By David Sirota
By David Sirota
There’s a lot of talk these days about political “polarization,” “red and blue” America, and increased partisanship. It makes for a good storyline, for sure. But it hides a simple truth: American politics is not polarized and it is not driven by partisanship. It is governed by a tightly knit, bipartisan consensus that makes sure every policy debate ends with an outcome that benefits the Big Money interests that bankroll political campaigns.
We hear politicians tell us all the time that we live “in the greatest democracy on Earth.” That implies that our government truly represents the people — yet, strangely, we see policy after policy legislated in the people’s name that serves only to enrich the already rich, and empower the already powerful. How is this possible? Because our political system is not a democracy — it is legalized bribery. Money is given to politicians for their campaigns, and those politicians return the favor through public policies once in office. And over the last 30 years, Big Money interests have used that system of legalized bribery to perform a hostile takeover of our government.
To understand the often contradictory, hypocritical behavior of our government, we have to understand how this hostile takeover works. For instance, we have to understand that today the only difference between most politicians and the 34,000 lobbyists in Washington who buy votes for a living is that the politicians get to call themselves senator or congressman. We have to understand that the votes most of our representatives cast and the positions they take are deliberately designed to represent the Big Money interests that line their pockets — often in direct opposition to the interests of their constituents.
How this hostile takeover works
To be sure, none of this is said out in the open. We are constantly force-fed a diet of pre-packaged sound bites from politicians and pundits crafted to make us believe that public policies and the politicians who push them are working for ordinary citizens — even when they clearly are not.
Illinois provides us with two textbook example of how this hostile takeover operates.
The first comes from Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel. Coming off a four-year stint cashing in his Clinton White House experience to make millions as an investment banker, Emanuel penned a 2003 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying he wanted to mount “an aggressive attack on the tax code” and its most unfair provisions, and that “should start with corporate expatriates.” He claimed he was appalled that “some corporations are actually rewarded with federal contracts while they move their corporate headquarters to Bermuda.”
A few years later, he told the Christian Science Monitor, “I know of no middle-class family that sets up a shelter in Bermuda to pay for college education for the kids.”
But that bait was soon met with a big switch. When fellow Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, courageously sponsored legislation to stop government contracts from going to corporate tax cheats that abuse offshore tax havens to avoid their tax obligation, Emanuel, who is the chief fund-raiser for Democrats’ reelection campaign committee, voted with Big Money interests and against the bill, helping send it down to defeat.
Then there is Illinois political icon William Daley. Back in the early 1990s, he was the Clinton administration official who led the fight for the North American Free Trade Agreement on behalf of the corporate interests that had given huge sums of cash to Clinton’s election campaign. At the time, consumer, environmental and labor unions warned that this corporate-written pact was designed to undermine wages and job security in the United States so as to allow big companies to exploit cheap labor in Mexico. But with Daley leading the charge, the White House held weekly meetings with high-powered corporate lobbyists in Washington to marshal between $50 and $100 million of corporate money to pass the bill.
“NAFTA is right because it will create more and better jobs for American workers,” Daley said at the time. He then went a step further, mythologizing President Clinton. “The very easy political choice for the president would have been to abandon NAFTA,” Daley said. “But the presidency is not about easy choices.”
What a courageous man we were led to believe Clinton was. Because, right — it’s just so tough in this era of money-dominated politics for a president to push Big Business’ agenda. Please. Clinton, in fact, did make “the very easy political choice”: he stood with Big Money in pushing the hostile takeover.
Daley has gone on to work as a high-priced executive for J.P. Morgan and served on the board of directors of Merck pharmaceuticals. No doubt his colleagues at both corporations were thankful for his advocacy of free trade. But the ordinary American is paying a very dear price.
NAFTA may have created some export jobs in the United States, but those were more than offset by the job losses it brought. By 2000, the Economic Policy Institute reported that America had lost roughly 3 million jobs to this “free” trade policy, both through elimination of existing jobs and through jobs never being created that would have been had our trade policy been different. Every state saw trade-related job losses, and many “of those lost jobs were high-wage positions in manufacturing industries.” Meanwhile, since NAFTA passed, 19 million more Mexicans now live in poverty.
Of course, we would like to believe that corruption is really just the high-profile scandals, such as the recent conviction of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan on bribery charges. But the more virulent and widespread form of corruption is what was just described: the corruption that happens every day, whereby politicians of both parties feed the public well-packaged rhetoric, and then push policies that harm ordinary citizens. This is the corruption that few ever talk about because it is so mundane. It is corruption that allows energy legislation to be written by oil companies, Medicare legislation to be written by pharmaceutical companies and bankruptcy legislation to be written by credit card companies — all while politicians claim they are acting in the people’s interest, all while pundits and political operatives on both sides of the aisle nod approvingly.
How to fight back
There are, of course, courageous lawmakers who are trying to fight the hostile takeover of our government. But they are grossly outnumbered by those who are aiding and abetting the hostile takeover on a daily basis. Why? Because the political system selects for those most willing to push Big Money’s agenda.
Think about it — in today’s system of legalized bribery where campaigns cost truckloads of money, those who want to run for office are essentially forced to rely on Big Money interests to fund their campaigns. The better a candidate is at shaking down lobbyists, corporations and other wealthy donors for cash, the more resources their campaign will have. Not surprisingly, we have a Congress and a president who say “how high” when those Big Money interests say “jump.”
So how do we fight back? Most critically, we must pressure our lawmakers to support public financing of elections. The simple fact is that until we give good people a way to run for office that does not force them to be beholden to Big Money interests, we will never have a political system that the public can call its own. Public financing of elections would create such an avenue.
This is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. Already, states such as Arizona, Connecticut and Maine have embraced public financing. Similarly, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama — the author of public financing legislation for state judicial candidates — has voiced his interest in the concept, as well as an interest in forcing broadcasters to give candidates for office reduced-rate television time.
Then again, we have to remember that the people who control Washington today are products of the hostile takeover. They have risen to power through the corrupt system, and they rely on that corrupt system to stay in power.
But America is reaching a breaking point. Public opinion polls show that citizens are sick and tired of public policies that drive down wages, permit health- care price gouging, destabilize pensions, unfairly tilt taxes and generally encourage an economic race to the bottom in what is supposed to be the wealthiest country on Earth. Those polls show that citizens believe both parties are corrupt, and that America is desperate for a change.
The party that offers us that change by supporting serious reforms and by frontally fighting the hostile takeover is the party that will be the study majority for the long haul. Incredibly, though, which party that will be remains unclear. Republicans have every incentive to preserve the status quo — they are, after all, in power. Yet Democrats still refuse to support systemic reforms like public financing of elections, and, as shown, many of their highest-profile members still actively encourage the hostile takeover.
When this will change, no one knows. But unless it does change, America should expect its politicians to continue spewing out the most insulting lies, and its government to continue waging an economic class war on ordinary citizens.
David Sirota is the author of Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government — And How We Take It Back. This essay is adapted from the book. In These Times magazine is hosting a panel event and book signing for Sirota in Chicago on May 16 at 2040 N. Milwaukee.