In looking into the administrative mechanics by which the Iowa Board of Regents fraudulently appointed J. Bruce Harreld as president of the University of Iowa, I have been repeatedly surprised by the level of corruption in state government. While purportedly committed to public service, by odd coincidence Governor Terry Branstad, Regents President Bruce Rastetter and various other government administrators are all using the state’s institutions of higher learning for everything from greasing political connections to profiting on investments to finding cushy state-funded jobs and projects for political cronies. As last week’s lightning-fast recess appointment of yet another political crony to the board attests — coming on the heels, as it does, of another crony’s abrupt resignation, just ahead of news that she was on the payroll of a company that landed a massive no-bid contract with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, of which the Board of Regents are trustees — there remains no inkling that anyone at the state or federal level will ever investigate the corruption which led to J. Bruce Harreld’s hire.
Money and Politics
When I was growing up the ideological battle lines were clear. Democracy (politics) and capitalism (economics) were good, communism (politics) and socialism (economics) were evil. (Admittedly those terms are not so neatly defined, yet in practice they were generally understood as I have described them.)
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and following the capitulation of China to capitalist methodologies — albeit in a state-controlled context — there was no debate that capitalism had emerged victorious. Likewise, as the former Soviet states moved away from the communist model of governance and at least marginally toward democratic reforms, it seemed clear that democracy had also emerged the victor.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Over several decades another long-simmering battle line erupted into a full-fledged war that is now playing out in American politics. That fight is over whether the United States is first and foremost a democracy, where citizenship rules, or a capitalist society, where money calls the shots not just in the markets, but in government as well.
As you may have noticed yourself, despite the principles on which the United States was founded, capitalism seems to be winning out. The watershed moment when the capitulation of democracy to capitalism became apparent to most people — even if they would not have articulated the underlying struggle in that way — was the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, in which corporations and other groups were effectively given rights of citizenship apart from the rights held by the individuals in those organizations. While the case does have its complexities, you don’t have to be a supreme court justice to realize that if you give the rights of citizenship to legal fictions — including to money raised by those entities — that capitalism is making novel inroads on the concept of democracy. Yet that simple point seems to have been lost on the majority of the Court.
The practical result of Citizens United is that massive amounts of money — easily hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars — has flooded into the political process, often with no accountability even as to the origin of those funds. Where citizens have to account for their campaign contributions and still face individual limits, groups of donors can now use legal mechanisms to shield unlimited donations from view. Perhaps not surprisingly, the living, breathing citizens have been left feeling a bit disenfranchised by the court’s watering down — if not bastardization — of the concept of citizenship.
With capitalism riotously emboldened to inject unrepresentative candidates into office, who might otherwise have failed on more democratic merits, it falls on government itself to compel elected officials to actually do their jobs. Unfortunately, that power is now under threat due to another case which was just recently argued before the Supreme Court. That case, which may be decided as early as June, has to do with the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, who was shown to have traded access and influence for $175,000 in cash and other inducements.
That the Supreme Court even decided to hear the case is concerning. Yet following recent oral arguments before the court, the general consensus in the press seems to be that the Supreme Court may very well buy McDonnell’s argument that even though he’s guilty as hell by any normal test of corruption, he should be let off the hook because he didn’t deliver anything of capitalistic value after undermining democracy by taking all of those gifts. From the New York Times to the New Yorker to the Huffington Post to the Washington Post to USAToday to Slate to the Chicago Sun Times to Reuters to the Atlantic to CNN to U.S. News and World Report, there is virtual unanimity that the Supreme Court may rule that Bob McDonnell, the former governor of Virginia, who took money and gifts in exchange for furthering the aims of the person who gave him those inducements, did nothing wrong.
The Constitution is Not a Suicide Pact
So how does this happen? How does the highest court in the land look at a sleazy politician like Bob McDonnell and conclude that he is a victim of prosecutorial overreach, when it would be clear to a child that the former governor sold his office — if not also himself — to the highest bidder? Incredibly, the answer is that the court seems to want to limit the ability of the federal government to ferret out state corruption:
At issue is a federal law that bars public officials from accepting money or gifts in exchange for “official acts.” The court is trying to clarify what distinguishes bribery from the routine actions – setting up meetings, attending conferences – that politicians often do for those they represent.
But the justices struggled over how to draw that line. Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Stephen Breyer suggested the bribery law could be considered unconstitutionally vague.
Breyer said the law presents “a real separation of powers problem” and “puts at risk behavior that is common.”
“That is a recipe for giving the Department of Justice and the prosecutors enormous power over elected officials,” Breyer said.
Admittedly I am not a supreme court justice, but it would seem to me that the proper way to prevent prosecutorial abuses under the current law would be to put protections in place to keep those abuses from happening, rather than simply legalizing corruption. We already know that prosecutors can become overzealous, and that they may commit crimes themselves, which is of course why there are other parts of government dedicated to looking into such possibilities. And yet here we have the Supreme Court of the United States seriously talking about hamstringing prosecutors because of something they might do, when those prosecutors are the only protection that America’s living, breathing citizens have against exactly the kind of abuses that McDonnell committed.
If the Supreme Court overturns McDonnell’s corruption conviction there will be no governmental mechanism to hold back the wholesale capitulation of democracy to capitalism. Money will decide who gets elected, money will decide who gets access, and money will even decide who gets investigated and prosecuted. And it is genuinely incredible to me that we have reached this point, but here we are.
It has been said, in various incarnations, that the United States Constitution — which the Supreme Court alone is charged with interpreting — is not a suicide pact. And yet with Citizens United, and now McDonnell, the Supreme Court is itself eroding the concepts of citizenship and democracy. I don’t really know what else to tell you about that, except to quote Thomas Jefferson:
…”[a] strict observance of the written law is doubtless one of the high duties of a good citizen, but it is not the highest. The laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger, are of higher obligation. To lose our country by a scrupulous adherence to the written law, would be to lose the law itself, with life, liberty, property and all those who are enjoying them with us; thus absurdly sacrificing the ends to the means.”
The 2016 Presidential Election
There has been a lot of virtual ink spilled regarding the current presidential race. In the context of the battle being waged between capitalism and democracy, however, I do not believe the main themes surrounding the dominant candidates could be any clearer. On the Republican side the presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, is wholly capitalistic, and has not a shred of interest in democracy save to whatever extent he needs votes to become the Deal Maker in Chief. Deals including defaulting on America’s sovereign debt in order to get out from under that irritating obligation.
On the Democratic side there is — preposterously — a strong candidate running on a platform of socialism. While Bernie Sanders will not win the Democratic nomination, it is amazing to me that he has been successful without having to renounce what used to be considered an almost demonic political ideology. Sanders’ success clearly shows a great thirst, at least on the left-leaning side of the political spectrum, for true democratic government. Unfortunately, despite working the relatively easy hours of a United States Senator, which also grants him unlimited access to eggheads and policy resources, Sanders stepped into a longstanding and cartoonish cliche when he failed to articulate workable plans for enacting his socialist ideals.
Between those two polar candidates sits Hillary Clinton, who will soon become the presumptive nominee of the Democratic party. While in many ways perfectly positioned to win the election in November, because she is a Clinton she is also perfectly positioned at the crossroads of capitalism and democracy. In fact, it probably never occurred to her that she needed to choose between them, which is why she blithely transitioned from Secretary of State to becoming a partner in her husband’s influence peddling empire, complete with multiple paid speeches before the very Wall St. power brokers who crippled the U.S. and world economies for much of the past decade.
Still, one advantage that Clinton has over Trump in the general election is that she may be able to rhetorically pivot toward democracy, and away from the capitalism to which Trump is inseparably wedded. Whether she can do so credibly is another matter, as it always seems to be with the Clintons, but there is a thirst in the electorate for someone who will stand in opposition to the wholesale capitulation of democracy to cold hard cash.
To be clear, I have no horse in this race. If you find that appraisal of Hillary Clinton to be unfair, or you’re bristling at the characterizations of Trump or Sanders, I can understand why you might be perturbed. I am also neither naive nor cynical enough to argue that the three of them are no different from each other. In the margins it does indeed matter who is elected to the highest office in the land, particularly in terms of Supreme Court nominations — assuming of course that whichever party controls the Senate actually intends to do its job and hold hearings.
Unfortunately, the parties behind both the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees are as polluted by money and crony politics as any organizations in the country, meaning it’s almost impossible to put democracy first even in the midst of our most celebrated democratic process. Instead of choosing between two visions of the future, voters are left to choose between the figureheads of two competing crime families, both of which are heavily influenced by powerful, anti-democratic political aristocracies. All of which may be why more that 40% of registered voters prefer to be listed as independent, even if they still tend to vote along Democratic or Republican lines.
In point of fact, those voters who are putting Trump forward as the Republican nominee, who believe at least in part that his background as a capitalist is what America needs in this historical moment, are doing so in open revolt against the Republican party apparatus. So much so that regulars in the Republican party are now struggling to distance themselves from Trump while remaining loyal to their political crime family, so down-ticket races are not negatively affected. (The number of Republican elected officials who would like to switch their party affiliation to independent has probably never been higher.)
Capitalism vs. Democracy
The overriding issue in play in presidential politics in 2016 is that people want their democracy back. On the Republican side that zeal has led, improbably, to the nomination of a man who is neither a committed Republican nor a true conservative, who openly espouses racist and misogynistic views, and whose policy specifics are less developed than those of Bernie Sanders. On the Democratic side, by emphasizing democracy the socialist Sanders was able to make inroads that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, while the eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton is a political aristocrat with longstanding allegiances to the traditional Democratic party.
From entrenched crony politics in Iowa to the flood of money which Citizens United unleashed on the American political system, it is maddening to think that the United States Supreme Court is now poised to neuter the federal government’s ability to police political corruption. And yet you only have to read the names in the rogues’ gallery of McDonnell supporters to see the bipartisan nature of that desire, and how loathe members of both political crime families are to give up the perks to which they believe they are entitled as so-called public servants. While the ongoing election won’t be decided until November, the battle between capitalism and democracy may be decided in only a couple of months, granting every public official the Constitutional right to barter political favor for anything under the sun.
If you are invested in this political season I do not mean this post to belittle your efforts. But if the Supreme Court overturns McDonnell, in combination with Citizens United, I cannot imagine any mechanism by which those decisions will ever be reversed or legislated out of existence, because it will never be in the best interest of any elected officials to do so. There will always be a few people here and there in any Congress who are serious about public service, but they will never be a majority, and that imbalance will only get worse. If there were truly any towering giants in American politics they would have already banded together by now, across party lines, to protect the country from just such an impending disaster, but that hasn’t happened. And it won’t happen, because even when they’re out of power, what the political crime families that rule this country want each time they do assume control is as much power as possible. The last thing they want, and have ever wanted, is true democracy.
— Mark Barrett