Money, Meritocracy and the Loss of Representative Political Parties

By James A. Kidney

Two recently published books which differ significantly in both quality and subject matter nevertheless make a strong case that both of our political parties have failed to serve the needs of the country’s citizens — and have been failing for a long, long time.

One book — well-researched and reported in ways that are rare today even for the most respected journals — shows how Republicans at every level of government, as well as many academic institutions, have been bought by a relative handful of the uber wealthy.  Dark Money (Doubleday, 2016, 380 pp. plus extensive notes and index), by Jane Mayer, a reporter for The New Yorker Magazine, also discloses how much of the money spent by highly conservative families and their companies on politics has been treated as deductible “contributions” — and therefore subsidized by you and me.  This is so even though the organizations they create and fund work hard to attack and defeat proposals contrary to their business interests.  In other words, it is tax deductible lobbying.

Listen Liberal coverListen Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books, 2016, 257 pp. excluding notes and index), by Thomas Frank, takes Democrats to task for abandoning their traditional working class base in favor of an unrealistic and in some ways harmful devotion to meritocracy.  Frank, author of several political books and a columnist for Salon, does a good job pointing out how presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama selected policy makers from an extremely narrow range of backgrounds.  Thus, for example, Obama’s picks to run the economy came from the same Wall Street and Ivy League incubators as those selected by Clinton.

Frank’s main point, among many, is that these products of meritocracy have left behind in attitudes and policy many Americans unlikely to duplicate their histories of being born on third base or being fortunate enough, through good genes, responsible parenting, hard work and good grades, to lift themselves from poverty or the lower middle class to positions of power and affluence.  Many of the issues closest to the Democratic Party elite, therefore, reflect what is important in the lives of the policy makers, including the “glass ceiling” in big corporations, transgender rights (applicable to a miniscule part of the population) and other issues of identity politics.

Frank does a decent job of pointing out some fairly obvious ways in which both Bill Clinton and Obama focused on issues favored by liberal meritocratic elites, and reserves some room for showing the same about Hillary Clinton.  (The manuscript seems to have been completed shortly before the first primaries in January.)  Bill Clinton comes in for especially tough treatment, as might be expected, focused on NAFTA and deregulation of Wall Street.

Frank’s arguments are less impressive when he attacks the Democratic elite for embracing Silicon Valley and its progeny and for touting innovation as a means of solving society’s economic issues.  Even Frank admits that “the culture of innovation is so pure and so stridently noble that it often sounds like advertising.”  Computerization has brought big gains in efficiency, even if that efficiency is not reflected in rising wages.  In any event, techno advance is surely inevitable.  Frank doesn’t really have an answer to how Democrats should address innovation to help the poor or working class, but he does a decent job of cherry-picking examples, especially in education, where social welfare policies relying on tech solutions have failed and much more expensive and complicated answers are required.

Though Frank’s book is really a political tract, taking a few points and repeating them often, within those limits he includes thoughtful criticisms of why the Democratic Party has abandoned its working class roots, other than having allowed them to be stolen by Nixon and subsequent Republicans.  Liberal Democratic elitists would do well to read the book, although they are unlikely to be fully persuaded by it.

Both parties are, of course, susceptible to Big Money, as Mayer carefully points out.  But there is no Dark Money covercomparable group of wealthy Democrats who have spent the last 30 years developing a network of contributors and organizations in support of what the uber rich Republicans always call “Freedom.”  In the lingo of this group, freedom means freedom from taxes, freedom from regulation and, ultimately, freedom from government.  (Of course, they do not mean freedom from government programs from which their businesses benefit.  Those stay.)

Mayer’s principal — but by no means exclusive — focus is on the Koch Brothers, Charles and David.  Based on her reporting, beginning with an eye-opening report in The New Yorker in 2010, they are the principal organizers of the moneyed putsch.  The Kochs and their army of professional fund raisers have cleverly altered their tactics as events warranted, and substantially increased their political sophistication.  The Kochs and their allies realize that they are not cut out for political office themselves, so they recruit others to represent their interests.  While Big Money has failed to acquire the presidency the last two elections — and seems unlikely to do so in 2016 — these ultra-conservatives have prevailed over Democrats of all stripes in state legislative, gubernatorial and, starting in 2010, congressional races.

The state level victories mean control over redistricting and reapportionment, creating a nearly unbreakable chain of elective success which could last indefinitely.  Mayer does a particularly good job of illustrating how this process worked in North Carolina, previously a purple state known as “the New South,” but now, except possibly in presidential races, a very, very red state for Republicans.

For this writer, the most chilling development described in Dark Money is the manner in which the Koch Klan has bought academic programs in many colleges and universities.  They are now working on extending their reach to high schools.  With the deductible “donations” to these institutions come many strings.  For several million dollars a university will establish an institution such as the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, which specifically teaches a curriculum in which highly conservative instructors teach courses in a manner which fosters the economic and government views of the uber rich in ways which no truly independent university would tolerate.   Mayer describes the founding of the Center this way:[1]

          “In the mid-1980s, as called for the first phase of Fink’s plan, the Kochs also began to establish an    academic beachhead of their own.  Their particular focus was on George Mason University, a little-known campus of Virginia’s prestigious higher-education system, located in the Washington suburbs.  In 1977, The Washington Post described the school as toiling in ‘the wilderness of obscurity.’  By 1981, Fink had moved his Austrian economics program there from Rutgers, eventually naming it the Mercatus Center.  The think tank was entirely funded by outside donations, largely from the Kochs, but it was located in the midst of the public university’s campus, so it touted itself somewhat misleadingly, as ‘the world’s premier university source for market-oriented ideas – bridging the gap between academic ideas and real world problems.'”

Mayer quickly notes that the Koch family foundation donated about $30 million to the school, “much of it going to the Mercatus Center.”

The academic takeover is aided and abetted, not coincidentally, by the conservative takeover of state legislatures.  Republican legislatures nearly always look to trim funding of public education, including state universities, in the name of cutting government “waste.”  As a result, all but the stoutest university administration will accept large private donations in return for establishing a Mercatus-type department or center, with the donor calling the shots on what is taught and by whom.

The Republican Party is the beneficiary of all of this money, whether in the form of direct political contributions to candidates (which have the distasteful character of not being deductible), indirect contributions through tax deductible organizations, seeds for Astroturf campaigns (phony “grassroots” organizations) or by providing armies of young men and women participating in the political process who are brainwashed by places such as George Mason University (now also home to the Antonin Scalia School of Law).  The Democrats have no comparable Wehrmacht, but only a few really big contributors such as George Soros and Thomas Styer (the latter concerned mostly with environmental issues).  Conservatives point to Hollywood stars and producers and to Silicon Valley as Democratic money powers, but compared to the Koch network contributors, Hollywood and even tech money is chump change.

There has been some talk lately that since Jeb Bush, Scott Walker (a Koch favorite) and others who had Big Money dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination, money is not the factor in politics many thought it would be after the Supreme Court unleashed the money wolves in Citizens United.  This is nonsense.  Presidential campaigns are the worst barometer to measure the impact of money on politics.

The race for the presidency is covered by the national media in excessive and excrutiating detail.  At least the leading candidates are.  No amount of advertising can match the free advertising of the news media, as Donald Trump proves conclusively.  With the leaders covered so intensely, a dull or “low energy” candidate such as Jeb Bush, or a difficult personality such as Scott Walker, will only rarely succeed even with freight cars of cash.

But the media coverage is less intense for even U.S. senate races, and virtually non-existent for state legislative and congressional campaigns.  Here is where the uber rich have found rich returns, as Mayer describes.  Plus, the uber rich, as well as other wealthy businessmen, have found equal rewards in funding “grass roots” campaigns through TV ads.  This is how the Tea Party got traction and why citizens raged against the Affordable Care Act for no truly articulable and truthful reason.

Currently, a TV ad is being broadcast during Sunday news shows in the Washington area — where congressional staffers live. It attacks plans to “bail out” Puerto Rico.  The ad claims to be sponsored by a patriotic, freedom-loving sounding group, but surely is paid for by vulture hedge funds who buy up distressed government bonds and use political pressure to be sure they are paid in full, despite whatever hardship befalls citizens.  See, e.g., Argentina.  Who knows if the current expenditure about Puerto Rico (and warning that Illinois is next) is effective, but it certainly draws attention to the fact there are those who oppose giving Puerto Ricans a break.  The size of that group may be extremely small, but TV might make the pressure grow.  “Damned Puerto Ricans getting a break” isn’t that far from Trump’s Mexican mantras, also not based on fact but appealing to many.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Coal, knows the value of money in politics.  Mayer reports that he was honorary chairman of the James Madison Center for Free Speech, an organization devoted to ridding America of any restrictions on campaign finance.  It was funded almost entirely by the DeVos family of Michigan, who realized millions from the Amway Company, which often was accused of being a pyramid scheme.  In Senate debate on campaign restrictions, McConnell reportedly told colleagues, “If we stop this thing, we can control the institution for the next twenty years.”

Does money buy influence?  Of course it does.  And it attracts those willing to follow the lead of their biggest donors.  Mayer reports that only a few months before McConnell became majority leader, he attended a Koch donor summit and thanked “Charles and David” for their generosity.  “I don’t know where we would be without you,” he told them.  He then hired a former lobbyist for Koch Industries as his chief of staff.

Of course, the EPA is a mortal enemy of an extraction and fossil fuel company such as Koch Industries.  As Mayer notes, once he had his new chief of staff, McConnell “went on to launch a stunning all-out war on the Environmental Protection Agency, urging governors across the country to refuse to comply with new restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Dark Money is indispensable to a fuller understanding of just how the super-wealthy have come to dominate so much of American politics and undercut traditional notions of democracy. While it is true that money always has had a voice in politics, never before has it had such influence — most of it going unnoticed by the public, who is nevertheless bound by the results.

[1] Richard Fink is described elsewhere by Mayer as the Koch’s principal political lieutenant by the 1980s.  His “plan” was to introduce conservative dogma to educational institutions to graduate students with an appreciation for economic ideas from Ayn Rand and Austrian economists such as Friedrich Hayek.  Actually, the plan was even broader, creating homes for “intellectuals” of the right, including such Koch funded “think tanks” as the Cato Institute in Washington.  Another phase of the plan was to create “citizen groups” to pressure legislators for laws favorable to the business interests of the funders.  As Mayer clearly reports, Finks plans have yielded bountiful fruit for the Kochs, Walmarts, Devos family in Michigan, the Olin Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, Art Pope in North Carolina and many others recruited by the Kochs to their twice yearly meetings at which multi-million dollar contributions are received.


1 thought on “Money, Meritocracy and the Loss of Representative Political Parties”

  1. I read Dark Money, which was quite impressively researched (even though she clearly had an ax to grind, she ground it very well). I guess I should read the Frank book. He did a good job with What Happened to Kansas?, and this book deserves a read as well. Sort of odd, however, to attack a meritocracy. What is it that we should be seeking?


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