A serious examination of the US midterm elections paints a very disappointing picture about the prospect for US democracy. While it is common that only a very low proportion of US voters go to the polls during a midterm election, in this season only 36.5% of the voters bothered to vote, which is less than the 40% in the previous midterm elections (Cook 2014). We all know about the lack of effectiveness of president Obama, and the filibustering in the Senate among Republicans, which has prevented major jobs initiatives from passing. But what is the real driver of the low voter turnout? The vast majority of the people have become apathetic about the political process, because they see themselves not able to influence politics anymore. Studies by political scientists like Gilens and Page (2014), Bartels (2008), Hacker and Pierson (2011), and others show quite unambiguously that the poor and the middle class have almost no influence in the political process. Instead one has to be really rich, and donate a lot of money to political campaigns in order to get heard by political leaders. About one-fifth of the time of Congress members is used raising money from donors (Klein 2014).
There is no doubt that Citizens United vs FEC, the notorious Supreme Court case in 2010 allowing private individuals to create Super PACs and fund an unlimited amount of political campaign advertisements, has contributed to the concentration of political power among the oligarchic elite (see Google Scholar search results on Citizens United). It was the icing on the cake, and essentially reflects long-running trends in US history. Since the 1970s, the income and wealth gap has widened with tax breaks for the rich, deregulation of Wall Street and corporations, growing international trade, technological changes having benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. As Piketty (2014) has pointed out, we are returning to the old 19th century history, when most of the income went to rich rentiers, because the rate of economic growth is lower than the rate of return on capital. In the 19th century, real estate and landholding was the primary form of capital ownership, while today we have added stocks and bonds as a form of wealth accumulation. The owners of Walmart, the Walton family, collectively own $152 billion in net worth (Forbes magazine), which is more than the poorest 40% of Americans combined owned (Moorhead 2012).
As Reich points out (interview with Solman 2013), it is only a matter of time, when the increased wealth among a few wealth holders will be used to generate greater political privileges, which both presidents named Roosevelt had denounced. Teddy Roosevelt attacked the big trusts surrounding Rockefeller and Morgan at the beginning of the 1900s (read his speech in Congress in 1901), and Franklin Roosevelt attacked the “economic royalists” in his radio speeches during the 1930s, the depth of the Great Depression, which brought Social Security, a jobs program, and many other progressive reforms (read his 1936 speech at the DNC).
But where are we today? The Koch brothers, whose net worth may well exceed $100 billion (de Jong 2014), have donated an extraordinary amount of money into the political campaigns of right-wing, conservative politicians, who deny global warming, oppose expansions of social programs, refuse to increase the minimum wage, support lower taxes on the rich, and want to cut Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Charles and David Koch believe in a form of libertarian ideology, where every working person has to fend for himself without any labor protections, and the environment can be exploited to the hilt by oil and gas companies like those owned by the Koch brothers. (The 1980 Libertarian Party platform led by David Koch can be read here). Of course, libertarianism does not mean that no one receives any support from the government. When it comes to the protection of private property, and the creation of tax breaks for big companies and wealthy individuals, then those billionaires will naturally become the biggest supporters of the government. That is what freedom means to them. As I would argue, the whole libertarian ideology, not as it is pronounced by philosophers and thinkers (Ayn Rand etc.), but as it is practically carried out by billionaires like the Koch brothers, is merely an ideology for self-serving purposes to make otherwise very unpopular policies (e.g. cuts to Social Security) palatable to the masses.
Libertarianism has to make appeals to the voting public via its emphasis on freedom, but freedom exists only for the powerful, not the weak; the employers, not the employees; the owners, not the non-owners; the rich, not the poor and the middle class. It is not surprising, therefore, that most of the American people, even as they propound seemingly libertarian values, are still very strongly in favor of keeping corporations out of politics as much as possible, and having strong environmental and labor regulations and social protections to make life tolerable. The clear Republican victory in the midterm elections, despite their right-wing extremist stance relative to where the median voter stands, is a reflection of the anti-incumbent mood and the low voter turnout (Simendinger 2014) rather than the clear enunciation of libertarian or conservative principles among the vast majority of the American people.
Billionaires, who are as selfish as the Koch brothers, have therefore absolutely no interest in supporting democratic principles, and seek to undermine them as quickly and radically as possible. They are dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into campaign advertisements favoring their own candidate, which are no longer restricted thanks to the Citizens United supreme court case. They, along with ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative front-group by business leaders, who write model legislation for conservative lawmakers across the country), have supported voter suppression laws, such as requiring photo ID’s in order to go to vote (which poor people and minorities don’t tend to have). Clearly, democracy is not in the interest of those selfish billionaires. The frightening prospect is that a few rich people are going to write entire campaigns for politicians, making those candidates mere employees of their billionaire bosses.
But is there anything potentially advantageous about these worrisome trends? Yes, my argument is that the more that billionaires get more and more successful in completely coming to dominate the political process, the more closely does that lead to the radical outcomes that they so much detest. When Weimar Germany was carrying out its foolish austerity policies in the early 1930s, which eventually brought the Nazis to power, only two groups were systematically favoring continued austerity: the conservative government under Heinrich Bruning, and the extreme left-wing Communist opposition, which expected that things would become worse, and that would propel the revolution, because only hungry masses will rise up (brilliant history of Weimar Germany’s austerity in Blyth 2013). The hungry masses will rise up against today’s oligarchs, who are making the lives harder for most people, while accumulating more wealth than can ever be spent in a life time. Admittedly, the outcome of such an uprising is not so clear, and the socialist paradise that many of us on the left are dreaming about may not come into being, but rather a fascist and autocratic rule, or in the better scenario, a social democratic reform policy (e.g. FDR).
If the reader thinks this idea of billionaire craziness is exaggerated, I should remind the reader of the kinds of policies that the chairman of the Republican budget committee, Paul Ryan, had suggested just a year ago: massive cuts in Food Stamps, Medicaid and Medicare and more tax breaks for the rich in order to balance the budget (Weisman 2014). A worse form of Social Darwinism in today’s era is hardly imaginable, but if we think about political statements as a reflection of underlying economic trends favoring the oligarchy, then Ryan’s policy ideas do make a lot of sense.
The Koch brothers and the radical Marxists have more in common than is visible at first sight. Their goals are fundamentally different. The billionaires want to have a world ruled by them, and the communists want to have rule by all people (at least in theory). But the motivation and the methods by which they pursue their goals are astoundingly similar. Both would drive the political, economic and social situation to more explosive levels. The welfare state will weaken further, the quality of jobs will deteriorate further for more workers, and global warming will continue to accelerate. All of those issues can continue to fester, and without push back the billionaires bring us ever closer to ultimate disaster.