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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

 
How the very wealthy stay in power and corrupt exhausted politicians

by David Atkins

The Sunlight Foundation has compiled a new report on the donations of the ultra-wealthy in elections, summarized at Mother Jones by Andy Kroll.

A few of the highlights:

In the 2012 election cycle, 28 percent of all disclosed donations—that's $1.68 billion—came from just 31,385 people. Think of them as the 1 percenters of the 1 percent, the elite of the elite, the wealthiest of the wealthy.

That's the blockbuster finding in an eye-popping new report by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan transparency advocate. The report's author, Lee Drutman, calls the 1 percent of the 1 percent "an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States." This rarefied club of donors, Drutman found, worked in high-ranking corporate positions (often in finance or law). They're clustered in New York City and Washington, DC. Most are men. You might've heard of some of them: casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Texas waste tycoon Harold Simmons, Hollywood executive Jeffrey Katzenberg...

The median donation from the 1 percent of the 1 percent was $26,584. As the chart below shows, that's more than half the median family income in America...

The 28.1 percent of total money from the 1 percent of the 1 percent is the most in modern history. It was 21.8 percent in 2006, and 20.5 percent in 2010...

For the 2012 elections, winning House members raised on average $1.64 million, or about $2,250 per day, during the two-year cycle. The average winning senator raised even more: $10.3 million, or $14,125 per day...

Of the 435 House members elected last year, 372—more than 85 percent—received more from the 1 percent of the 1 percent than they did from every single small donor combined.
I tend to agree with Chris Hayes that the biggest problem with our culture stems less from money in politics directly than it does with an insular, self-reinforcing culture among elites that is driving institutional failure across all facets of society, not just politics.

That said, it certainly doesn't help that whatever power there is in campaign donations to sway votes, the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent are exercising more and more of that power.

Finally, it's important to note that the corruption of this kind of money in politics isn't limited to morally crooked politicians taking legal bribes in order to enjoy the rotted fruits of power. There is plenty of that, of course, but that level of hyper-cynicism is usually reserved for those who haven't seen the process play out up close and don't know many politicians on a first-name basis.

As with most things in life, the truth is far murkier. In my experience, most politicians are human like the rest of us: flawed, idealistic, sometimes petty, sometimes awesome and generous people. They want to do well in their job, and they want to be able to come home and spend time with their families and hobbies. Most of the politicians I know are cool people with big hearts who are in politics for the right reasons. They tend to have bigger egos than most, but I tend to see bigger egos in the corporate world than the political world.

Money in politics has a nasty influence, but it's not what one might think at first. The problem is that raising money is an awful, exhausting dehumanizing process that sucks time, energy and idealism from anyone who engages in it. And to be successful in politics, you have to spend at least 3-4 hours a day on average just raising money. Anyone who works in non-profits has seen this firsthand in their world, too.

What ends up happening is that exhausted politicians are expected to live in a fishbowl taking barbs and arrows from all sides, smiling and shaking hands with hundreds of people while being experts on every issue. Then they get confronted by that proverbial lobbyist with the briefcase of $100,000 to be spent for or against them, and go with the flow not because it means chomping cigars in the Bahamas, but because to refuse the lobbyist means three more weekends away from the spouse and kids gladhanding unpleasant people and hosting rubber chicken dinners to make up for it. And if you think politicians in safe districts are immune, you'd be wrong: the safe ones are expected to raise boatloads of money to send to the leaders of their respective chambers for various reasons. Those who raise the most cash tend to see their bills sail through the appropriate committees. Those who don't raise the cash tend to feel cold shoulders from their colleagues and watch their bills mysteriously stall. If you've ever taken a shortcut at work because it's 6pm on a Friday night and you just want to go home, you know the most corrupting aspect of money in the political system.

The worst part? It's wrong, it's fixable, and fixing it would improve the lives of just about everyone in politics except for the consultants. But those who have made it to the top of the mountain worry that any changes might disadvantage them by altering the system they have learned to conquer. It's a classic collective action problem that won't be solved except by massive popular pressure.

The super-rich know this, too. It's in their interest to keep the big money flowing into the system. After all, to the top 1 percent of the 1 percent, it's pocket change they barely notice.


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