We’re coming to the end of what might be called the anti-democracy decade. It began on 21 January 2010 with the supreme court’s shameful decision in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission, opening the floodgates to big money in politics with the absurd claim that the first amendment protects corporate speech.
It ends with Donald Trump in the White House, filling his administration with corporate shills and inviting foreign powers to interfere in American elections.
Trump is the consequence rather than the cause of the anti-democratic decade. By the 2016 election, the richest 100th of 1% of Americans – 24,949 very wealthy people – accounted for a record-breaking 40% of all campaign contributions.
That same year, corporations flooded the presidential, Senate and House elections with $3.4bn in donations. Labor unions no longer provided any countervailing power, contributing only $213m – one union dollar for every 16 corporate.
Big corporations and the super-wealthy lavished their donations on the Republican party because Republicans promised them a giant tax cut. As Lindsey Graham warned his colleagues, “financial contributions will stop” if the GOP didn’t come through.
As Trump said in 2016, 'I give money to everybody, even the Clintons, because that’s how the system works'
The investments paid off big. Pfizer, whose 2016 contributions to the GOP totaled $16m, will reap an estimated $39bn in tax savings by 2022. GE contributed $20m and will get back $16bn. Chevron donated $13m and will receive $9bn.
Groups supported by Charles and the late David Koch spent more than $20m promoting the tax cut, which will save them and their heirs between $1bn and $1.4bn every year.
Not even a sizzling economy could match these returns.
The tax cut has contributed to record corporate profits but almost nothing has trickled down. Companies have spent most of their extra cash on stock buybacks and dividends. This has given the stock market a sugar high but left little for average workers.
Such workers have been shafted. Despite the longest economic expansion in modern history, real wages have barely risen. The share of corporate profits going to workers still isn’t back to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis. Never in the history of economic data have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long.
The so-called “free market” has been taken over by crony capitalism, corporate bailouts and corporate welfare.
Citizens United itself is a corporate front group, founded by a Washington political consultant and backed by major funding from the Kochs. In 2008 it sought to broadcast TV ads for a film criticizing Hillary Clinton, in direct violation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which barred corporations from buying ads mentioning candidates immediately preceding elections.
A principled Congress and decent president could still rescue our democracy
After the case made it to the supreme court, Justice Anthony Kennedy – defying all logic and reason – declared for the court that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption”.
Tell that to most Americans. Confidence in political institutions has plummeted. In 1964, just 29% of Americans believed government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves”. By 2013, 79% believed it. In Rasmussen polls in autumn 2014, 63% thought most members of Congress were willing to sell their vote for either cash or a campaign contribution and 59% thought it likely their representative already had.
“Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place,” he charged at the Republican convention in 2016.
He then rode the rigging all the way into the Oval Office.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if Citizens United isn’t reversed by the supreme court or defanged by a constitutional amendment, a principled Congress and decent president could still rescue our democracy.
House Democrats have begun with their For the People Act, the first legislation they introduced when they gained a majority. It expands voting rights, limits partisan gerrymandering, strengthens ethics rules and limits the influence of private donor money by providing $6 of public financing for every $1 of small donations, up to $200, raised by participating candidates.
On the other hand, a second Trump term could make the anti-democracy decade a mere prelude to the wholesale destruction of American democracy.
Trump couldn’t care less. As he said in 2016: “I give money to everybody, even the Clintons, because that’s how the system works.”
These might have been the most honest words ever to come out of his mouth.