The American Monopoly Game

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

I watched “Up With Chris Hayes” last Saturday and Sunday morning.  If you haven’t checked out this show, you should.  It is the brightest political commentary on TV.  I heard something one of those mornings from one of the people on the show that surprised me.  One of the women on Hayes’ panel expressed surprise that the GOP seemed indifferent about their party’s willingness to offend women, Hispanics, blacks and gays, four groups of voters that will have an impact on the presidential election outcome.

When I heard that, and then listened to the reaction of Hayes and the other panelists,  all experienced political observers and, in some cases, veterans of political campaigns, I thought, “Don’t they get it?  Don’t they see what’s going on?”

It is easy for me to understand why Mitt Romney and the Republican party leaders and office holders don’t try to craft their appeal to attract those groups. Thousands of Republican office holders, in Congress and in state legislatures and city and county elective agencies across America do not worry about pleasing the named groups of voters.  They worry about failing to take sufficiently radical positions on “social issues” like abortion, contraception, homosexuality and marriage to insulate themselves from challenges in Republican primary elections.  This is a relatively new political development and here is how it has occurred:

In the last fifteen or twenty years we have seen the slow-motion auction sale of one of our major political parties.  The circumstances that made this possible were:  First:  The concentration of unprecedented wealth in a relatively small group of people and business corporations, mostly in the field of finance, banking and energy.    Second:  A shift of political  focus from foreign policy, fiscal policy and the general issues of governance to so-called “social issues” like those just named.   Third:  the advent of Fox News and talk radio,  media channels which have become the exclusive source of news and information about public issues for a large and growing segment of our population, whose relentless message is that all other media sources are dishonest and deliberately misleading.  Fourth:  The wholesale takeover of the Republican Party by an angry,  very motivated group of activists who believe that hostility toward the federal government is a core principle of conservatism; that a particular form of Christian religion, generally based on the belief that faith in its biblical statement is essential to a positive relationship with God and an acceptable moral code; and that any deviation from these beliefs amount to an abandonment of true conservative principles.

These developments have enabled a change in the way that political money affects American elections at the state, local and federal level.   Money has always been “the mothers’ milk of politics”, to quote an old political maxim.  Without it, only a  very wealthy person could leave gainful employment and finance the expense of persuading a large number of people to select hm or her to hold public office.  Political fund raising has always been part of the democratic process.

This salutary feature of our politics has become the mechanism for the purchase of the voting rights of many of our country’s political subdivisions, including several states, many state legislative and senatorial districts, several Congressional districts and a few United States Senatorial districts.  The system that has evolved to accomplish this is complex and interesting, if one is attracted to the “wheels inside of wheels” that seem to characterize many political strategies.

The paradox is that those who control most of the political money  have little or no interest   or philosophical investment in the above-mentioned “social issues”.  The Koch brothers, Bob Perry, Exxon,  and  the Chamber of Commerce are interested in profits, not philosophy, Christian or otherwise.  They buy  politicians,  not because they admire their views on abortion, but because they will protect the business interests of those who own them.

But – and here is where it gets interesting – the mechanics of buying a Republican politician has everything to do with those social issues and mindless hostility to government.   So, the agents who negotiate the sale of the politicians do so by following a very disciplined and rigorous strategy.   They use the same tactics that Genghis Kahn used when he led the Golden Horde out of the Gobi Desert in the 13th century.  His  successful campaign featured mercilessness.    Any city that resisted him was overpowered and annihilated.  The entire population was either killed or taken captive.   As news spread, he was often met by city leaders who would invite him in rather than suffer the fate of their more stubborn neighbors.

In our present political world, Temujin’s threat comes in the form of a Republican primary opponent.  Any incumbent Republican office holder or candidate who does not submit to direction finds himself or herself, about two weeks before election day, waking up to see two or three TV ads every hour from morning drive time to evening drive time, advising his or her constituents that he or she is a scoundrel, an untrustworthy and unreliable representative of “true conservatism” and unworthy of a conservative Republican vote.

As stated, the substance of these ads has nothing to do with the opinions of those who pay for them.  They are effective because Fox News and thousands of hours of talk radio have convinced the GOP’s “base”, the ones who vote in primary elections, that the ads describe the credentials for being a “conservative” and an honorable Republican.

This is why Republican-run state governments are more slavishly dedicated than Congress to shoehorning into the law books  more assaults on female reproductive rights, homophobic roadblocks to equality for gays, chauvinistic calls for deportation of undocumented persons, and Draconian cuts in money for education and welfare.  It is more expensive to buy a Congressman or a United States Senator than a hapless state legislator from Chitlin Junction Mississippi.  This price differential, however, has become significantly less important since the Supreme Court made corporate budgets available to make these buys.  Even U.S. Senators are now on the auction block.  See e.g. Senator Lugar.

Once the sale has been completed and the subject merchandise is in office, the true object of the exercise emerges.  Lobbyist agents of the buyers call on the office holder.  They ask for his or her vote on whatever issue is in his or her purview:  a tax amendment or deletion that facilitates profit at taxpayer expense; defunding of a regulatory agency that might become an embarrassment; veto of a nominee for such an agency; and on and on and on.  These are the kinds of seldom noticed or reported ways that corporate America’s financial oligarchy plays Monopoly.

Boardwalk, Park Place, Baltic Avenue and Marvin Gardens have been replaced by legislative districts, congressional districts  and county commissioner precincts.  Discipline is maintained by the threat of super-financed primary opposition and well publicized examples of what happens to those who don’t “play ball”.

There is one other aspect to this new game.  Here I suggest a different metaphor.  Hollywood has made us aware of the Mafia’s jargon, so we know that “made men” enjoy mob protection.  Just so, if the above mentioned merchandise performs as advertised, is obedient and reliable, he or she is spared worry about re-election.  If any ambitious rival mounts a primary challenge, he or she can expect the same kind of saturation media blitz described earlier.

Finally, here is one more paradox:  As a lawyer, I believe that Citizens United will be eventually overruled and relegated to history’s dustbin where Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. U.S. (the decision that approved the internment of the Japanese during WWII) reside.  I think the successful assault will conclude that constitutional protection  does not extend to bribery of public officials and that reasonable regulations designed to prevent bribery do not implicate free speech.  I believe that, when I was younger and my brain was working properly, I could have written a persuasive argument to that effect.  The argument would be based on the difference between human beings and corporations.  Humans are capable of abstract and even altruistic motivation.  The managers of corporations, however, have a fiduciary duty to the shareholders to limit their efforts to only one motive:  To make money.  Therefore, the only legal way that a corporation can contribute money to a politician must be based on the belief that, in exchange for the money, the office holder will facilitate the corporation’s profitability.  That is bribery.

This perfectly reasonable legal argument is paradoxical because the true evil of Citizens United is not that corporate money was made available to purchase an office holder’s agreement to cast one or more votes.  The true evil is that it makes money available to buy  punishment  for not casting votes and to effect the total ownership of the office holder.

I have all this on my mind because the only exercise of which I am still capable is walking.  I have regressed from running to jogging and, finally to  walking.  It now takes me about an hour and a half to walk three miles, on a “track” through the neighborhood where I live.  Because my mind is not a place to spend alone in for that length of time, I accompany myself with an Iphone loaded with podcasts and pair of earphones.  One day I listened for about an hour to a “This American Life” episode called “Take the Money and Run”.  Ira Glass, the producer, compiled a well done and detailed description of how the money game is played in Congress.  Here is a link:

My software will not permit me to embed a clickable link to the episode, so you will have to copy this link; then   fire up your web browser, get on the internet and paste it into the URL window.    I think it will be worth your time.

Well, if you have read this far, you can join me in worrying about the near (and maybe distant) future of our country’s political system.  I am comforted in a perverse way by reminding myself that, from about 1890 until 1964, the states that comprised the Confederacy were in thrall to Jim Crow.   Candidates in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana, in the 50’s,  competed with each other as to how crudely they could express their racist attitudes and their hatred for the federal government and its Supreme Court.  That atmosphere lasted so long it appeared to be irresistible and permanent.   Don Yarborough, a candidate for governor of Texas in 1962, was the first serious statewide candidate, so far as I know, who refused to join in that competition.

The encouraging thing about this is that, in a decade, racism became anathema to Southern politics.  Even a single comment expressing racism was sufficient to end a political career.

So, things can get better.   Larry Goodwyn once made a speech, in the course of which he said, “The walls of every citadel appear to be impregnable until the last moment before they crumble.”  That  has served me as a cure for hopelessness for almost sixty years.



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