The Short History of Money in Politics
I recently posted a photo of Clint Eastwood on my Facebook page that says “I believe in limited government. I believe in fiscal responsibility and all those things that maybe Republicans used to believe in, but don’t anymore”.
It’s a sentiment that I deeply believe in.
What was interesting was that a friend of mine, who is a Democrat, commented that “Republicans will get their party back when they pry it from the cold, dead hands of the Tea Party and the oligarchs”.
Ah, yes. The two favorite boogeymen of the Democrat Party.
Honestly, they sound like a broken record.
The latest round of America bashing revolves around our “democracy” actually being an “oligarchy”, specifically, the GOP being an oligarchy, funded single handedly by the Koch brothers. Or is that double handedly?
Before I go any further, let’s define what an oligarchy is.
According to dictionary.com, oligarchy means:
It surprises me that journalists have just realized that our form of government, our “democracy”, is in reality, an oligarchy, but not that it has been one all along. We change the clowns every now and again, but the agenda and the results stay the same. The same small group of people stay in charge.
If the American system were based on “democracy”, then we, the American people, would have a say in every single decision the government makes; but we don’t.
We elect representatives and give them the power to make laws to send to the president for approval.
Is that not an oligarchy by definition?
Honestly, I think my friend meant plutocrats, but oligarch has such a, well, Republican ring to it!
Plutocrat: A member of a plutocracy.
One of the disparaging claims made against Mitt Romney was that he was a plutocrat, with a net worth a paltry sum of $250 million dollars.
Compare this to “philanthropist” Bill Gates who is worth a mere $82 billion.
Or how about major Democrat donor Tom Steyer?
The Koch brothers? $40 billion combined. That’s about $20 billion each.
Democrat Warren Buffet? $44 billion
Populist Democrat Elizabeth Warren: $14.5 million (2011)
President Barack Obama: $12.2 million. (As an aside, this figure came from celebritynetworth.com, which describes Obama as a “POLITICIAN, LAWYER, WRITER, AUTHOR, LAW PROFESSOR, ACTOR” . That last one certainly explains a lot.)
Secretary of State John Kerry: $750 million.
Average net worth of the House of Representatives: $1 million (7 out of the 10 richest representatives are Democrats)
Average net worth of the US Senate: $13 million.
Finally, George Soros: $23 billion.
This nation has a long history of not just oligarchs, but plutocrats as well, only they were called aristocrats back in the day.
Let’s jump back to the Founding Fathers.
The men who founded this nation were landowners, and some were slaveholders. Two such examples:
George Washington was worth $525 million (about $13 billion by today’s standards).
James Madison: $101 million ($2.5 billion).
Thomas Jefferson (3rd President): $212 million ($5.3 billion).
According to Forbes Magazine, John Hancock was worth $19.3 billion, and Benjamin Franklin was worth $10.3 billion (today’s dollars).
Are you starting to sense a pattern?
John Adams: $19 million ($475 million)
James Monroe: $27 million.
In order to vote in the late 1700’s, one had to be a white, male landowner at least 21. This did not begin to change until around 1828, when the states began to change their voting laws.
Andrew Jackson: $119 million
Andrew Jackson (the 5th president) was among the first to start taking donations for his political campaign. He was also one of the first to organize a staff to facilitate the collection of donations, and to get his message out to the people.
Abraham Lincoln largely financed his own campaign, but he did take donations. Even with these donations, the campaign nearly bankrupted him.
Campaign donations began to grow and become more commonplace after the American Civil War. wealthy donors realized that they could get politicians to owe them favors (if they were elected) if the candidate were elected. Having a politician in office who owed you favors would definitely grease the skids for any projects the donor may have coming up.
However, the first campaign finance law also appeared after the Civil War: The Navy Appropriations bill of 1867 prohibited government workers from soliciting donations from Navy dock workers.
At the turn of the 20th Century, corporations began to make donations as well.
But here is where very staunch Republicans tend to get upset and say that people like me are trying to rewrite history.
The Progressive Movement of the 20th Century came about because of concerns that there was too much money in politics, that lawmakers were beholden to the rich and the corporations. And the Progressives were largely Republicans. The abolition of slavery was a Progressive cause (but they did not call themselves Progressives). Abraham Lincoln, much to the chagrin and denials of Republicans, was a Progressive.
In 1905, Republican Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican Progressive, proposed a law that would outlaw all corporate contributions. This was, of course, met with stiff resistance from Congress, and never passed.
There have been various attempts to curtail campaign financing, the most recent being the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002. However, any law passed by Congress always has unintended consequences. McCain-Feingold has effectively cut the legs out from under the two major parties, but it has hamstrung the smaller parties. Was that the intention?
Funding has been diverted from the parties, who had to disclose this information, to outside SuperPACs, who don’t have to disclose anything. Transparency? McCain-Feingold has made that a thing of the past.
Now the rich and super-rich can do their thing without the spotlight on them.
Because we have amended the Constitution to move from Senators assigned by the State legislatures to direct election by the people, members of the Senate are now in the hooks of the wealthy, depending on them for campaign funds. I think worries about corruption, which was supposedly the driving force behind the XVIIth Amendment, is less of an issue than the wealthy owning the Senate.
Is there anything that can be done? Not without resistance from the wealthy.
Both parties owe their souls to the rich. Both try to hide it, but the Democrats are far more successful at it than the Republicans. The Dems are very skilled at the shell game, convincing people how the Republicans are owned by the wealthy while being able to obfuscate their own culpability.
No law will ever be able to stop the wealthy or corporations from attempting to buy politicians. If you outlaw SuperPACs, then you are assaulting free speech. Even though the likes of Elizabeth Warren say that corporations are not people, corporations are, in fact, comprised of people trying to make money. They have a life cycle, just like humans, and they will still find a way to contribute money to politicians who they believe can help further their businesses..
One has to ask which is worse, corporate contributions that are disclosed by the political parties, or contributions that are hidden away from the prying eyes of the public.
Before I close this out, let’s take a look at a few more presidents.
Very few presidents had a net worth of less than a million:
- James Buchanan
- Abraham Lincoln
- Andrew Johnson
- Ulysses S. Grant
- James A. Garfield
- Chester A. Arthur
- Woodrow Wilson
- Calvin Coolidge
- Harry S. Truman
Almost one quarter of US Grant’s funding came from a single donor.
John F. Kennedy was the first billionaire president.
Every president, other than the 9 listed, were worth $1 million or more.
Politics is a game for the wealthy. A Game of Thrones if you will.
Your children can grow up to become President of the United States.
As long as they belong to a family of means.