It’s an iconic image: A group of tough-talking, cigar-smoking politicians wearing cheap suits and drinking whiskey gather in the backroom of some convention center somewhere in the US.
They trade bribes, offer each other favors and calculate the odds, and then, after hours of debate punctuated by the occasional cigar puff, they pick their candidate.
This is more or less how people were nominated for president for most of the modern era here in the United States.
It wasn’t the people who picked the candidates; it was the party bosses, who were more concerned with keeping their machines running than representing the will of the people.
This system, while great for the political insiders, was terrible for the country, and it only really began to change in the 1960s, when both the Republican and Democratic parties opened up their primary system so that everyday voters would have a bigger say in choosing who they wanted to run for president.
The new system wasn’t perfect – establishment candidates still had the edge – but it was a step forward from the days when corrupt politicians called all the shots behind closed doors.
It at least had the potential to allow an outsider run, and Barack Obama probably never would have been nominated for president in 2008 without it.
But ever since the Supreme Court opened up the floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, we’ve moved back to the old system.
Nobody wants to admit it, but our political process is rapidly going back to the days when cigar-smoking insiders handpicked the nominees, except this time it’s not corrupt political bosses choosing who they want to run for president, it’s billionaires like the Koch Brothers.
As The New York Times pointed out over the weekend, “fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.”
Another report, this one from the Associated Press, found that just “60 donations of a million dollars or more accounted for about a third of the more than $380 million brought in so far for the 2016 presidential election.”
There’s a word for this kind of political system where wealth, power and influence are concentrated in the hands of such a few number of people: oligarchy.
Former President Jimmy Carter talked about that on a recent episode of my radio show.
While everyday voters still technically choose the candidates these days, the boatload of money that’s flooded into our political system in the wake of Citizens United has changed the game.
The only candidates who actually stay in the race are the candidates who have billionaires behind them.
This is why, for example, in 2012 Newt Gingrich was able to campaign well past his past due date. With Sheldon Adelson backing him, he never had to worry about running out of money like a traditional second place candidate would have had to.
It’s also why over the weekend, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and a few of the other Republican frontrunners went to the Koch brothers’ annual summer seminar at a fancy resort out in California – they know that the single most important factor in determining their success as candidate is whether their Super PAC gets that big fat check from Charles and David Koch.
So voters still have a choice, but those choices are shaped and ultimately determined by who the billionaires want to run for president.
It’s a sham democracy, and when it comes down to it, it’s really no different than the days when corrupt party bosses sat in backrooms haggling over candidates like they were cattle.
Replace Super PACs with party machines and the system is pretty much the same, the corruption just happens to be out in the open this time.
People, not party insiders or billionaire plutocrats, should pick our presidents.
So go to Move To Amend now to help money out of politics once and for all.