A book that shook my world was journalist Hedrick Smith’s “The Power Game,” published 35 years ago in 1987. It was about “How Washington really works,” and what I remember about it is how it made me feel, as in discouraged and outraged. I learned about the power of lobbyists, the power of money, and what money gains you, which is access. More-or-less legal forms of corruption in 1987 are now most definitely legal, with the Supreme Court decreeing that corporations are citizens and that money is speech. It’s amazing how the law can be twisted to serve the interests of the powerful. I for one do not believe that Raytheon and I are both equal citizens and that we both have equivalent access to elected representatives through our “speech,” i.e. our money. But the Supreme Court professes to believe this so there you have it.
When you look at who runs America, it’s a fairly short list. Wall Street, Big Pharma, the fossil fuel companies, Big Tech and Silicon Valley, the military-industrial complex (National Security State), the major banks and insurance companies: any “citizen” with access to billions of dollars who can then buy or rent politicians with millions of dollars. It’s a great deal for them, “investing” in politicians, making them dance to their tune, but it’s a lousy deal for the rest of us.
This makes me think of one of my father’s favorite sayings: He who pays the piper calls the tune. If I toss a penny and ask for a tune, and another “citizen” tosses twenty bucks and asks for a different one, I’m not surprised when the piper doesn’t play my tune. So when the Princeton Study said that the U.S. is an oligarchy and that politicians in Washington don’t listen to us, I wasn’t surprised. I learned it from Hedrick Smith in 1988 when I read his book.
Interestingly, when Smith wrote “The Power Game,” America had just over 4000 political action committees, or PACs. In 2014, America had well over 7000 PACs, including “Super” PACs, which have far fewer constraints in how they can use their money in the political realm. Now we even have “dark” money, and so we’re barraged by ads on TV and elsewhere attacking a candidate or an issue without any clear idea of who’s behind it all and why. But, remember, money is speech and corporations are citizens, so let the good times roll in the U.S. political process.
When Hedrick Smith wrote, things weren’t quite as bad in America. There were more newspapers, more media sources, more real journalists. Nowadays, five or six corporations own all the mainstream media outlets, and it’s not in their interest to promote views that are honest and provocative. Indeed, they love PACs and Super PACs and all the money spent by them and political campaigns to influence voting.
It’s gotten to be so corrupt, and so tightly controlled, as in rigged, that it almost doesn’t matter who runs for office. Clearly, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris aren’t driving policy in America. The few decisions they themselves truly make are almost inconsequential.
One thing I really liked about Hedrick Smith is his honesty. He gave a talk on his book, link here:
Where he explained that, if you’re a politician and you accept certain campaign donations, it’s understood between both parties that when the donor needs you to vote a certain way, you will vote that way, no questions asked. Everyone in Congress understands this. It’s why every effort by real citizens to get big money out of politics fails. It fails because the big donors won’t have it. They like to be able to buy politicians, thank you very much. That’s how democracy works, so says the Supreme Court. If you don’t like it, start your own corporation, make a few billion, then you too can buy your own politician.
A revival of democracy in America starts with campaign finance reform, which most politicians say they’re for even as they vote against it. Sounds like a conundrum to me. Can we solve it by explaining to our esteemed justices (John Roberts, can you hear me?) that money is not the same as speech and that corporations really aren’t the same as citizens?
Finally, a rather obvious point, but it bears repeating. Justices like Thomas, Roberts, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Barrett weren’t just selected because they were reliable votes against abortion. They were really vetted and selected because they will always rule with the powerful against the powerless. They are, in a word, pro-corporate.
And if the Supreme Court is pro-corporate, if Congress is pro-corporate, and if the president is a figurehead known for his pro-corporate policies as a Senator from Delaware, what kind of America are we truly looking at?
In the power game that is Washington, it’s the American people who suffer the agony of defeat.