US elections in the age of super-PACs

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zainab Cheema

Rabi' al-Thani 08, 1433 2012-03-01

News & Analysis

by Zainab Cheema (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 41, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1433)

After the Age of Reaganomics and the decline of participatory democracy in the United States, presidential elections have become a TV sport rather than a mass political practice. In hotly contested elections such as George W. Bush vs. Al Gore in 2000, the turnout is a mere 50% of eligible voters. As the US officially transitions to a corporatocracy, though, it appears that even an apathetic voter population is far too dangerous to entrust with the country’s political decision-making. The 2012 US presidential election is rather like a landscape from a Salvador Dali painting — a weird world where the laws of logic and nature are overturned at the mercy of primal forces. Case in point: Republican primaries being shaped by super-PACs, where big money can boost a candidate from irrelevant cipher to the front-runner of the election.

The bedrock of this state of affairs is the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizen United versus Federal Election Commission to tear down a century of legal restrictions on money from buying out the political process. While US electoral law imposed caps and limits on the amount a single donor can contribute to a political campaign, Citizen United lifted that cap, opening the door for unrestricted crony capitalism to dominate the US electoral system. As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post (2-5-2012) put it, “Two years ago, Citizens United tore down a century’s worth of law aimed at reducing the amount of corruption in our electoral system… [recent] accounts show how American politics has become a bazaar for the very wealthy and for increasingly aggressive corporations.”

It’s no surprise that major reforms to the US legislative and legal system often occur under Republican administrations. There is a logic to it, especially if you trace the capital largesse triggered by corporate thanksgiving to politicians that sign away the integrity of US institutions to their uber-rich golf buddies. The rightward tilt of the Supreme Court under the G.W. Bush administration, who appointed conservative judges John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the bench in 2005 and 2006 respectively, laid the foundation for Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission, where it became perfectly legal to buy an election to suit your own vested interests.

In many ways, the Democratic Party has become ideologically impotent. Political commentators tend to personalize this, by describing Barack Obama as the president without balls, railing against his timidity in letting out the attack dogs on his Republican competitors. But what has really become irrelevant is the social welfare impulse that has presided at the heart of Democratic liberalism since the 1930s Great Depression. Not that this impulse has challenged US militarism in any significant way — it merely distributed a certain portion of the windfall from foreign wars to the US middle class. The Republicans have simply been more honest about their affiliation with the naked greed of the corporate-military complex, as it seeks to sell off any remaining public stake in the system. When they wish that Hillary Clinton had won the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, Democrats are stating that they should be more like the Republicans — that is, adopt fascism without the kid gloves.

It is a truth held to be self-evident that in the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election, Obama is all but irrelevant. Of course, there is a deliberate choice not to break party solidarity around two candidates, but there is a sense in which the aggressive militarism-corporatism of the Republicans is in touch with the new US zeitgeist. The sordidness of Republican jousting is the new norm of US politics — no need to sweep political corruption under the rug. For instance, Newt Gingrich’s profile in the primary elections was boosted by an $11 million dollar donation by Las Vegas casino king Sheldon Adelson in February 2012 to the pro-Newt super-PAC Winning the Future.

Adelson, a right-winger married to an Israeli doctor, found a kindred spirit in Newt on account of the latter’s Islamophobia and his hardline support for Israel. As a sample, Newt has compared the Ground Zero masjid to “putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust museum” and declared to CNN that “there should be no mosque near Ground Zero as long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” Adelson himself is abashed about the influence he is wielding. “I’m against very wealthy people attempting to or influencing elections,” he stated, “But as long as it’s doable I’m going to do it.” With regards to Republican candidate Rick Santorum, Wyoming fund manager Foster Friess and Louisiana energy executive William Dore are bankrolling his campaign to the tune of millions. Perhaps even more dangerously, Friess and Dore remain silent about their political motivations — the deals being cut in the backrooms are to be sprung on the voters after election as an unpleasant surprise.

But the most interesting case study of US elections in the age of super-PACs is perhaps Gingrich’s candidacy. While Adelson’s generosity to Newt landed the casino king on the February cover of Forbes — a spot usually reserved for far more highbrow titans of industry — his effect on US political culture will likely have a far longer after-life. Adelson’s donation purchased a significant boost in political visibility for Gingrich in February 2012, even as it is becoming clear that Mitt Romney is going to be crowned as the Republican candidate for president.

The donation may not have decided the fate of the Republican primaries, but it serves the function of keeping alive Gingrich’s ideas in the public domain—these include bully pulpit rants on moon colony schemes, Islamophobic ravings, and of course, his sound-bite philosophy of “American exceptionalism.” As Republican candidates use their well-feathered war chests to purchase advertising, or propel themselves in televised debates, the US public tuning into the spectacle becomes increasingly radicalized.

“American exceptionalism” is in itself a particularly telling example of how legislation such as Citizen versus United can tilt the US away from the rule of the majority. Newt’s vision of the United States — a biblically ordained land for Christians who have made a special contract with God — wipes out any remaining traces of multicultualism that had so infuriated the Republicans in the culture wars of the 1990s. Imagining the US as religiously and (implicitly) racially homogeneous disregards the minority communities that have gained some amount of political influence by assimilating into the middle class. His attitude toward the Arabian and Middle Eastern diaspora in the US is particularly telling — he has dubbed Palestinians as “an invented people.” In effect, while Gingrich’s political cachet comes from his affiliations with the Tea Party group, his staying power is now revealed to be (more or less) dependent on a single individual who can stamp his power on the election from the sidelines. In the (unlikely) scenario that Gringrich becomes president, the voting power of millions will have been easily eclipsed by the purse power of the few.

However, Gingrich and Santorum will most probably lose to Wall-Street Ken doll Mitt Romney, the greatest beneficiary of the super-PACs. The cofounder of private equity firm Bain Capital, he is capitalizing on his banking and financial networks in order to assemble the largest war-chest of the Republican candidates. For instance, Romney’s win in the Florida primary was assisted by a one million dollar donation by Ed Conrad, a financial officer at Bain Capital. The top corporate donors who have contributed to Romney super-PACs are the who’s-who of Wall Street: Citigroup, JP Morgan and Chase, Credit Suisse Group, Morgan Stanley, HIG Capital, Barclays, Kirkland and Ellis, and Bank of America, to name a few.

Romney certainly is a far less polarizing figure than Gingrich, who unabashedly styles himself as a hardline, neocon ideologue. His cultivated good looks — a combination of chiseled features, a solid gym regime and tanning salons — is suggestive of the telegenic Reagan, whose dependence on teleprompters became an extended metaphor for his tenure as a remote-control corporate yes-man. Romney’s wealth from Bain Capital is symptomatic of Wall Street barons manipulating loopholes in the financial and legislative system — loopholes that they take care to place through election gerry-mandering — to gain more power. According to recently released information, Romney earned $42 million over the past two years, paying only $6 million in taxes. The tax-rate that Romney paid in 2010 and 2011 is far less than what most middle-income Americans are required to pay, because Romney’s earnings were derived from “investments” rather than wages.

In effect, there are natural sympathies between Romney and the super-PAC donors lining his presidential war chest. While Romney is far more diplomatic about hot-button issues such as Islam in America, there are indications that his stance would harden soon after receiving office. If Democratic political visibility after the civil rights movement was forged by aligning capitalists with minority popular networks, the Republicans have replicated the same feat by tying mega-corporations, neocon brainiacs, and ultra-conservative popular movements. At the Republican Jewish Coalition for Presidential Candidates on December 6, 2011, he declared that: “I will travel to Israel on my first foreign trip… I want the world to know that the bonds between Israel and the United States are unshakeable.”

The Republican primaries are also indicating that domestic surveillance of Muslim Americans is not a trend that is likely to dissipate anytime soon. While Romney declared that Muslim Americans on the whole tend to be “peace loving, and America loving individuals,” he has also asserted the right for state surveillance of US masjids. For the purposes of US safety, “we’re going to pursue any avenue we have to, to assure that people who might be preaching or teaching doctrines of hate or terror are going to be followed into a church or into a school or a mosque or wherever they might be.” This should be ironic, given the opportunity for reflection that Republicans’ eager patronage of Israel should give on Germany’s treatment of its Jewish population under Hitler — alas, irony is an ability that fascist ideology remains unblessed with.

In the age of super-PACs, the super-speedy shift of power and resources away from the US population at large toward concentration of capitalists, warlords, and their public spokesmen is easy to see. The true purpose of elections in the United States has hardened in place: aligning politicians with vested interests, more than about providing people with a platform for making responsible choices about their elected representatives. As the US middle class becomes increasingly impoverished as a result of the blind self-indulgence of the military-industrial complex, Citizen versus United is working in grotesque ways to stage their own irrelevance in the race to decide the next president of the country.

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