Thursday, August 21, 2014

TPM: Princeton Study: The US is no longer a democracy

Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

Asking "[w]ho really rules?" researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America's political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.
Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

TPM Interview: Scholar Behind Viral 'Oligarchy' Study Tells You What It Means
"The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy," they write, "while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence."

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

The researchers note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month's [April] ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

"Ordinary citizens," they write, "might often be observed to 'win' (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail."
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Link to Talking Points Memo interview by Sahil Kapur with Martin Gilens (follows on study by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin I. Page, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens"):

The story hit, April 18, 2014, but earlier in the month similar views echoed in the press and on the Internet. The Resist Privatization of America blog linked to articles by Robert Reich.
An Invitation to American Oligarchy
Friday, 04 April 2014
We’re going to combine two separate articles written by Robert Reich in this post. First, ICYMI, is an explanation of how America is becoming an oligarchy–putting the preferences of the vast majority of Americans behind the aims of the oligarchs who are willing to buy legislation that will favor themselves.
Second, is a new post – also penned by Robert Reich – about how the conservative, activist U.S. Supreme Court is moving us quickly away from democracy and toward an oligarchy. It has exacerbated this problem by taking away the voices of those who cannot buy such legislation–essentially the 99%.

Slouching Toward Oligarch
America is not yet an oligarchy, but that’s where Charles and David Koch and a few other billionaires are taking us.
American democracy used to depend on political parties that more or less represented most of us. Political scientists of the 1950s and 1960s marveled at American “pluralism,” by which they meant the capacities of parties and other membership groups to reflect the preferences of the vast majority of citizens.
Then around a quarter century ago, as income and wealth began concentrating at the top, the Republican and Democratic parties started to morph into mechanisms for extracting money, mostly from wealthy people.
Finally, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, billionaires began creating their own political mechanisms, separate from the political parties. They now give big money directly to political candidates of their choice, and mount their own media campaigns to sway public opinion toward their own views.
So far in the 2014 election cycle, Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers‘ political front group, has aired more than 17,000 broadcast TV commercials, compared with only 2,100 aired by Republican Party groups.
Americans for Prosperity has also been outspending top Democratic super PACs in nearly all of the Senate races Republicans are targeting this year. In seven of the nine races, the difference in total spending is at least 2-to-1, and Democratic super PACs have had virtually no air presence in five of the nine states.
The Kochs have spawned several imitators. Through the end of February, four of the top five contributors to 2014 super PACs are now giving money to political operations they themselves created, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
For example, billionaire TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts and his son, Todd, co-owner of the Chicago Cubs, have their own $25 million political operation called Ending Spending. The group is now investing heavily in TV ads against Republican Rep. Walter Jones in a North Carolina primary. (They blame Jones for too often voting with President Obama.) Their ad attacking Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire for supporting Obama’s health-care law has become a template for similar ads funded by the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity in Senate races across the country.
Last week, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson (worth an estimated $37.9 billion) interviewed potential Republican candidates whom he might fund in what’s being called the “Sheldon Primary.”
“Certainly the ‘Sheldon Primary’ is an important primary for any Republican running for president,” Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W. Bush, told the Washington Post. “It goes without saying that anybody running for the Republican nomination would want to have Sheldon at his side.”
The new billionaire political bosses aren’t limited to Republicans. Democratic-leaning billionaires Tom Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager, and Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor, have also created their own political groups.
But even if the two sides were equal, billionaires squaring off against each other isn’t remotely a democracy. When billionaires supplant political parties, candidates are beholden directly to the billionaires. And if and when those candidates win election, the billionaires will be completely in charge.
In his much-talked-about new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” economist Thomas Piketty explains why the rich have become steadily richer while the share of national income going to wages continues to drop. He shows that when wealth is concentrated in relatively few hands, and the income generated by that wealth grows more rapidly than the overall economy — as has been the case in the United States and many other advanced economies for years — the richest receive almost all the income growth.
Logically, this leads to greater and greater concentrations of income and wealth in the future — dynastic fortunes that are handed down from generation to generation, as they were prior to the 20th century in much of the world.
The trend was reversed temporarily in the 20th century by the Great Depression, two terrible wars, the development of the modern welfare state and strong labor unions. But Piketty is justifiably concerned about the future. A new Gilded Age is starting to look a lot like the old one.
The only way to stop this is through concerted political action. Yet the only large-scale political action we’re witnessing is that of Charles and David Koch and their billionaire imitators.
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SCOTUS is Inviting an American Oligarchy

The former secretary of labor on the Court’s shameful McCutcheon decision –
and where we go from here

If wealth and income weren’t already so concentrated in the hands of a few, the shameful “McCutcheon” decision by the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court wouldn’t be as dangerous. But by taking “Citizen’s United” one step further and effectively eviscerating campaign finance laws, the Court has issued an invitation to oligarchy.
Almost limitless political donations coupled with America’s dramatically widening inequality create a vicious cycle in which the wealthy buy votes that lower their taxes, give them bailouts and subsidies, and deregulate their businesses – thereby making them even wealthier and capable of buying even more votes. Corruption breeds more corruption.
That the richest four hundred Americans now have more wealth than the poorest 150 million Americans put together, the wealthiest 1 percent own over 35 percent of the nation’s private assets, and 95 percent of all the economic gains since the start of the recovery in 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent — all of this is cause for worry, and not just because it means the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to get the economy out of first gear.
It is also worrisome because such great concentrations of wealth so readily compound themselves through politics, rigging the game in their favor and against everyone else. “McCutcheon” merely accelerates this vicious cycle.
As Thomas Piketty shows in his monumental “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” this was the pattern in advanced economies through much of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. And it is coming to be the pattern once again.
Picketty is pessimistic that much can be done to reverse it (his sweeping economic data suggest that slow growth will almost automatically concentrate great wealth in a relatively few hands). But he disregards the political upheavals and reforms that such wealth concentrations often inspire — such as America’s populist revolts of the 1890s followed by the progressive era, or the German socialist movement in the 1870s followed by Otto von Bismarck’s creation of the first welfare state.
Both of these articles are written by Robert B. Reich, the Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, currently The Goldman School of Public Policy, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, at the University of California Berkeley.
* * *  In May, In These Times emphasized the importance of the April Supreme Court McCutcheon ruling. Oligarchy Enshrined: Why the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon ruling is good news for the super-rich and bad news for progressive Democrats.

[The critical excerpt on the changes under the Supreme Court's McCutcheon v. FEC decision follows below. The McCutcheon decision follows on the windfall for money-dominated politics that snowballed with Citizens United. But as In These Times reminds us, it was the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision that started the weakening of campaign finance laws.]
The Supreme Court has simply afforded our privileged elite more options. Citizens United infamously allows unlimited outside spending on elections. In the 2011-2012 election cycle, Super PACs spent close to $1 billion—including millions from undisclosed donors. Still, that was a fraction of the whopping $7 billion tab for the total election.
McCutcheon opens up more attractive investment opportunities for the politically inclined super-rich, particularly for those who prefer the personal touch of a direct contribution over the anonymity of a super PAC. Whereas a pre-McCutcheon donor was capped at $123,200 total in a given election cycle, she’s now free to spend as she pleases—so long as each donation respects the $5,800-per-candidate-per-race contribution limit still in effect. As Justice Elena Kagan observed, if one considers each party’s 435 House candidates, 33 Senate candidates, 50 state committees and three main fundraising committees, a single donor can give as much as $3.5 million in direct contributions each cycle.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about 600 donors gave close to the legal limit of $123,200 in the last election.
The portrait of this donor class is predictable: A Huffington Post analysis that focused on a smaller group of McCutcheon-limit donors found that almost half came from the financial services sector. Others hailed from the energy industry, law practices and miscellaneous business ventures. A solid majority gave to Republicans.
McCutcheon doesn’t just make it easier for the rich to give. It also makes it easier for parties and committees to aggressively court them—something that can’t be said for Citizens United.
The three main fundraising committees of each party no longer have to compete amongst themselves to win the maximum allowable $32,400 contribution from a single donor. Before McCutcheon, contributions to party committees were capped at $32,400 total per election cycle. However, since the ruling, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) can now ask the same Greenwich, Connecticut, hedge-fund manager to write each of them a $32,400 check. (These Democratic organizations declined to comment on how McCutcheon impacts their fundraising strategy.)
The Court’s ruling means that the field of influential political players will continue to shrink, according to Biersack. This trend, already fueled by an unprecedented acceleration of economic inequality, was sent into hyperdrive by Citizens United.
“What [McCutcheon] does is magnify something that was already happening,” Biersack says. “It puts the focus of political professionals of all kinds, including candidates and office-holders, on a very small group of people and institutions that have big capital resources that the political professionals need and want.”
Citizens United introduced Americans to the comically nefarious Super PACMcCutcheon will familiarize voters with newly empowered “joint fundraising committees.” These committees have been popular among the major fundraisers of both parties because they are able to sweep up large sums of money at a time. For example, in 2012 donors were able to write a single megacheck to joint fundraising committees, such as the Romney Victory Fund, which then divvied up the donations among all players: the presidential campaign, the national party committee and participating state party committees. Often used at events featuring candidate appearances, joint-fund-raising committees allow less prominent candidates or state committees to piggyback on the big name draws that command the fat checks. The old aggregate limits restricted how many entities could link up under a single joint fundraising committee. However, under McCutcheon, these super committees have become cash-guzzling monstrosities capable of swallowing up a seven-figure check from a single donor in one big gulp, then regurgitating it out to all participating committee members. Party officials can now “essentially go to one donor who’s willing and able to give $3.5 million, and ask for that kind of money dispersed to various candidates,” says John Bonifaz, president of Free Speech for People, a group that advocates for public financing of elections.
The $3.5-million-check scenario is unlikely, as a committee would need to include all the party’s federal candidates. But the larger the pool of participants in these committees grows, the larger the checks can be. On April 9, one week after the ruling, the three main Republican fundraising committees—the Republican National Committee (RNC), the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC)—joined forces to form theRepublican Victory Fund, a joint fundraising committee. The Victory Fund is allowed to accept a single contribution of$97,200 and distribute it evenly among the participating committees. On April 15, a group of GOP senators formed their own joint-fundraising committee that’s capable of reeling in a $98,800 check from a single donor.
This pushes up the price that donors are expected to pay for access to elected officials, says Lisa Rosenberg, a former staffer for then-Sen. John Kerry (D- Mass.) and a lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for more transparency in government.
“You’re going to get these members of Congress, elected officials, or would-be elected officials, soliciting these million-dollar checks,” says Rosenberg. “ ‘Oh come to my joint-fundraising committee on behalf of all these candidates.’ That’s going to be the invitation from John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi.”
Bonifaz agrees: “If you’re a donor who wants to maintain influence and access with those in leadership, you’re likely to give at that level. It means that we have increased even further the kind of disproportionate influence the very wealthy have over our politics.”

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