By John Nichols
“There is looming up a new and dark power.… The accumulation of individual wealth seems to be greater than it ever has been since the downfall of the Roman Empire. And the enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economic conquests only but for political power.”
So said Edward Ryan, the populist jurist of the mid-nineteenth century whose rage at the corruption of democracy by the wealthy and their corporations inspired generations of progressives and populists to try to constrain “the money power.”
Ryan’s warning, delivered in 1873, described the politics of the twenty-first century more accurately than most of the reporting by today’s pliant contemporary media.
“For the first time really in our politics, money is taking the field as an organized power,” he explained. “It is unscrupulous, arrogant and overbearing.”
But it is not proud.
No matter what the billionaire Koch brothers and their operatives say.
This week, it has been revealed that Charles and David Koch and their wealthy partners funded an, until now, “secret bank” that made “grants” of $236 million during the 2012 election cycle to maintain the right-wing political infrastructure that advances their economic interests. And by all accounts, they’re just getting started.
When the official paperwork is filed with the Internal Revenue Service in short order, it will, according to documents shared by the new “Freedom Partners” group with Politico, reveal massive “grants” to undermine implementation of the Affordable Care Act ($115 million to the anti-Obamacare Center to Protect Patient Rights), maintain the Tea Party movement and related political projects ($32.3 million to Americans for Prosperity and smaller checks for the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots), promote Paul Ryan’s austerity agenda on Social Security and Medicare ($15.7 to the conservative 60-Plus Association), promote the right-wing social agenda in the states ($8.2 million to the Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee), shore up the gun lobby ($3.5 million to the National Rifle Association) and develop the ability of conservative groups to use data mining to advance their projects ($5 million to the Themis Trust voter database initiative).
This is not about contributions to candidates or campaigns.
This is not about contributions to parties or traditional political organizations.
This is about “framing the debate.”
Winning elections matters. But shaping the discourse—so that no whichever party wins, so that whichever candidate prevails, the discussion defaults to a narrow set of “options”—matters more.
The management of the debate by powerful interests explains why a Congress that cannot seem to do anything useful will this week vote for the forty-first time to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Why “entitlement reforms” that the American people do not want remain “on the table.” Why Washington insiders keep proposing the same tax breaks for the rich, free trade deals and austerity schemes. Why state legislators talk about restricting the right to choose rather than expanding public education.
Freedom Partners is the latest of the many Koch creations that shape the discourse and the politics of the United States—not always with success, but with a consistency that assures long-term influence. Koch Industries is quick to point out that “Freedom Partners is a non-profit, non-partisan business league” that “operates independently of Koch Industries.” Yes, but three of the group’s five directors list Koch connections in their biographies and a fourth is one of Charles Koch’s close friends. In addition to the Kochs, the major donors to Freedom Partners, which raised $256 million during the 2012 election cycle, are reportedly the wealthy attendees at the secretive policy summits that have become command-performance events for prominent Republicans such as House Budget Committee chairman Ryan and House majority leader Eric Cantor.
“Our members are proud to be part of [Freedom Partners],” the group’s president, Marc Short, told Politico.
No, they’re not.
In the same conversation where he spoke about the “proud” Freedom Partners “members,” Short refused to reveal their identities. And he refused to say how much money the various billionaires and millionaires are chipping in to buy a piece of the American dream—except to note that the top donor gave around $25 million, so it’s not all Koch money. Which begs a question: Who else is buying?
And another question: How do groups like this get away with so much secrecy?
Organized under section 501(c)6 of the Tax Code, Freedom Partners operates as a trade association or “business league”—as in the National Football League.
Trade associations that utilize this section of the Tax Code must reveal the recipients of their “grants.” But they do not generally have to reveal the sources of those grants because the lists of donors they file with the IRS are not considered public documents.
Which brings us back to Edward Ryan.
The populist judge closed his great rant of 1873 by saying: “The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine: Which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect. Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic freemen or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?”
There’s not much question that wealth rules the day. While banks and Wall Street insiders get bailouts, great American cities are driven into bankruptcy.
There’s not much question that money trumps intellect. What else could explain the focus of official Washington on billionaire-backed schemes that would “fix the debt” by lowering tax rates for billionaires while at the same time imposing “chained-CPI” cuts on retirees with fixed incomes?
But Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan provide daily confirmation that the feudal serfs of corporate capital have occupied public stations. And that occupation is not merely a Republican project; in Washington and across the country there are Democrats who preach privatizations, austerity cuts and policies that will only result in a redistribution of the wealth upward.
So we have answered most of Edward Ryan’s questions.
But they only point to new questions:
Who is paying to create a “money power” politics where wealth rules, money trumps intellect and feudal serfs of corporate capital occupy public stations?
Why are they allowed to operate in secret?
And what are we the people going to do about it?