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Money Trumps Expectations: Investment Politics in 2016

Opening the books on election funding reveals the role of organized money and media airtime is stronger than ever.

The dominance of money in American politics is now well-recognized, to the extent that even pro-market Republicans must run as if they’re against corporate control of politics. Trump claimed to be running against the hedge-fund billionaires, and even his multidimensionally hideous Republican primary rival Ted Cruz fudges the ruling classes into the “Washington cartel.”

But the influence of money was just as compelling in this election as in 2012, with media covering the enormous fund-raising totals as if reporting on a dull city council meeting. The conservative Wall Street Journal reported that corporations are betting on GOP Senate control, as “corporate PACs plowed $3 million into the campaigns of Republican candidates … 15 times as much as they contributed to Democrats in those same races…. Corporations generally split their PAC money fairly evenly between Republicans and Democrats, with a slight majority of donations going to the side that is winning.” So while “Corporations are extremely cautious in how they dole out campaign funds,” in the most competitive Senate races corporate America made bolder moves, as “business PACs directed 99 percent of their donations to the Republican candidate.”

The correlation between the fundraising totals and the outcome of Congressional races can be seen easily on the prominent campaign data website of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), Pulling up results for the House and Senate races for each state, from Florida to Colorado, the results are pretty striking visually, as the candidate with the larger green bar representing their campaign funds is almost always correlated with the yellow trophy symbol indicating the winning candidate. Exceptions are uncommon enough to jump out at the reader. Of course, the winners are typically incumbents also, as congressional reelection rates tend to exceed 90 percent.

Despite this heavy flow of corporate Super PAC donations, the business press reported findings that “they trail far behind wealthy individuals in political spending,” as individual gifts came to fully 80 percent of Super PAC contributions over the 2016 cycle, with the share from “unions a mere 1.9 percent.” In the White House race, this trend favored the Clinton campaign, as 19 billionaires lined up to give $70 million, while the allegedly self-financing Trump attracted four billionaires giving $18 million total.

In addition to PAC giving by particular corporations and rich individuals, the leading corporate umbrella organization, the US Chamber of Commerce, was as active this year as in the past. The Chamber has an important role in organizing PAC funding, especially in lobbying sitting government officials. In 2016 it spent $79.2 million to the AFL-CIO’s $3.9 million, continuing to favor Republicans out of fear of new regulations or higher taxes on its corporate members.

But the organization’s famous lobbying operation became an embarrassment in some cases, like when the Chamber went aggressively after Evan Bayh, the former Democratic senator running to return to the body. In line with its usual pattern, it poured millions into PACs supporting Republican Todd Young, but there was a snag: Bayh had been a lobbyist for the Chamber as late as June 2016. Considered a “business-friendly centrist” in the words of The New York Times, Bayh “was a spokesman for the chamber on the perceived dangers of government over-regulation.” But although Bayh was an asset while lobbying today’s typical pro-business Democrats, his voting record rating with the Chamber was far lower than his Republican opponent’s, so the Chamber was reduced to aggressively (and successfully) campaigning against one of its own former employees.

But while the Chamber has leaned heavily Republican in recent races, there was a major exception this year according to the CRP report. It gave $13,865 to Clinton’s campaign, while a pitiful $520 is recorded as being donated to Trump.

This, of course, reflects the nature of an unusual race: A highly unconventional Republican candidate with a constantly shifting mix of policy proposals, some a delight and some a horror to the GOP establishment; and Clinton’s own conservative, pro-business record, despite New Deal affectations during the primary to fend off Senator Sanders. But with Clinton’s loss we must confront the question of how the Chamber was thwarted in this staggering race, a question being debated now with an enormous level of passion and rather little evidence-based argument. But a review of the vote for Trump recalls a rather similar recent story in which the Chamber was forced into a corner.

Shadow Puppets

The indirect process by which a republic can be steered via investor coalitions is far more clumsy than a mechanical dictatorship. It is possible that constituencies whipped up by talk radio and organized through veiled corporate money may grow impossible to control, and their useful anti-government zeal may be turned against the numerous public bodies that corporate investors rely upon.

Indeed, that’s happened recently. In 2010 “Business groups spent millions of dollars on the midterm elections to help secure a GOP majority in Congress,” the business media recounted, contributing to a Republican wave year that came to be associated with conservative “Tea Party” groups across the country. Business groups like the Chamber hoped to use these groups’ anti-government passion to further lower their taxes and dissolve New Deal-era social supports, but it turned out that the movement couldn’t be controlled. By autumn 2013, the US Chamber and other large companies and their umbrella groups started spending against Tea Party-associated candidates, out of their desire for basic corporate stability — like maintaining corporate supports, such as the Export-Import Bank, or avoiding a government shutdown every other year. As I wrote about this episode for Truthout, “It’s not easy being a political puppeteer.”

Recent events have proven that episode to be a harbinger of rage at globalization and the deepening inequality seen in the current “neoliberal” period of global economic policy. This trend was clear in the surprising Brexit vote, in which the areas of the UK voting most strongly for withdrawing from the European Union were those most hurt by aggressive austerity cuts to social supports under David Cameron’s Conservative government. Indeed, the correlation of Vote Leave turnout and fiscal cuts to satisfy neoliberal austerity budget-tightening appears to be consistent even down to the ward level within UK cities. “Leave” voters’ anger at their economic decline, plus a very real racist resentment of East European EU citizens’ increasing immigration, led them to lash out by choosing the “anti-establishment” option, even though that is likely to make their predicament significantly worse.

This voting pattern, which appears set to continue in imminent EU elections in which conservative and nativist parties look set to make big gains, helps explain how the better-funded, sure-thing Clinton candidacy could lose. A major cash advantage is clearly a pivotal advantage for any campaign, and again based on the down-ballot races, even 2016 keeps to the pattern of victories driven by money and incumbency. But it’s quite possible for an electorate to rebel against political ad saturation and choose what appeared to be an anti-establishment option, even if it turns out to still mean Wall Street influence like Trump’s Treasury pick, Steven Mnuchin of Goldman Sachs, or Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, the private equity kingpin.

And perhaps fittingly, the longtime rebellious writers on the political left have most clearly resolved this, like Ajay Singh Chaudhary who compared American voters to those in Germany, where voters “have an actual Left to flee to.” The great socialist writer Mike Davis captured the mood among marooned blue-collar towns (and the evangelicals who stuck with a serial divorcee and sexually assaulting candidate) when he wrote that they “wanted change in Washington at any price, even if it meant putting a suicide bomber in the White House.” Labor scholar and former TransAfrica Forum president Bill Fletcher usefully observes that Trump ran on opposition to globalization and immigration, rather than the broader neoliberal program of deregulation and tax cuts, which Trump indeed celebrated.

Overexposing Trump

With the outcome so close, including a margin of over two million votes nationwide that favored the losing candidate, as well as razor-thin margins for Trump in Pennsylvania and Michigan, any factor that made even a small difference can be legitimately claimed to have been decisive. Sexist opposition to the prospect of a woman president and positive responses to Trump’s consistent racist messaging were clearly significant and with the narrow outcome, even a small contribution can be considered to have allowed this horrible outcome.

But by now national commentary has resolved that sexism and racism, great and terrible social forces though they remain, were not the main factors swinging just enough Rust Belt voters to break the alleged Blue Wall of the upper Midwest. Trump voters in these areas are often the blue-collar workers once covered by a union contract at their industrial job, watching jobs leave and opioid abuse entering. But more than anxious factory hands, the smaller business owners and petty professionals made up the better part of Trump’s base, and indeed have historically been the base of fascist movements more than the blue-collar workforce. The Wall Street Journal notes that among Trump voters “the economy was cited as the top issue far more often — 46 percent of the time — than immigration, named by just 17 percent.” A majority also held that free trade agreements are a net loss for employment.

Likewise The New York Times reports that blue-collar workers at air-conditioner manufacturer Carrier celebrated Trump’s promise to put a hearty 35 percent tariff on the firm’s goods if it followed through on plans to outsource production to Mexico from Indiana. But supporters specifically indicate that if the tariff, and other anti-free-trade steps, are not put in place, they will not repeat their GOP votes in 2020. Of course, industry’s systemic pressures to cut costs, automate and outsource production into complicated transnational production networks all make corporate return unlikely.

Even with these views increasingly widespread as globalization has more fully stripped these regions of economic functionality, the Democrats have steadily stepped away from their midcentury New Deal policies, from Bill Clinton’s major reduction in social welfare programs to Obama’s hearty deportation of immigrants and promotion of more free trade deals. Clinton herself is maybe the definitive figure of this change in the party, from aggressive interventions under her State Department to the cartoonishly bad-looking big-ticket Wall Street speeches. The post labor side of the New Democrats is even reflected in Clinton’s celebrated data-driven campaign, which turns out to have been so out of touch with the base that it ended up “getting out the vote” for a good number of Trump supporters.

The press was reporting Clinton’s cash edge throughout 2016, even toward the end when Clinton’s Super PAC had three times as much cash on hand as Trump’s, which indeed held only about a third of what previous GOP nominee Mitt Romney had on hand at the same time in 2012. But a detailed review suggests how Trump was able to cope with significantly less campaign cash than Clinton’s team. Using the CRP data, we can confirm Clinton’s fundraising superiority, with a total of over $687 million raised, relative to Trump’s $307 million.

Digging into CRP expenditure data for White House campaigns, a major discrepancy emerges. Clinton spent just under half her campaign and PAC budgets on media — 48.9 percent of the campaign total, or $125 million. But Trump’s campaign spent only $30.4 million, or 37.8 percent of its budget, on media. And yet, who would argue that Trump was under-featured on US media during the campaign? The difference is made up of “earned” media, the bizarre political term for coverage of a candidate generated by independent media sources, like an article or TV segment covering the candidacy, but without the campaign purchasing it.

This earned media is no small thing — Trump’s continuous coverage was worth over $2 billion by media firm estimates. The value of earned TV and radio time is usually larger than what a candidate spends on air time, but Trump’s gigantic media exposure left him with two and a half times the earned media value Clinton had. That goes a long way toward making up for Trump’s lower cash-on-hand, and aids the money-driven politics thesis somewhat: While Trump had less money, he clearly had other material resources, in this case, his preexisting TV celebrity and ability to outrageous-statement his way onto cable TV on an hourly basis.

The Trump-Ryan Economy

Looking forward, the material impact of the Trump administration will be economic as well as cultural. Today’s still-shocked commentary universally cautions that with the candidate’s frequently contradictory statements and overall oafish ignorance, we can’t be confident predicting policy moves by the new administration. Fair enough, but early signs are that Trump will be typical of intellectually shallow or disinterested power-holders and will have his policy choices set by his staff and the congressional leadership. In addition to the early hard-line militarist appointments, the selection of Reince Priebus as Trump’s Chief of Staff is a major indicator of planned cooperation with GOP congressional leadership, a terrible sign.

Since the last period of unified GOP government under George W. Bush, the Republican congress has gotten dramatically more extreme, dominated now by the “Freedom Caucus,” renamed from the Tea Party Caucus that the Chamber of Commerce put into power in 2010 and then tried to destroy in 2013. At the head of the House is Speaker Paul Ryan, noted fan of arch-libertarian douchebag Ayn Rand. Having promoted the privatization of Medicaid and Social Security for many years, despite the decrease in benefits and vulnerability to market swings and bankruptcies that would bring, Ryan is apparently over the moon about his free hand to liberate the Fountainhead. He’s planning “to go big, to go bold” with his plans, described favorably in conservative media as disassembling the Affordable Care Act along with goals “to dismantle the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, rewrite the tax code and boost military spending.” As in 2000, the Republicans lost the popular vote for both the White House, and also lost the total nationwide vote for the House of Representatives, as in 2014. But they can be expected to come in governing as if they won in a landslide.

One notable area of potential agreement among the parties involves infrastructure, the physical structures required to support market activity — roads, bridges, rails, flood-control systems, and so on. Democrats have been dying to get an infrastructure bill passed for years, with little success in the face of chronic GOP obstruction of anything that might prove politically valuable for the Obama administration. Now Democrats are hoping to work with Trump on this, as he has in the past proposed a trillion dollars in infrastructure spending over several years. However as the conservative Wall Street Journal has reported, “Trump’s proposal for $1 trillion of new infrastructure construction relies entirely on private financing, which industry experts say is likely to fall far short of adequately funding improvements to roads, bridges and airports.”

This is likely difficult for Rand readers and libertarian purists to comprehend, but even the sympathetic Journal finds the plan hard to buy. Since the proposed plan “largely boils down to a tax break in the hopes of luring capital to projects,” problems arise as “Experts say there are limits to how much can be done with private financing. Because privately funded projects need to turn a profit, they are better suited for major projects, such as toll roads, airports or water systems and less appropriate for routine maintenance, they say.” Indeed, even the head of the business association representing private toll-road operators finds the plan more conceptual than serious. The paper also adds that “tolls have proved unpopular, with toll-road operators in Indiana and Texas filing for bankruptcy protection.” On the other hand, Trump advisor Steve Bannon has claimed the infrastructure program will be based on outright fiscal spending. Most likely a major stimulus program along these lines will materialize over Speaker Ryan’s budget-cutting objections, creating a stronger national recovery that can provide cover for Ryan’s program for privatizing the remains of the New Deal social supports.

Despite this painful electoral outcome, it appears that many US centrists and liberals have learned the wrong lesson. In a sympathetic profile of economically abandoned blue-collar Trump voters in Indiana, The New York Times notes what it believes is a flaw in their thinking. While globalization and outsourcing of manufacturing have indeed hurt working-class communities, they mean more profitability and a greater income share going to owners of capital, like corporate shareholders. The Times drolly comments, “In this age of 401(k) investment plans and individual retirement accounts, these shareholders are, in a real sense, all of us.”

Yet, even a passing familiarity with recent global economic trends proves that this is a delusion. Indeed, the conservative Journal itself ran a graphic, in an article on Trump’s business sense, showing the “Percentage of business income earned by households,” ranked by income levels. The graph is dramatic, and so is the attached simple summary: “More than half of business income in the U.S. goes to the top 1 percent of households.” Adding in the rest of the richest 20 percent by household income brings the total to almost 80 percent of corporate dividends. In fact, the damn graph itself is labeled “Highly Concentrated.” If Clintonite liberals cannot begin to see the gravity of these facts now, it’s hard to see when they will.

What a revolting development this is.

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