Democracy's Rich Pageant

Democracy’s Rich Pageant

Happy Election eve, everyone! We’ve already been solemnly instructed on how tomorrow’s vote is a referendum on a poncey New Elitism, the hardy, head-stomping virtues of the Tea Party, and our ever-precarious national sanity. But the 2010 midterms are really the coming-out party for the political bagman class, fortified by the Supreme Court’s 2009 Citizens United decision knocking down the last anemic remnants of campaign finance regulation. With a final infusion of GOP money down the homestretch, this year’s midterms are the most expensive history, clocking in at around $4 billion, outpacing the $3.1 billion price tag for the 2000 presidential cycle, and possibly inching toward the $4.14 billion tab for 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But where past transfers of political wealth were fairly straightforward pay-to-play affairs, the first post-Citizens cycle boasts the rise of potent new sluices of dosh. The major players on today’s scene are so-called outside interest groups — a misnomer on many levels, not least that their billionaire donors are about as far “outside” the system as Michael Bay is a model of cinematic restraint. We often make sport of the good people at Forbes, but the plutocrats’ monthly actually has a very cool breakdown of both the supply and demand sides of the cash-milching equation in American politics. Going back to the last midterm cycle in 2006, Forbes reporter Jon Brunner matches the billionaire members of the Forbes 400 list with their patterns of political giving. The aggregate results are not all that shocking: The billionaires who doled out some $30 million in PAC and campaign cash “give about 15% more to the GOP than to Democrats, but their largesse is received eagerly on both sides of the aisle and by PACs nearly everywhere on the political spectrum.”

Well, yeah. But one telling factoid jumps out in the Forbes roster of “Billionaires’ Favorite Politicians”: After John McCain and Barack Obama, who as presidential candidates commanded the big seven-figure paydays, the lawmaker who netted the biggest billionaire outlay was GOP Sen. Norm Coleman — who hasn’t actually held office for roughly half of the survey’s time sample. That’s because Coleman now heads up something called the American Action Network, an “outside” group that’s so far run up $17 million in outlays for 9,000 of the most vicious attack ads going. One breathtakingly cynical such spot targets House Democrats for supporting an alleged subsidy for Viagra in the health care reform law — even though the stillborn amendment in question was actually the brainchild of GOP Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who never even bothered to include it in his own alternative version of the health care bill. And the beauty part is that, under the Supreme Court’s 2007 Wisconsin Right to Life ruling, such nonprofits are now under the legal supervision of the IRS, as opposed to the FEC. This means that groups like Coleman’s never have to disclose any donors; the only surefire way to track their backers down is via the cross-data tabs that Forbes employed, which means you already have to have the names of the pertinent high-rolling players in hand ahead of time.

And of course, the biggest congeries of big-money belongs to another nominally retired Republican macher, Karl Rove, whose no-less stirringly named outfit American Crossroads, which together with an allied campaign operation called Crossroads GPS, is slated to dump more than $65 million in similar fast-and-loose attack ads. (Technically a right-wing PAC called American Issues Project still outranks the Rove groups in its munificence, but that’s another hangover from the 2008 cycle, when American Issues made sure the name “William Ayres” alongside the term “terrorist” ricocheted far and wide across Cathodeland.) From September through mid-October, two-thirds of American Crossroads $15 million fundraising take came from two corporate and three billionaire individual donors, Politico reports. Indeed, once you adjourn over to Forbes’ edifying slideshow of “billionaires bankrolling the right” there’s much talk of money shifting into outside group coffers, but even the billionaire-besotted Forbes shop is largely consigned to guess work when it comes to totting up confirmed numbers. There’s libertarian energy mogul David Koch, for instance, who founded his own outside group, Americans For Prosperity, which “is reported to be spending about $45 million on right-wing candidates and causes this election cycle, many of them tied to the Tea Party.” But David’s personal ante isn’t clear; he and his equally firebreathing brother Charles “have never disclosed how much of this money comes from them; publicly, only about $3.9 million can be traced to the brothers, including a $1 million donation to the Republican Governors Association from David,” Forbes notes. There’s also already a legacy dimension to the outside-group racket, as befits all true oligarchies: Public Storage titan B. Wayne Hughes kicked in $2.55 million to American Crossroads this year, while his son helps man the check-stamping concession on the board of Coleman’s American Action Network.

So yes: As we all do our civic duty tomorrow, let’s bow gratefully before the new Money Power, which can pose as the voice of the aggrieved populist masses while also performing the neat trick of never disclosing its actual moneyed identity before public view. You can call it Tea Party Nation, I guess, but it looks a hell of a lot more like the United States of Skull and Bones.

Chris Lehmann’s book, Rich People Things, is available now! Like you could download it into your digital e-thingie reader right this second or even get it printed on ye old-fashioned paper.

Photo by amagill, from Flickr.