Dollarocracy

The new book by John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, "Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America," is published this week. Radio host Thom Hartmann says: "'Dollarocracy' is the most important political book of the year, maybe of our times. Nichols and McChesney provide an original and painstakingly researched account of how corporations and billionaires have come to dominate the political process, as well as the contours of what they term the 'money-and-media election complex.'"

In this excerpt from "Dollarocracy," Nichols and McChesney explain how the complex works:

At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new. — Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

Scarcely one hundred years after Roosevelt identified his central condition of progress, they have reversed it, with court rulings and practices that are contributing to the destruction of the American electoral system as an avenue and tool for realizing the democratic dreams that have animated American progress across two centuries. U.S. elections have never been perfect — far from it — but the United States is now rapidly approaching a point where the electoral process itself ceases to function as a means for citizens to effectively control leaders and guide government policies. It pains us, as political writers and citizens who have spent a combined eighty years working on and/or covering electoral campaigns, to write these words. But there can no longer be any question that free and fair elections — what we were raised to believe was an American democratic birthright — are effectively being taken away from the people.

In this book we examine the forces — billionaires, corporations, the politicians who do their bidding, and the media conglomerates that facilitate the abuse — that have sapped elections of their meaning and of their democratic potential. “The Money Power,” as Roosevelt and his contemporaries termed the collaboration that imposed the will of wealth on our politics, achieves its ends by flooding the electoral system with an unprecedented tidal wave of unaccountable money. The money makes a mockery of political equality in the voting booth, and the determination of media companies to cash in on that mockery — when they should instead be exposing and opposing it — completes a vicious circle.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, as we note in the historical chapters of this book. But it is an accelerating phenomenon. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision allowing unlimited corporate campaign spending confirmed the court-ordered diminution of democratic processes that over four decades has renewed the political privileges of the elites. “The day before Citizens United was decided,” Lawrence Lessig wrote, “our democracy was already broken. Citizens United may have shot the body, but the body was already cold.”

Economic elites are now exercising those privileges with an abandon not seen since the era of the robber barons that Roosevelt decried. To enhance the influence of their money, billionaires, corporations, and their political pawns began in the run-up to the 2012 election to aggressively advance policies designed to limit the voting rights of those Americans who are most disinclined to sanction these elites’ continued dominance of the political process. They are grasping for total power, and if they did not succeed in choking off the avenues of dissent in 2012, they will surely return — with increased determination and more insidious tactics — in 2014 and 2016 and beyond. “We have one of the worst election processes in the world right in the United States of America,” former president Jimmy Carter said in 2012, “and it’s almost entirely because of the excessive influx of money.”

The moneyed interests are confident, even in the face of temporary setbacks, that they will be able to continue their initiative because they are well served by the rapid decline of the news media as a checking and balancing force on our politics. Our dominant media institutions do an absolutely dreadful job of drawing citizens into public life, especially elections. The owners of media corporations have made their pact with the new order. For the most part, they do not challenge it, as the crusading editors and publishers of another age did. Rather, advertising managers position media outlets to reap windfall profits through the broadcasting of invariably inane and crudely negative political campaign advertising, which is the lingua franca of American electioneering in the twenty-first century. The corporate media are the immediate financial beneficiaries of our increasingly absurd election system — and the primary barriers to its reform. To talk about the crisis of money in politics without addressing the mess that the media have made of things is the equivalent of talking about the deliberate fire without discussing the arsonist.

We term the combine that has emerged the “money-and-media election complex.” It has become so vast and so powerful that it can best be understood as an entity unto itself. This complex is built on a set of commercial and institutional relationships involving wealthy donors, giant corporations, lobbyists, consultants, politicians, spinmeisters, corporate media, coin-operated “think tanks,” inside-the-beltway pundits, and now super PACS. These relationships are eviscerating democratic elections and benefit by that evisceration. The complex has tremendous gravitational power, which increases the degree of difficulty for those wishing to participate in elections outside its paradigm. The complex embraces and encourages a politics defined by wealthy funders, corporate media, and the preservation of a new status quo; it is the modern-day reflection of the arrangements that served the robber barons of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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