenda Report (September 24, 2012).

[4] Joseph Kishore, “The Obama-Romney Debate: Questions Unasked and Unanswered,” World Socialist Website October 18, 2012).

[5] Jamie Raskin and John Bonifaz, “The Constitutional Imperative and Practical Imperative of Democratically Financed Elections,” Columbia Law Review, 94-4 (1994): 1160-1203.

[6] National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI), ‘The Wealth Primary’ – Legal Theory” (n.d.). “In the middle decades of the twentieth century,” NVRI explains, “the U.S. Supreme Court heard a series of cases that addressed efforts by white communities in southern states to exclude African -Americans from the franchise. In the first of these cases, which have collectively become known as the ‘white primary’ cases, the Supreme Court struck down all-white Democratic Party primary elections that were authorized by statute (Nixon v. Herndon, 273 U.S. 536 (1927)), reasoning that primaries were so critical a part of the electoral process that they should be subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.”

The “wealth primary” refers to the discriminatory de facto barrier to full and equal democratic political participation faced by non-affluent candidates and voters “who are left behind in the fundraising process because of their lack of money and access to money.”

[7] Robert McChesney and John Nichols, “The Bull Market: Political Advertising,” Monthly Review, Vol. 63, No. 12 (April 2012).

[8] Sunlight Foundation, The Political One Percent of One Percent (December 13, 2011).

[9] Jamie Raskin, “’Citizens United’ and the Corporate Court” (September 13, 2012), The Nation (October 8, 2012).”

[10] “Katrina vanden Heuvel and Jamie Raskin on the Pro-Corporate Supreme Court,” Moyers and Company (September 14, 2012)

[11] See Joel Bakan’s widely read 2004 book The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (which inspired a powerful film documentary titled The Corporation). Noting that the U.S. judiciary essentially defined corporations (e.g. U.S. Steel and Standard Oil) as legal “persons” by the end of the 19th century, Bakan asked: “what kind of a ‘person’ is the modern corporation?” His answer: a psychopath. It’s not only or even mainly about “corporate outlaws.” It’s about standard and fully legal – indeed legally mandated – operating procedure. The corporation’s legally defined command is to pursue relentlessly and without exception its investors’ economic self-interest, regardless of any harm it may cause to others and the common good along the way.

Bakan asked Dr. Robert Hare, a psychologist and internationally acclaimed expert on psychopathy, to evaluate the modern corporation against his acclaimed Psychopathy Checklist. The results were chilling: ‘…Hare found there was a close match. The corporation is irresponsible, Dr. Hare said, because “in an attempt to satisfy the corporate goal, everybody else is put at risk.” Corporations try to “manipulate everything, including public opinion,” and they are grandiose, always insisting “that we’re number one, we’re the best.” A lack of empathy and asocial tendencies are also key characteristics of the corporation, says Hare – “their behavior indicates that they don’t really concern themselves with their victims”; and corporations often refuse to accept responsibility for their own actions and are unable to feel remorse: “If [corporations’ get caught [breaking the law], they pay big fines and they continue doing what they did before anyway. And in fact in many cases the fines and penalties and the penalties paid by the organizations are trivial compared to the profits they rake in.”….Finally, according to Dr. Hare, corporations relate to others superficially – “their whole goal is to present themselves to the public in a way that is appealing to the public [but] in fact may not be representative of what th[e] organization is really like.” Human psychopaths are notorious for their ability to use charm as a mask to hide their dangerously self-obsessed personalities.

For corporations, social responsibility may play the same role.’Joel Bakan The Corporation: the Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (New York: Free Press, 2004), 56-57, 136-137.

[12] Edward P. Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Failed American Democracy (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 165-67.

[13] Morgan, What Really Happened to the 1960s, 167.

[14] Alex Carey, Taking the Risk Out of Democracy” Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 14.

[15] William Greider, Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy (New York: Touchstone, 1992), 26.

[16] Eric Lichtblau and Eric Lipton, “Strategizing for the President, and Corporate Clients Too,” New York Times, October 19, 2012, A1.

[17] Paul Street, “Whose Black President? Getting Things Done for the Rich and Powerful,” Counterpunch (July 30, 2012); William Greider, “Obama Told Us to Speak Out, But Is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009, B1; Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), x, xix; Ron Suskind, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (New York: Harper Collins, 2011); Paul Street, The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010), Chapter 1: “Business Rule as Usual;” Kevin Baker, “Barack Hoover Obama: The Best and the Brightest Blow It Again,” Harper’s (July 2009).

[18] Larissa MacFarquhar, “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” The New Yorker (May 7, 2007). According to MacFarquhar, “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly, Obama is deeply conservative.”

[19] Scherer, “Blue Truths, Red Truths,” 26. The 9 contested states this year are Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida,Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

[20] Noam Chomsky Interventions (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), 97-98.

[21] Howard Zinn, “Election Madness,” The Progressive (March 2008).

[22] Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: WW Norton, 2012), ix-x.

[23] Anthony DiMaggio and Paul Street, “Occupy Wall Street, Mass Media, and Progressive Change in the Tea Party Era,” Economic and Political Weekly [Mumbai, India] Volume XLVI, No. 47 (November 19, 2011)

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