Those who have followed the Republican campaign for the presidential nomination and current contest between Romney and Obama know that the United States has no political leadership in Washington.
Billions of dollars have been spent on political propaganda, but not a single important issue has been addressed. The closest the campaign has come to a political issue is which candidate can grovel the lowest at the feet of Israeli prime minister Netanyahu. Romney won that contest. But for the rest, well, it is like two elementary school children sticking their tongues out at one another.
The question of US political leadership has been on my mind for some time. I can remember when political leadership still existed and when bipartisan cooperation could be mustered on enough issues to keep the country and the government functioning.
But no more. It might have been Newt Gingrich who, as Speaker of the House, destroyed bipartisan cooperation by making war on the Democratic Party, warfare that Karl Rove has taken to a new height.
When a country loses leadership, how does a country get leadership back? This is an important question. Without leadership, there is only violence. Once the Romans lost their republic, there was no one to lead them and they were ruled by violence. Will this be our fate?
These thoughts were in my mind when I happened to hear Cynthia McKinney speak. Here was a leader, a person with sufficient fire, knowledge, and compassion for others. Cynthia McKinney served six terms in the House of Representatives as a Democrat from Georgia. In 2008 she was the Green Party’s candidate for president. As a US Representative, Cynthia McKinney defied the cowardly Nancy Pelosi and introduced articles of impeachment against President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
If there had been any leadership in Congress in addition to that of Cynthia McKinney and Dennis Kucinich, the executive branch criminals who violated US law, international law, the US Constitution, and committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, would have been impeached, and today American citizens would be safe in their civil liberties protected by the US Constitution.
But as McKinney and Kucinich stood alone in their leadership, the Constitution is eviscerated and the executive branch is above the law. The US government now routinely commits war crimes and violates all of the traditional, but no longer extant, rights of US citizens.
Cynthia McKinney survived brickbats, but she did not survive the Israel Lobby. She spoke up for the Palestinians, a taboo in American politics, and Israeli money got her evicted from the House of Representatives.
Recently, I had an opportunity to speak with Cynthia McKinney, and I asked her about leadership. She replied that at the local level in the black communities there is leadership. It no longer gets media coverage, but it is there.
At the elected political level, she said the public confuses leadership with election to office. But many elected politicians are sycophants for the powers who control the existing order. Real leaders are those with the courage to dissent and to resist. It is the act of resistance that transforms an elected person into a leader.
What Cynthia McKinney was telling me is that politics is a virtual reality, full of paper cutout props, pretending to be leaders, while the few real leaders are demonized, redistricted, and disposed of. McKinney, who was brave enough to take on all the forces of evil, also took on Israel for its crimes against the Palestinians.
This shamed almost every other member of Congress, both House and Senate, cowards who sit silently while Israel oppresses the Palestinians and steals their land. McKinney’s moral conscience resulted in the Israel Lobby putting her on the extermination list. McKinney’s constituents had not seen a leader in so long that they were unable to recognize one, and the Israel Lobby got away with it. She told me: “The Anti-Defamation League wanted me out of Congress and filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case to dismantle the District that sent me to Washington, D.C.”
From the Washington Establishment’s point of view, Cynthia McKinney was extremely dangerous. She spoke for the people, not for the monied interest groups. In Washington, this is impermissible behavior. And on top of it all, she challenged the government’s official story about 9/11.
OPINION ~ When it comes to the vast, corrupting influence of money in politics, historian Thomas Frank has sounded the alarm loudly and often. In “It’s a Rich Man’s World,” one of his recent essays for Harper’s Magazine, Frank writes, “Over the course of the past few decades, the power of concentrated money has subverted professions, destroyed small investors, wrecked the regulatory state, corrupted legislators en masse, and repeatedly put the economy through the wringer. Now it has come for our democracy itself.”
Bill talks with Frank about the power of concentrated money to subvert democracy.
Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” was a best seller and his latest, “Pity the Billionaire,” asks how Tea Partiers and their allies can make heroes of the rich and mighty who ran us into a ditch.
Bill Moyers: This week on Moyers & Company …
Thomas Frank: We have just come through this sort of extraordinary real world demonstration of the folly of our financial system, of all the stuff that we’ve been doing, the deregulation of the last 30 years, the setup of the Federal Reserve system, however you want to put it, it has all failed us.
Bill Moyers: And …
Monika Bauerlein: You no longer really have one person, one vote. You have one person, one vote, one million dollars.
Clara Jeffery: So essentially you can create the regulatory landscape that you want if you can, essentially, buy elections.
Bill Moyers: Welcome. If you’re visiting a candidate this summer and looking for a thoughtful house gift, might we suggest a nice super PAC? Thanks to the Supreme Court and Citizens United, they’re all the rage among the mega-wealthy. All it takes is a little paperwork and a wad of cash and presto, you can have, as “The Washington Post” describes it, a “highly customized, highly personalized” political action committee.
It’s easy – super PACs come in all amounts and affiliations. You don’t have to spend millions, although a gift that size certainly won’t be turned aside. Cable TV tycoon Marc Nathanson got a super PAC for his friend, longtime Democratic Congressman Howard Berman from California, and all it cost was $100,000. Down in North Carolina, Republican congressional candidate George Holding received a handsome super PAC that includes $100,000 each from an aunt and uncle and a quarter of a million from a bunch of his cousins. Yes, nothing says family like a great big, homemade batch of campaign contributions.
George Holding: 2012 is the most important election we’re ever going to have.
Bill Moyers: You can start a super PAC on your own or contribute to one that already exists. Super PACs are available for every kind of race – presidential, congressional or statewide. But there are other ways you can help buy an election. Look at the Wisconsin recall campaign of Republican Governor Scott Walker. At least fourteen billionaires rushed to Walker’s side. He outraised his Democratic opponent by nearly eight to one. Most of his money came from out of state. More than sixty million dollars were spent, and $45 million of it for Walker alone. Here are just a few of the satisfied buyers:
Wisconsin billionaire Diane Hendricks contributed more than half a million dollars on Scott Walker’s behalf. Fearful the United States might become “a socialistic ideological nation,” she’s an ardent foe of unions – and against, in her words, “taxing job creators.” True to her aversion to taxes, she paid none in 2010, despite being worth, according to “Forbes Magazine,” about $2.8 billion dollars. Before he launched his crusade against the collective bargaining rights of working people, Governor Walker held this conversation with Diane Hendricks.
Diane Hendricks: Any chance we’ll ever get to be a completely red state, and work on these Unions?
Scott Walker: Oh yeah.
Diane Hendricks: And become a right-to-work? What can we do to help you?
Scott Walker: Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.
Bill Moyers: And so he did. Walker also hauled in checks from the Texas oligarch Bob Perry for nearly half a million. Perry made his fortune in the home building business and is best known nationally for contributing four and a half million dollars to the Swift Boat campaign that smeared the Vietnam War record of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry back in 2004.
Then there’s casino king Sheldon Adelson, who gave Scott Walker’s cause $250,000. Of course, that’s a drop in the old champagne bucket compared to the $21 million Adelson’s family gave to the super PAC that kept Newt Gingrich in the race long after the formaldehyde had been ordered. Adelson did not long mourn Gingrich’s passing, and is now giving as much as $10 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.
Next up on Scott Walker’s list of beneficent plutocrats: Rich DeVos, owner of the Orlando Magic basketball team and co-founder of the home products giant Amway, which, thanks to Republican leaders in Congress, once shared in a $19 million tax break after a million-dollar DeVos contribution to the Republican Party. He’s a long-time member of the secretive Council for National Policy, a who’s who of right-wing luminaries.
And Louis Moore Bacon, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Moore Capital – which in 2010 was fined $25 million for attempted commodities manipulation. A big backer of Romney, he, too came to Walker’s aid in Wisconsin.
I could go on and name more, but you get the picture. These are the people who are helping to fund what the journalist Joe Hagan describes as a “tsunami of slime.”
FEMALE: Newt Gingrich: too much baggage.
Bill Moyers: Even as they are afforded respectability in the value-free world of plutocracy, they can hide the fingerprints they leave on the bleeding corpse of democracy.
And that’s how the wealthy one percent does its dirty business. They want to own this election. So if there are any of you left out there with millions to burn, better buy your candidate now, while supplies last.
This is no time to mince words and thank goodness, Thomas Frank never does so. In a recent essay in Harper’s Magazine – “It’s a rich man’s world” – he wrote: “Over the course of the past few decades, the power of concentrated money has subverted the professions, destroyed small investors, wrecked the regulatory state, corrupted legislators en masse, and repeatedly put the economy through the wringer. Now it has come for our democracy itself.”
Strong stuff, and typical of Thomas Frank, the historian and journalist. His book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? was a best seller about how we so willingly allow money and ideology to subvert government, against our own self-interest. Now, we have his latest – Pity the Billionaire, in which the worst economy since the l930s has led to a revival of power for the very people who brought it about. Thomas Frank, welcome.
Thomas Frank: It’s my pleasure to be here.
Bill Moyers: This week Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase testified before the Senate Banking Committee on how his bank got it wrong on risk management. What would you think if I told you that seven members of the Senate Banking Committee have been big recipients of money from JPMorgan Chase?
Thomas Frank: I would not be surprised, not in the least. That’s obviously where JPMorgan would be spending its lobbying dollar would be on the, you know, giving to the campaigns of the people on that committee. That’s the wisest strategic choice for them.
Bill Moyers: And get this. The bank has been the second largest contributor to Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat, the chairman of the committee.
Thomas Frank: And I got news for you. They also, I mean, you know this already, they also were one of the biggest donors, or their, I should say their employees, to President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and also to, I believe, to John McCain’s campaign in 2008. This is the nature of what they do. They spread their spread the wealth around, you know.
Bill Moyers: And there’s more. One of Senator Johnson’s former staffers is now one of JPMorgan’s chief lobbyists. And the chairman’s present top assistant used to be a lobbyist for a law firm that worked for JPMorgan. I mean, this wasn’t a hearing. This was a reunion of the Gambino family.
Thomas Frank: Well, look, this is what we call in Washington the revolving door, okay. And this, if your viewers haven’t heard of this they need to learn about it right away because this is how Washington D.C. works is that people go back and forth from, typically from Capitol Hill staffs to working for lobby firms or directly for these, you know, the clients of the lobby firms that have to do with the interests that they used to work on when they were on Capitol Hill.
And then they go back and lobby to their former boss, right, and convince him or her to vote one way or the other. And that’s how you get ahead in lobbying is you start out working for someone on Capitol Hill, a powerful senator on a given committee. And then you go and essentially sell that expertise, sell that, you know, the fact that your friends with that guy to, you know, to a lobbying firm or to a bank or to whoever. That’s totally how it works.
Bill Moyers: It’s an interlocking cartel and it’s serious business. How can we claim to have a representative government when they really are representing the people who bought the campaigns and not the voters who voted for them? It’s a serious question.
Thomas Frank: Well, there are people who, I’m going to get cynical on you here, Bill. There are people who believe that the more money we have in politics the closer we become to a democracy. They think it’s better for there to be more money in politics.
Why do they think that? Because they think that the market is a democracy, that markets are democracy and that government is, when government interferes in the economy it’s illegitimate by definition. And so the more money we get in there the more it allows entities like JPMorgan to defend themselves against the sort of, you know, the heavy-handed meddling of some, you know, Washington bureaucrat.
Bill Moyers: But what does it say when members of the Senate Banking Committee have received $13 million over the last few years from the financial services industry? And these are the guys who are supposed to protect the common folks out there from the predatory lenders. I mean, what happened?
Thomas Frank: They haven’t done a very good job, have they?
Bill Moyers: That’s the answer.
Thomas Frank: They’ve done exactly the opposite. I mean, you can look over their record over the last 20 years, all the amazing ways in which they deregulated the financial industry, I mean, this is the story of our time.
And they deregulated this aspect, the other aspect, everything, you know, overturned the Glass-Steagall rules, you know, that’s the biggest example. But my favorite one, actually this wasn’t the Senate that did this, this was the Bush administration. A lot of states have laws against predatory lending and were enforcing those laws.
The rich are different from you and me, but the really, really, really rich are also different from the merely rich.
For example, the rich can buy caviar and Champagne, but the Triple-R Rich can buy entire presidential campaigns.
Take Sheldon Adelson, the moneybags who’s pumped $11 million so far into Newt Gingrich’s right-wing run. He has single-handedly kept Gingrich’s White House ambitions alive. Without this one guy’s money, The Newt would’ve been long gone. Thanks a lot, Sheldon.
But Adelson can easily afford to roll the dice on a far-out candidate. This global casino baron hauled in $3.3 million in pay last year. Not for a year — that’s what his hourly take was. In other words, his $11-million bet on Newt, which altered the Republican presidential race, was nothing — less than three-and-a-half hours of one of Sheldon’s workdays.
Even Rick Santorum, who’s so far to the right that his left brain has entirely atrophied from lack of use, is actually in the running for the GOP nomination. He insists that people are flocking to him because of the power of his ideas. Sure, Rick — and the power of Foster Friess’ money.
This little-known Wall Street multimillionaire has long been a partner in the Koch brothers’ plutocratic cabal and a steady funder of right-wing Christian politics. Friess modestly claims that God is “the chairman of my board.” I doubt that, but Friess definitely is Santorum’s guardian angel, having kept his campaign of wackiness afloat with untold infusions of cash. When Friess was told that Santorum’s recent caucus wins would prompt Mitt Romney’s Triple-R Richies to counterattack, he was thrilled. I think that “is so exciting,” he warbled.
The year is 1909. The US income distribution is about as lopsided as it is today. J.P. Morgan is fine-tuning a tariff bill by telegraph from his yacht. Morgan and his fellow robber barons have for years reliably tied Congress up in knots whenever anyone proposes regulating trusts, railroad rates, financial speculation, or labor disputes. A notoriously corrupt ring of US senators, the so-called “Millionaires Club,” is on hand to bury in committee any measures that the corporate titans frown upon.
Fast-forward to 2011. Being a millionaire in Congress is nothing special – just about half of all members are one. The legislative process works less operatically, but the result is pretty much the same: legislative gridlock punctuated by occasional blatant special-interest legislation. Banks are rescued; the unemployed are left to their own devices. The housing market is left in free fall, with the bailed-out banks mostly still left to call the tune on foreclosures.
As national income stagnates, financiers submerge financial reforms and derivatives regulation under waves of campaign contributions. Meanwhile, a vast array of interested firms and investors dispatch armies of lobbyists to stymie Congressional action on climate change, block the government from bargaining down prices of drugs paid for by federal health programs, and keep tax increases forever off the national agenda.
We watch the news to see if Congressional stalemates over deficits will lead to a government default that would throw world financial markets into turmoil or force draconian, across-the-board budget cuts at Thanksgiving time. But while we hold our breath, popular discussions about Congress have taken a curious turn. Pundits talk nostalgically about the good old days, when representatives from the two parties regularly played golf together and compromised their differences in the name of the larger national interest. Today such outcomes are said to be impossible. But why, exactly?