Historians and futurists tell us that we are moving into a new era, a Fourth Turning. It certainly feels that way.
But the people who have been in charge the past few decades — particularly Republicans on the Supreme Court, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the Republican Congresses associated with them — have so rigged the game that it’s going to be a real challenge to dislodge the corrupt systems they’ve put into place.
From think tanks to PACs to online publications to newspapers to talk-radio hosts to television networks to paid online trolls and Wikipedia editors there is a vast conservative ecosystem that will do everything it can to destroy any genuine, practical and achievable effort to reform America.
Even though most are working class people, they think of themselves as Republicans and thus eagerly take $15 or $20 an hour for the task of screwing their neighbors. The worst thing for America, they’ll tell you, would be a level playing field, rather than one that’s so very tilted toward the morbidly rich.
The influence purchasers already made it so difficult to do simple things like raising income taxes to a reasonable level, or putting forward the needed measures to mitigate climate change here and abroad, that it would be truthful to say that America’s politicians are terrified of them.
Virtually to a person, elected Republicans are so afraid of the fossil fuel and weapons industries, for example, that they cannot speak coherently to the issues of gun violence or climate change. They’re so indebted to bigots and haters that they can’t speak in defense even of the gay, lesbian, or trans people who they know in their own lives.
It’s not just a national crisis of politics and the middle class; it’s also a personal tragedy for hundreds of politicians who must struggle with their conscience, and for the hundred million-plus Americans who have been gradually but steadily impoverished by their actions over the past 40 years.
Now, some among the morbidly rich are aiming their financial weaponry right at the heart of our processes for selecting representatives: the two party system. It’s an amazing story.
Former Republican political consultant Rick Wilson has a tale to tell about No Labels, the political group that the American press loves to call “centrist,” “unaffiliated,” and “independent.” They are, Wilson insists, none of the above.
According to press reports, the group is almost entirely funded by dark money and refuses to reveal their donor list.
While the story of No Labels is interesting — and concerning — in and of itself, more importantly it’s a meta-story about the arc of American politics since five Republicans on the US Supreme Court legalized political bribery.
Money in politics is a lot like Oxycontin, and the people who pass it out are often just as cynical, sociopathic, and deadly as the Sackler family.
Like Oxycontin in medicine, with moderation there’s a reasonable and practical use for money in politics. It helps candidates get on their feet, get the message out, and communicate with voters.
In more substantial quantities, however, money can become addictive and cause corrupt behavior. Whether it’s million-dollar “gifts” like Harlan Crow gave to Clarence Thomas, six- and seven-figure “book deals” like Gym Jordan’s that are often just vehicles to launder money into personal accounts, or the dependence of politicians on campaign contributions to win re-election, they’ve all become acceptable forms of corruption in the GOP.
But the most consequential danger is that in really large quantities, money in politics acts as a poison capable of killing democracy. And that’s where we are today.
No Labels, Wilson says in a lengthy Twitter thread, was largely created by former Clinton consultants Mark Penn and Nancy Jacobsen. Wilson argues they were exiled from Clinton- and Obama-world and have been out for revenge ever since.
In his twitter thread, Wilson notes:
“They formed No Labels as a long con, a way to break the Democrats, get rich doing it (and again, they are VERY rich), and punish their imagined enemies.”
Congressman Mark Pocan, former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a regular on my radio program for years, tells the story of joining No Labels and their “Problem Solvers Caucus” when he first went to Congress, thinking the idea of reaching across the aisle to get things done was noble.
When he asked the group who provided their funding, however, he said they instead offered to “quietly” delete his name from their membership roster.
“I don’t do anything quietly,” Pocan told me on the air a few weeks ago, relating his outrage at the way he’d been deceived into hooking up — albeit briefly — with the dark-money-funded group.
No Labels has been in the news recently because of speculation that they might be planning to field a third-party candidate in the 2024 presidential election, laying the foundation for that by attempting to get ballot certification in all 50 states. Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema are both frequently mentioned as the possible candidate in stories about this plan.
Such a candidacy could hand the presidency to the Republican candidate in 2024 because Manchin and Sinema both have had a longtime affiliation with the Democratic Party. Few Republicans would vote for either, but both could pull enough Democratic and independent votes to swing the election.
Stories about this often note that Jill Stein received more votes than Trump’s 2016 margin of victory in the swing states, or that Ralph Nader’s 90,000+ votes in Florida were almost certainly drawn more from Democrats than Republicans in an election George W. Bush “won” by 537 ballots before the US Supreme Court stopped the recount. Without Stein and Nader on the ballots, we’d probably have had President Gore and President Hillary Clinton.
Or, probably more significantly, we would not have had been lied into two criminal wars by President George W. Bush or seen the deficit explode and the nation devolve into hate and violence promoted by Donald Trump.
This is why the Democratic Party has launched fierce challenges to No Labels’ ballot access, particularly in Arizona and Maine.
Perhaps as a result of that resistance, Politico recently reported that the group may instead simply throw their support to the Republican nominee, particularly if that nominee is Ron DeSantis.
As Wilson notes:
“Nancy has raised something like $70 million dollars from the EXACT SAME billionaires backing DeSantis. This donor set (including Sugar Daddy Harlan Crow) cares about 3 things; lower taxes at the Mt. Everest end of the income scale, carried-interest deductions, and oil-and-gas subsidies/write-offs. They’ll get them from Trump, but DeSantis has marginally better aesthetics.”
He also points out that No Labels is apparently hedging their bets in case Trump makes it thorough the primary intact. They recently “heralded” former North Carolina Republican Governor Pat McCrory as “their new front man.”
McCrory’s “main advisor and close friend,” Wilson reveals, is Chris LaCivita, who played a major role in taking down John Kerry in 2004 as the media advisor to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. LaCivita is now a senior advisor to the Donald Trump for President 2024 campaign.
Across the spectrum of people affiliated with the GOP it’s pretty much one vast hustle for funding from billionaire foundations, jobs with billionaire-owned publications and websites, or stardom on billionaire-owned radio, television, or podcasts.
It’s a new ethic that Dwight Eisenhower would’ve instantly recognized and called corruption. Harry Truman once called it “fascism,” as did Vice President Henry Wallace on the pages of The New York Times.
In early 1944, the New York Times asked Wallace to, as Wallace noted:
“Write a piece answering the following questions: What is a fascist? How many fascists have we? How dangerous are they?”
Vice President Wallace’s answer to those questions was published in The New York Times on April 9, 1944, at the height of our war against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan.
“The really dangerous American fascists,” Wallace wrote, “are not those who are hooked up directly or indirectly with the Axis. The FBI has its finger on those.”
As if he had a time machine and could see the “conservative” media landscape today, Wallace continued:
“The American fascist would prefer not to use violence. His method is to poison the channels of public information.
“With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”
Nowadays, pretty much any Republican who gets elected will use that position corruptly to strengthen the party and/or for their own personal gain. Screw the interests of America and American working people.
It’s become normal. It’s rarely even reported in the newspapers anymore.
This is just the tiniest glimpse into how dark money can alter the outcome of American elections in ways that are unrealized by the average voter.
The most obvious is the ability of out-of-state billionaires — and controversial industries, from fossil fuel to nuclear power to big pharma to big chemical to big banking and big insurance — to carpet bomb congressional districts or even entire states with millions of dollars worth of television and radio advertising so intense and ubiquitous that it reliably swings elections.
Money as the primary indicator of political success has become so routine and accepted that most reporting on political campaigns is about how much money they’ve raised. The more they raise, the press will tell you, the greater their chances of success and the more seriously they should be taken.
With grassroots-funded nominees, that’s a genuine assertion of popular support. But when the vast majority of money being raised and spent is dark money, the power equation shifts away from the people. That has now become the case, particularly with the GOP.
State houses across the nation and Washington DC are all sloshing in this poisonous cash: outside of principled progressives who don’t take corporate PAC money, it’s infecting both parties, which accounts for a number of otherwise seemingly paradoxical realities.
Most Americans want Social Security strengthened, for example, but New York bankers and hedge fund managers want those trillions parked with them. And some billionaire businessmen think it would be better for their industries if there were no social safety net at all, so workers would be more terrified, compliant, and willing to work for wages closer to what is paid in China or Mexico.
This is why today the entire GOP is dedicated to taking down what Alexander Hamilton called The American Plan — which built and created our middle class — and instead are working at turning America into an authoritarian oligarchy.
Giant insurance companies who fund and support them, similarly, want to get their hands on Medicare, which they’ve already seized half of through George W. Bush’s Medicare Advantage scam.
Thus, just this week, one of the largest Republican groups in the House of Representatives — the Republican Study Committee — introduced legislation to gut Social Security while turning Medicare into a voucher program with all of the revenue first going through the hands of the insurance companies.
The majority of Americans would like clean air and water and something done about climate change, but the fossil fuel industry and the billionaires it has created use dark money to prevent any such action from moving forward in Congress.
The examples are legion: the “dark planet” that’s invisibly deforming the orbit of American politics is dark money, fully legalized by five Republicans on the Supreme Court in their corrupt 2010 Citizens United decision.
The GOP has attacked America like the Sackler family attacked Appalachia, extracting as much money as possible and leaving behind the debris of shattered lives and bizarrely proud working class Republicans who no longer even qualify for Medicaid or Food Stamps when they fall on hard times.
Ten-year-old rape victims having to flee the state. Women living in terror of even the pregnancies they want, should something go wrong. In Mississippi, people are 10 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than in Massachusetts.
This has created a crisis of poverty and plutocracy for this country — particularly in Red states — that threatens to flip us into a fascist oligarchy.
The last time the rich were this rich and the middle class were this indebted was during the darkest days of the Republican Great Depression in the spring of 1933. It helped ignite the American fascist movement of that day, with twenty thousand Americans showing up in Madison Square Garden to salute the swastika.
Americans for Tax Fairness published a shocking report last summer that opens with this statement:
“The nation’s roughly 750 billionaires are increasingly using their personal fortunes and the profits of connected corporations to drown out regular voters’ voices and elect hand-picked candidates who further rig the nation’s economy—especially the tax system—to make their wealthy benefactors even richer. This anti-democratic vote-buying, totaling $1.2 billion in the 2020 election cycle, has expanded greatly in recent years.”
The rate at which billionaires are pouring money into elections has taken a sharp upward turn, they note, since Trump’s election just six years after Citizens United:
“Billionaires pumped $1.2 billion into the 2020 elections, almost 40 times more than the $31 million they donated in 2010, when the Citizens United rules were first in effect. In the 2020 election cycle, billionaires contributed nearly $1 out of every $10, while making up just 0.01% of all donors contributing more than $200.”
Almost half of all the money donated to the two main super PACs supporting the GOP came from just 27 rightwing billionaires, according to the report. These men — they are all men — are literally buying the American political system for themselves and their industries.
America has largely ceased to be a functioning democracy, as a direct result of a series of decisions by Republicans on the Supreme Court claiming that when billionaires or corporations buy politicians it’s no longer bribery or corruption but merely “First Amendment-protected free speech.”
Money, according to the Republicans on the Court, isn’t money: it’s speech. And whoever has the most money in America today has the most speech, particularly in the world of politics.
As former President Jimmy Carter told me eight years ago when we were discussing the Supreme Court’s corrupt Citizens United decision:
“It [Citizens United] violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. … So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”
Which brings us to the nub of the issue, the true crisis facing America today.
Once a democracy has transitioned into the middle stages of oligarchy — as it appears America has done since those Republicans on the Supreme Court sold us out to the morbidly rich men who helped put them on the Court — is it possible to recover our democracy?
Does it take left-wing billionaires to counter the right-wing billionaires? Is that the solution?
Sure, there are a few progressive billionaires who are willing to invest some of their money in promoting democracy rather than simply enhancing their own wealth: Illinois’ Governor JB Pritzker, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and Tom Steyer are the best-known examples.
But they’re so massively outnumbered by rightwing billionaires whose main interest is in keeping their taxes and regulations low that their impact is small and diminishing daily. As noted earlier, 27 rightwing billionaires account for about half of all the money raised by the two main Republican super PACs last year.
There has to be another way.
America has fought this battle before, and beat the morbidly rich back by with the power of an informed and energized electorate. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stood up to the oligarchs of his day, raising taxes all the way up to a top 91% rate on the morbidly rich and calling them out:
“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.”
The morbidly rich of his day backed down, and FDR, Eisenhower, and LBJ all passed massive programs that improved the lives of average Americans: Social Security, the Interstate Highway System, Medicare, Unemployment Insurance, Medicaid, Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Peace Corps, a national School Lunch program, Head Start and others.
But in 1976 (Buckley v Valeo) the Supreme Court opened the door to political bribery by declaring, for the first time in American history, that rich people could, on a limited basis, own politicians. In 1978 (First National Bank v Bellotti) they extended that privilege to corporate “persons” in a decision authored by Lewis Powell himself.
The tsunami of money from the morbibly rich and America’s largest corporations floated Reagan into office in 1980, and Congress hasn’t passed a single major new program to benefit America’s working people since.
In 2010 the Supreme Court’s five corrupt Republicans tripled-down on embracing billionaire money, their Citizens United decision expanding how extensively billionaires and corporations could own politicians and even allowing foreign money into American politics for the first time.
Can we overcome the damage the corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court have done to our nation with their twin doctrines of corporate personhood and money-as-speech?
It turns out that Supreme Court opinions aren’t carved in stone. Congress can change and regulate the Court (as I detail extensively in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America). It’s a big lift, but Congress can also simply pass laws that, in most cases, can reverse Supreme Court decisions.
It’s thus within the power of Congress — if it can overcome the corruption injected into it by five Republicans on the Court — to undo much of the damage of Citizens United and the Court’s preceding decisions that set the stage for it.
Our best recent shot at doing this was the For The People Act, which would have reversed large parts of the Citizens United decision and publicly funded federal elections. But a handful of billionaires poured their cash into the coffers of Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — and every single Republican in the Senate — and the legislation, which passed the House, died at the hands of a GOP filibuster in the Senate.
It’s still possible, if Democrats take a large enough majority in state houses this November and at the federal level next year, to pass that legislation or something like it and begin the process of reclaiming our democracy from this corrupt Supreme Court and the billionaires it has handed our country over to.
If we fail, America will almost certainly devolve into a full-blown oligarchy like Trump’s beloved Russia, and our democratic experiment will be suspended for another generation and perhaps irretrievably.
The stakes have never been higher. If ever there was a time to engage in politics, this is it. Spread the word.