Democracy for Sale

Democracy only works when citizens who are young and old, Kochmale and female, urban and rural stand before the voting booth, along with all the races and ethnicities imaginable, as equals. Participation in how we wish to govern ourselves has always been an imperfect undertaking throughout U.S. history. Slowly we went from limiting voting to only white male property owners to a more egalitarian model. But even while political advancements were being made, an elite group of citizens strived to reduce voting participation so that laws and legislation could be written to enhance their personal power and privilege. From slavocracy to the Gilded Age to Jim and Jane Crow, an underside to our flawed union has always existed committed to limiting the spread of democracy.

While there has always existed politicians from both parties ready to be pimped to the highest bidder, the past few years have witnessed a total disregard for even the allusion of common decency, as democracy has become a saleable commodity. The financially struggling 99 percent do not stand before the voting booth as an equal to the obscenely wealthy one percent. The greatest victory gained by the one percent occurred on January 21, 2010 with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, which removed all restraints on corporations from making contributions to candidates during elections. This decision was based on a broad interpretation of the First Amendment principle of free speech. Those who support the decision argued that campaign contributions constitute political speech, and thus the government has no right to regulate any form of free speech. In effect, political reliance on large corporate donations meant that the influence of the average voter is overwhelmed by corporate money.

We seldom talk about the corroding influence of money in the political system because to do so runs the risk of being accused of fermenting social unrest, or worst, to be labeled a socialist. “Class warfare” has become a term used by politicians and political pundits whenever the public (rich or poor) questions the disparity of wealth in this nation. Even when billionaire capitalist, Warren Buffet, pondered in a New York Times op-ed why he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary, Fox News pundit Eric Bolling called this capitalist who made billions on the neoliberal marketplace, a socialist.

Citizens United v. The Federal Election Committee has impeded any hopes of creating a more participatory democracy. A review of the Federal Election Commission filings for the 2012 presidential election, conducted by Demo and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, showed that each of the top 32 super PAC donors gave an average $9.9 million, matching the $313 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined. This means that about three thousand very rich individuals and companies with very specific, not-so-hidden agendas funded the 2012 presidential election. Almost 60% of super PAC funding came from only 159 donors who each contributed at least $1 million. More than 93% of the money super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000 – from just 3,318 donors, or 0.0011% of the U.S. population.

As problematic as the 2012 presidential election was, the 2016 election is shaping to become a major grab for political power by the uber rich. Conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch have recently announced that they plan to spend $889 million on the 2016 campaign through their political networks. $889 is in par with what the campaigns of each party’s presidential nominee is expected to spend, in effect making the Kock brothers equivalent to a third political party. Not since the foundation of the Republic has a coordinated effort by outside groups have been put in place to shape and influence a presidential election that is already expected to be the most expensive in history.

But we need not wait until the presidential election to begin to see how money by just two individuals is going against the will of the people so that these two same individuals can increase their fortune. As most of us know, the Supreme Court is currently deliberating King v. Burwell, a decision that will impact the future of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). The case is based on four words in the Act that under normal circumstances would have been easily fixed through a minor Congressional bill that usually follows most major legislations to correct minor glitches. But thanks to money, the will of the one percent always supersedes the will of the people. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation almost 13.5 million Americans can lose their subsidies, leaving only 3.5 million in the program, causing insurance rates to skyrocket for millions of others who are not enrolled in Obamacare as these insurance markets crash. More uninsured Americans mean higher medical costs, which means higher taxes to pay for the emergency care for those who cannot afford to visit a doctor.

So, here is the real question seldom asked: who is really behind gutting Obamacare? Yes, the Republicans hate Obamacare, voting 56 times to repeal the legislation. But who is behind them? The Kock brothers. Bringing King v. Burwell before the Supreme Court was orchestrated, organized, and bankrolled by a Washington think tank that goes by the name Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI is part of the Kock brothers’ political network designed to remake America in their own image. CEI has been in operation for the past 31 years, and is the same group that has been the most vociferous critic of what it calls “global warming alarmism,” a position beneficial to the conglomerate Kock Industries, which started in 1940 as an innovator of crude oil refining and still holds major financial interests in petroleum. Additionally, CEI has been incessant in its advocacy for small government and neoliberalism, two causes close to the hearts of the libertarian brothers.

Democracy works when all are equal before the voting booth. Democracy is dismantled when the economic elite uses their economic resources to overrule the votes of the 99 percent. We are seeing the escalation of the latter. Corporations and the wealthy, like the Koch brothers, are less interested in the religious issues of past conservative movements (i.e., the Religious Right) than they are in the economics of less government and taxes. What truly matter are their economic goals and how their contributions can move the center of the discourse closer to this corporate ideology. Differences between candidates may be noticeable on social issues, but on the goals and aims of big business, differences are measured by minor degrees.

Maybe the ultimate paradox is that entrepreneurship capitalism which rewards the one who can build a better mousetrap and get it to market quicker is being undermined by monopolistic capitalism whose “winner takes all” philosophy is sustained through a bought government whose electability is depended on corporate donations received. In return, less government and lower taxes are advocated to the determent of average citizens who develops a false-consciousness that blames government and those on the margins for their difficulties rather than the elite who are buying politicians and selling the poor for a pair of sandals.

God calls political leaders to be impartial by linking justice with how the disenfranchised are rescued from the oppressor’s hand, with how the least in society are treated,[1] and with how those who are innocent are protected. None of us will enter through those pearly gates without a letter of recommendation from the wretched of the earth. Speaking to the prophet Jeremiah, God said:

Go down to the house of the king of Judah, and there speak this word — say, Hear the word of God, O king of Judah who sits on the throne of David, and also your servants and your people who enter through these gates. Thus says God — Do justice and practice righteousness; deliver the one wronged from the hands of the oppressor; do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow; do no violence; and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (22:1 –3)

Today it has become standard practice for special interest groups to contribute funds through super PACs to those charged with establishing justice. We are currently witnessing the “silent primary” as presidential candidates crisscross the nation competing for the financial backing of the few. Their success during this stage of the election, when few are paying attention, will be more crucial in clinching the nomination than the 2016 Iowa Caucus. We seem to have become so accustomed to this form of political order that it is now normative in our eyes. And yet, our present political process that establishes an uneven distribution of power and wealth through the dismantling of our democracy, thanks in great part to individuals like the Kock brothers, is irreconcilable with any of the rhetoric concerning freedom and liberty that politicians snugged in the pocket of the one percent are accustom of spewing.

Miguel A. De La Torre


[1] The biblical phrase “alien, orphan and widow” can be understood as a euphemism for the marginalized.

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