Some guy almost nobody has ever heard of before just dropped a $1.6 billion donation in pursuit of every breathless right-wing fantasy you can name. It is considered to be the largest single donation by an individual in U.S. political history, and nothing can be done about it, because them’s the rules.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: It’s all about the money. Why? Because money writes the rules.
We sometimes allow ourselves to forget that foundational axiom as we seek our various truths or get caught up in the paper chase of advocacy and legislation. We lose the forest for the trees, and now the goddamn forest is raining cash down on so much that we would devote our lives to defeating… or put more specifically, the forest is raining cash down on politicians who suddenly find themselves devoted to esoteric tax breaks for hedge fund, real estate and private equity managers, to the point that massive bills turn on giving those politicians whatever they want. It’s a hostage crisis, and it has gotten worse by order of magnitude over the years.
Why is it so hard to pass effective climate legislation? Ask the fossil fuel-driven donors. Why is health care so gruesomely expensive? Ask the insurance and Big Pharma donors. Why are police and prisons still endorsed as the go-to solutions for our problems? Ask the so-called “law and order” donors (among many other influential players). Almost 400 million guns loose on the land and schools turned into slaughterhouses? Ask the NRA and other gun “rights” donors. How did the Supreme Court become so severely tilted to the right? Ask the Federalist Society donors (and the Democrats, who watched that exercise in court-packing unfold over the years with an Alfred E. Neuman look on their faces).
Why can’t we fix the problem of money in politics? Ask the politicians receiving all the money. It’s a sealed loop, a legalized perfection of frictionless graft, with no way inside unless you have a check in hand, at which point you are part of the problem.
The problem is not new, of course. Corporations have enjoyed the same 14th Amendment rights as people since the Supreme Court’s Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad decision in 1886. The campaign finance rights of these corporate people were codified in later Supreme Court cases like Buckley v. Valeo in 1976. This created a whole new category of super-people, the real “donor class,” corporations with the same rights as individuals but with about eleventy billion times more power to expand those rights by dint of their deep pockets.
And in 2010, whatever remained of the bottom finally fell out with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which opened the floodgates for unlimited donations of untraceable money, and all in the name of corporate “free speech.” Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy made a promise his ass simply could not keep: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption…. The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
Sometimes, when I visualize Kennedy writing those words, I imagine him as a fuzzy little bunny hippity-hopping through a flower-strewn meadow, little pink nose thrilling with the scents of springtime, little pink eyes bright and alight with all the pure innocence and good things in the world… just before the wolf right behind him bites him in half and devours whatever falls out onto the green and dewy grass. Either he was just that bunny-innocent, or he was deliberately bullshitting us. We’ve wound up in the same place no matter which was true.
If British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain can be rightly said to be Adolf Hitler’s 20th-century champion chump, then Anthony Kennedy gets the nod for top money-power chump of the 21st century to date. If you think everything has gotten worse since 2010, you’re not wrong, and Citizens United squats in the middle of the phenomenon like a poison toad.
Which brings us to the newest star in this constellation of corruption and raw power.
“An elderly, ultra-secretive Chicago businessman has given the largest known donation to a political advocacy group in U.S. history — worth $1.6 billion — and the recipient is one of the prime architects of conservatives’ efforts to reshape the American judicial system, including the Supreme Court,” reports The Lever. “Through a series of opaque transactions over the past two years, Barre Seid, a 90-year-old manufacturing magnate, gave the massive sum to a nonprofit run by Leonard Leo, who co-chairs the conservative legal group the Federalist Society.”
The fellow at the happy end of this transaction, Leo, is a titanic part of the reason Roe v. Wade has fallen to dust, and why privacy and marriage equality (for openers) may be next.
Seid (pronounced “said”) made his vast fortune catering to the analog end of the digital revolution — you may have one of his power strips in your home right now, or the servers in your office may be swaddled in one of his server farm cooling systems — but he is largely unknown outside a tight-knit group of far right activists who emerged from the University of Chicago. Among the university organizations he has supported are the trickle-down prophets at the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics and the climate-denying Heartland Institute, which have both enjoyed Seid’s secretive multimillion-dollar largesse over the years.
This is one of those problems for which the solution is both easy and altogether impossible: Get the money out of politics! Right, good, of course, and while you’re at it, grab that bunny out of the wolf’s jaws. “Even if you set aside the monkeyshines from Mar-A-Lago, and the ratfcking,” storms Esquire blogger Charlie Pierce. “And the voter suppression. And the gerrymandering — Even if you eliminated all of those, our elections still would be a farce because of how money power has been allowed to drown the process.”
Everything — and I mean everything — just got harder because of the thermonuclear money bomb Barre Seid slipped into the formidable financial arsenal already enjoyed by Leonard Leo and his Federalist Society cronies. That organization just finished turning the Supreme Court into a right-wing playground without Seid’s gigantic payout.
Now, Leo and his allies can play on a much broader field. All those shabby Trump-picked Senate candidates Mitch McConnell recently lamented can expect some much-needed stuffing in their campaign coffers ere long. It is all of a piece, financed now beyond the dreams of avarice, and only 76 days to the midterms.
All of a sudden, and with everything else piling up like a million-car crash in the icy fog of the Tri-State Tollway, the vicious reality of campaign finance laws have forced themselves to the top of the priorities list once again. There is no fixing anything until this is fixed. Now go get that bunny.