Clearly the only explanation for Jeb Bush’s almost effortless stroll to the Republican nomination is the pernicious stranglehold of big money in politics.
Oh, wait. Bush is in the low single digits in most national polls, despite his campaign and his super PAC raising more than $100 million.
Perhaps that’s only because Donald Trump, the billionaire populist, is buying the nomination with his dragon’s hoard of gold? Well, no. Trump has spent less than any other major candidate.
But surely Hillary Clinton, with her close ties to Wall Street, her husband’s storied hobnobbing with the global 0.001 percent, not to mention her vast Rolodex of Clinton Inc. supporters going back four decades, has bought herself the nomination?
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It doesn’t look that way, according to the polls. She’s losing ground to Sen. Bernie Sanders in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders has raised more money from small donors than any other candidate in American history. And he’s done so by declaring nothing short of war on what he calls the “billionaire class.”
“I do not exaggerate when I tell you that the foundations of American democracy are being undermined,” Sanders told some students at the University of Chicago (and pretty much anyone else he’s ever talked to). “American democracy is not supposed to be about billionaires buying elections.”
You’d think that if the “billionaire class” — all 536 people — had the kind of unfettered control over the U.S. political system Sanders believes them to have, Mr. Sanders would be asking, “Would you like fries with that?”
Instead, he’s got a plausible, if not yet entirely probable, shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. And even if he doesn’t emerge victorious, he’s already dragged Clinton to the left on the issues the billionaires are supposed to care about.
And Trump, widely disliked among his fellow billionaires — at least the Republican ones — has had remarkable success demonizing his wealthy peers.
The simple fact is that almost everywhere you look, the super-rich are being stymied by democracy. In 2014, David Brat, an unknown academic, defeated the second most powerful Republican in Congress, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, even though Cantor spent more money on steak dinners than Brat did on his whole campaign. The recent referendum on marijuana legalization in Ohio was lavishly funded — and failed. And just a reminder: Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney and his plutocrat pals.
Those evil corporations aren’t faring much better. We constantly hear about their vise grip on Washington, yet we still have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world (not counting United Arab Emirates). Big corporations rightly want to be able to repatriate their profits earned overseas without being taxed on them again. (Most countries allow corporations to pay taxes on profits solely in the jurisdictions where they were earned.) And yet they can’t get it done.
Even the dreaded Koch Brothers, those supposed super-villains, have failed to buy the policies they prefer.
And yet, to listen to countless pundits and politicians, we live in an oligarchy now. Clinton, who benefits from no less than five super PACs, thinks the Citizens United case, which made super PACs possible, is such a threat to democracy that the First Amendment should be rewritten to get rid of them.
Democrats don’t like Citizens United because they think it might blunt their advantages. According to OpenSecrets.org, of the top five organizations – i.e., unions and corporate PACs – that give to federal candidates, all (mostly public unions) give 97 percent to 100 percent of their donations to liberals and Democrats. Of the top 10, eight give almost exclusively to the left. Of the top 25, 18 donate disproportionately to the left.
By the way, Koch Industries is No. 49 on the list, and the National Rifle Association is No. 74.
One can certainly understand why average citizens find this “billionaire class” stuff plausible. Government certainly has become more and more unresponsive and aloof. (Public sector unions are a big reason why.) And it is obviously true that big money — variously defined — plays a significant role in our politics.
But you know what plays a bigger role? Politics. The NRA is a good case in point. President Obama insists that the “gun lobby” owns Congress, which is why he can’t get the gun-control policies he wants passed. The truth, however, is that politicians care more about votes than money, and if they follow his advice, they'll also follow so many Democrats who were fired for agreeing with Obama.
That’s actually how democracy is supposed to work.
Jonah Goldberg: firstname.lastname@example.org