Hydra Head Number One: Government
Bernie Sanders reminds me of the boy who cried wolf. You know the story: a boy is sent out to guard the villagers’ sheep. It’s boring. One night, just for kicks, the boy hollers, “Help! Wolves!” Naturally, the villagers run to his side to fight off the threat, but when they arrive huffing and puffing to the field, the sheep are peacefully browsing and the boy is laughing like a loon. The angry villagers go home. The boy does it the next night with the same result. But, as often happens in these kinds of stories, on the third night things change. Wolves really do slink out of the woods and attack the sheep. The boy cries, “Help! Wolves!” and the villagers roll over in their beds and go back to sleep. The sheep and the boy are devoured. The moral of the story is don’t pretend you’re in trouble if you’re not.
But Bernie Sanders' hollering about Wall Street and greed in every speech isn't "crying wolf." When Sanders talks about the longstanding, ongoing, pervasive mutual back-scratching that exists between wealthy donors and elected officials, he's talking about something real.
Don't get me wrong. Being wealthy isn't bad. If it were, the lottery would go out of business. The problem is that, throughout human history, rich people have enjoyed privileges that poor people simply don’t have access to: adequate food, clothing and shelter; protection from enemies; proper medical attention when they are sick or injured. It also is true that those who Have want to hold on to what they have; those who Have Not must stand in the snow and look in through the window. This is the way the world has been, is now, and probably always will be. Jesus himself said “The poor you will always have with you.” But Jesus also said it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.
He wasn’t saying he didn’t like rich people; he was saying rich people generally care more about money than about improving their souls or helping poor people—some call this greed—and we all know Jesus was all about seeking god first and loving your fellow humans second. Got questions.org explains, "The rich man so often is blind to his spiritual poverty because he is proud of his accomplishments and has contented himself with his wealth. He is as likely to humble himself before God as a camel is to crawl through the eye of a needle." Major world religions recognize that greed exists and urge their followers to help their fellow humans. One of the five pillars of Islam, for example, says that Muslims should give alms to the poor.
Some rich people do help others. Other rich people, however, use their money to influence public policy, and the connection between government and business is...messy. Government regulation of business is supposed to prevent companies from making a profit at the expense of people’s health and safety, but regulations sometimes are pushed aside. It happened at Love Canal in New York, where the government approved the dumping of industrial chemicals—and then had to come in and clean up the mess after people started getting sick. Koch Industries, one of the top three polluters of America’s air, water, and climate, has paid and continues to pay fines and penalties but goes on polluting. The toxic water in Flint, Michigan, has been in the news for months. By now, we know that the government knew the water was bad but did nothing. In the state of Wisconsin, the past five years has seen an unprecedented dismantling of the state's environmental laws in a partisan effort to smooth the way for big business.
These examples of corporate greed colluding with government and trampling on human welfare are troubling. But greed and government have been in cahoots from the founding of the republic. Mother Jones shares a timeline of campaign finance transgressions going all the way back to George Washington. This disheartening list shows that few presidential administrations—no, not even Lincoln’s—have been corruption-free.
One of the best-known and longest-running corruption machines was New York City’s Tammany Hall, also known as the Society of St. Tammany, the Sons of St. Tammany, or the Columbian Order. This organization was founded in 1786. It played a major role in controlling New York City and New York State politics from the 1790s to the 1960s.
To be sure, Tammany Hall provided real, necessary help to immigrants in a pre-welfare era. Tammany Hall provided food, money, legal advice, and jobs. No immigrant had to watch his children starve if Tammany Hall embraced him. According to The Reader’s Companion to American History, Tammany Hall’s popularity and endurance resulted from its willingness to help the city’s poor and immigrant populations.
But there was a catch. Tammany Hall didn’t help immigrants just to be nice. Under William M. “Boss” Tweed, Tammany supporters filled out paperwork, provided witnesses, and loaned immigrants money for the fees required to become citizens. They also bribed judges and other city officials to go along with whatever Tammany wanted. In exchange for all these benefits, immigrants voted for political candidates Tammany favored. Tweed biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman, quoted in Wikipedia, says, "... The Tweed ring at its height [controlled] key power points: the courts, the legislature, the treasury and the ballot box…Tammany depended for its power on government contracts, jobs, patronage, corruption, and ultimately the ability of its leaders to control nominations to the Democratic ticket and swing the popular vote."
Another alliance between government and business that caused an uproar was the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, which, before Watergate, was the "greatest and most sensational scandal in the history of American politics" according to Robert Cherney in Graft and Oil (2010, History Now).
What went down is this: in 1921, Warren G. Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, secretly leased naval oil reserve fields at Teapot Dome, Wyoming, and Elk Hills, California, to Harry F. Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny without anybody else having the chance to bid on the leases. This was legal under the Mineral Leasing Act of 1920. What was not legal was that, in return for the leases, Fall got loans and gifts from Doheny and Sinclair totaling about $404,000 (about $5.36 million today). Fall funneled the money into his ranch and his businesses.
Lawsuits related to the scandal went on for years. Finally, in 1927, the Supreme Court ruled that the oil leases had been fraudulently given out. The Court invalidated both leases and returned the land to the government. Fall was convicted in 1929 for accepting bribes and became the first U.S. cabinet member to be imprisoned for crimes committed while in office.
Did this scandal end bribery? Nope. It continues through the present day. This video clip shows a meeting between the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Georgia legislators in June 2015 during which ALEC wined and dined legislators so they would propose legislation to benefit the corporations ALEC represents. To make it easier for the lawmakers, ALEC kindly wrote the laws they wanted passed.
That’s right: lawmakers don’t write these laws; ALEC does. According to the Center for Media and Democracy, "through the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, global corporations and state politicians vote behind closed doors to try to rewrite state laws that…often directly benefit huge corporations." ALEC is at work in all 50 states.
Every generation expresses outrage when corruption rears its head yet again. The Occupy movement, for example, is about the intersection of state and corporate power. Unfortunately, corruption is easier to hide nowadays when money can be moved electronically with nobody the wiser, and political contributions can be made by corporations who, due to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United, have been granted the same rights as actual living people.
Hydra head Number Two: Media
In both Tammany Hall and Teapot Dome, the media played a part in bringing the corruption to light. In the 1970s, the Washington Post brought to light the skullduggery of the committee to re-elect the president. Last year, the video clip exposing ALEC’s machinations was produced by an NBC affiliate in Atlanta. But the media itself aren’t now and historically haven’t always been on the up and up.
One example of corrupt media is the Yellow Journalism that existed between 1895 and 1898, which helped push the United States into war in Cuba and the Philippines.
According to the U.S. Department of State, Yellow journalism was a style of newspaper reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts. Named for a popular comic coveted by major newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, Yellow Journalism referred to both publishers’ profit-driven coverage of world events. Pulitzer’s and Heart’s coverage of the Spanish-American war was so intense and captured the attention of such a vast readership that when the U.S. government wanted to go to war over Cuba, public support for the war was already in place. According to PBS, "Without sensational headlines and stories about Cuban affairs, the mood for Cuban intervention may have been very different."
Yellow Journalism isn't over. Think about what your favorite news medium offers as "news." Think about the last time your favorite medium presented both sides of an issue. Furthermore, the "free" press nowadays has a big problem.
The student mentioned at the top of this post was asked by her professor whether a liberal or conservative bias exists in the media, and, if so, whether that made her trust the media more or less.
The five media she was asked to examine were Fox News, Microsoft National Broadcasting Company (MSNBC), the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio.
The problem with this professor's premise is that only five corporations own the vast majority of magazines, books, music, news feeds, newspapers, movies, and radio and television stations in America.
Clearly, a liberal or conservative bias in the media can exist only if the parent company allows it.
According to "Democracy on Deadline," a film featured on PBS’s Independent Lens Series, in 1983, 50 corporations controlled most of the American media; by 2000,only six corporations had ownership of most media. Today, the five corporations that dominate the industry are Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Bertelsmann of Germany and Viacom (for the record, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR do not belong to any of these). Even on the internet, 80 percent of the top 20 online news sites are owned by the 100 largest media companies.
Liberal? Conservative? The professor’s question is moot, because he didn't mention other kinds of bias (racial bias, coverage of electoral politics, coverage of foreign news), nor did he mention the most insidious kind of bias.
A dangerous bias in the media is their corporatist bias, a tendency to select and to slant specific news stories that increase a corporation’s profits. A liberal or conservative bias can exist only if the media are free to arrive at an independent conclusion; the media cannot lean left or right if they are forced to choose programming and take editorial stances according to whatever is likeliest to increase profits.
This is hard to take. I grew up in an era when the press was seen as playing a central role in a functioning democracy because it acted as a watchdog. Back then, the press was called the "Fourth Estate," a term invented by Edmund Burke, which conveyed that an independent press was like a fourth branch of government. According to "Journalism in the Digital Age," a Stanford University research project, the Fourth Estate means "the role of the press is twofold: it both informs citizens and sets up a feedback loop between the government and voters. The press makes the actions of the government known to the public, and voters who disapprove of current trends in policy can take corrective action in the next election. Without the press, the feedback loop is broken and the government is no longer accountable to the people. The press is therefore of the utmost importance in a representative democracy."
Do the media still serve this function? Does anybody think that the independent Washington Post, which broke the Watergate scandal in 1972, would have pursued the story that led to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 if the Post had been owned by, say, a corporation that had bankrolled Nixon’s re-election? Woodward and Bernstein would have been told to back off.
Even major players in the journalism world who remain independent are said, by some, to lean one way or another. News Junkie says, “We all remember that during the buildup to the war in Iraq many journalists, even at the New York Times, were beating the drums of war to make America’s public opinion favorable to the invasion. The New York Times has also a long history of bias in favor of Israel. More recently, some serious allegations were made of collusion between some journalists of the Washington Post and their sources at the CIA." Are these allegations true? I don't know, but I'm glad somebody is asking questions.
Are there journalists who want to tell the truth? Certainly, but many, according to Into the Buzzsaw, which won the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the most extraordinary titles of 2002, have been prevented by corporate media ownership from reporting major news stories. Worse, the number of the number of full-time journalists at nearly 1,400 daily newspapers has shrunk from 55,000 in 2007 to 32,900 in 2015.
The love of power is the root of all evil
But controlling the media and influencing the government aren't enough. Some corporations also want to control the future of the country. A graphic by Represent us shows the top five donors to the top six presidential candidates as of February 18, 2016. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race last week, but his top donors come from Wall Street. Both Hillary Clinton’s and Ted Cruz’s top donors are Lawyers. Marco Rubio’s top donors are people from the Real Estate industry. Bernie Sanders’ top donors are people in Education, although Sanders is the only candidate who, so far, has not accepted large political donations (as of January 2, the average donation to Sanders was $27.16). Last but certainly not least, Donald Trump’s top donor is… Donald Trump, which may be one reason his party is having a hard time controlling him.
The United States is going to elect a president in nine months. Money is affecting the election because it is determining what voters hear on the airwaves and in the press. Money is financing campaigns. So it's important to know who is paying whose piper.
How much have corporate contributions contaminated elections? According to USA Today, the result of Citizens United has been a deluge of cash poured into political action committees (super PACs) in support of political candidates. Worse, much of this spending, known as "dark money," never has to be publicly disclosed. Speaking of Citizens United, USA Today says the "definition of corporations as people protected by the First Amendment created a loophole that campaigns and PACs are all too happy to use to their advantage."
And get this: USA Today cites a Brennan Center for Justice study from 2014 that found that of the $1 billion spent in federal elections by super PACs since 2010, nearly 60 percent of the money came from just 195 individuals and their spouses.
Are you OK with 195 couples providing over half the funding for federal elections? Do you suspect those folks might expect something for their contributions? As Bernie Sanders says, “People aren’t dumb.”
How did we come to this point and how can we change our course?
The whole hot mess started in 2002 when the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002 limited the contributions that could be made by interest groups and national political parties to political campaigns. It required candidates for political office, as well as interest groups and political parties supporting or opposing a candidate, to include in political advertisements on television and radio a statement identifying the candidate and stating that he or she approved the ad.
The act was challenged in late 2007 by a conservative organization called Citizens United, which wanted to run TV commercials to promote a political documentary that dissed Hillary Clinton. Months-long wrangling resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision in 2009 that the BCRA’s prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The Court said that corporations, as associations of individuals, have speech rights under the First Amendment. The Court said it is wrong to limit a corporation's ability to spend money on campaigns because it limits the ability of its members to associate effectively and to speak on political issues.
In other words: a corporation has the same right to free speech as a person. The catch: a corporation's pockets generally are deeper than yours or mine.
Not every justice on the court agreed with the majority decision. Justice Stevens wrote the minority opinion, saying the 5-4 ruling in favor of Citizens United, "threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution." He further wrote that "A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold."
Is it possible that our democracy isn't the one we grew up with? Is it possible that the people we have been, the people we want to be, isn't who we are any more? John Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan, gives ten reasons the United States is the most corrupt country in the world, and they all have to do with the contaminating influence of money.
Long ago, one of my professors wanted to illustrate the idea of integrity. He told this story:
Pat and River met in a bar. Pat asked River for sex. Offended, River said, “We just met. I’m not that kind of person.” Pat asked if River would have sex for $10,000,000. River said “Sure.” Pat handed over a ten dollar bill and said, “Let’s go.” River said, “What do you think I am?” Pat said, “We’ve already established what you are. Now we’re just haggling about the price.”
The purpose of this post is to pose a question: If people who “donate” to prostitutes expect to get something for their money, isn’t it possible that people who donate millions to candidates and corporations who gobble small, independent media outlets like potato chips expect to get something for their money as well?
Lincoln contemporary and poet laureate of the United States Walt Whitman said, "Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account." Whitman is talking about people being cut off from the blessings others enjoy. Do we have citizens born in America today who are "made of no account" as Whitman describes? Of course we do.
How can we fix that? One thing we must do is end corruption. Another thing we can do is seek out independent news groups and organizations (NPR is a beaut). We can contribute to candidates who don't take huge sums of money from questionable sources. We can spread the word to our friends.
Because if we take an interest in our country, maybe we can take it back.