Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Now Reading: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's CAPTURED: The Corporate Infiltration of American Democracy - Preface/Introduction

Quite recently, my great niece started talking about her research about the highest level of corporations, explaining that there are only three major owners of most of our country's controlling everything!

Biden has also started campaigning about what he plans to do with corporations who are over-pricing basic family needs, including that packaging is getting smaller, or, even, potato chips are air puffed and fewer chips are provided per package...

I had not known the first information above. But, I was gratified to learn that Biden already knew what was happening with America's producers, especially, for foods. I've seen it--we've all seen it... And we all know that Covid can no longer be blamed for this price gouging! Action is required...

I've watched Senator Sheldon Whitehouse many times on MSNBC as he shares about what he's been doing at the congressional level. I've recently gotten his two books, the first of which I am now reading...

But, it is important enough to share, at least the Preface Introduction, because these issues are bound to be a part of the 2024 Presidential Election. You may want to check out his two latest books for your own reading. I'm impressed with the author and his future in America's Democracy!

By the Way, I am also reading James Patterson's fiction novel, Blowback: An American President Goes Insane... As you may have known from previous blog posts, I routinely am reading a fiction and non-fiction book at the same time... it works for me...

In the meantime, I have a number of books already read which I'll be reviewing... A couple which I'll be reviewing for Author Den's members...

  • AS THE FIRST EDITION OF THIS BOOK WAS published, Trump had just been elected. In the postscript I wrote back then, I expressed the hope that he might be somewhat independent, possibly working with both sides, possibly even disruptive in some good ways; I had hopes he might be honest and fearless. Boy, was I wrong. We have seen from the Trump administration stunning levels of corruption, flagrant and constant lying, and low appeals to racism and hatred. Our country stands for lasting principles, but is tarnished by Trump as a messenger of our own principles. Our ambassadors are ashamed to challenge misbehavior in foreign governments, with such flagrant misbehavior in our own. But even when—in the fullness of time—we are rid of Trump and his whole comic opera of misrule, we will still face the problem described in this book: the insidious creep of special-interest influence throughout our government. In fact, inchoate public frustration with the government’s capture by those interests may well have led to Trump. Not every corporation or industry is involved in this scheme. Many want no part of it. But the big influencers who are working to quietly capture American government, particularly those in highly regulated or polluting industries, have been disturbingly successful. This insidious power crept in on many separate fronts: •  the steady, years-long effort by Republican appointees on the Supreme Court to give corporate interests a dominating role in our politics;
  • •  the legislative lobbying dominance of corporate and industry interests, who outgun all other comers in Congress by massive multiples of spending; 
  • •  the evil of unlimited and dark money now dominating our elections (thanks to the Citizens United decision by five Republican appointees on the Court); 
  • •  the overwhelming advantage in administrative agencies of the regulated industry, leading to the well-researched (and oft-experienced) problem of “agency capture” when an industry dominates its regulatory agency;
  • •  the growth of a complex web of industry-funded, false-front organizations who inject deliberate streams of falsehood and anti-science propaganda into popular debate;
  • •  the slow strangulation of the civil jury, to spare big influencers accustomed to dominance in other branches of government the indignity of equal treatment in a courtroom;
and •  the steady partisan packing of the judicial branch with judges who will reliably rule in favor of gun interests, polluting interests, corporate interests, dark money, voter suppression, and a far-right social agenda (they may call themselves “conservatives” but this has nothing to do with being judicially conservative and everything to do with wins for big-donor interests). There’s one additional power that has become more notable: the power of weaponized fake news to manipulate the public. Not too long ago, fake news was for fun: the National Enquirer announcing that JFK and Marilyn Monroe’s secret love child was living in a salt cave in Utah, or that aliens ran a grocery store in Idaho. Weaponized fake news is different; weaponized fake news is the election day cover of the National Enquirer screaming, “HILLARY: Corrupt Racist Criminal.” This vast armada of influence can be deployed quietly, covertly, surreptitiously. The control of government by wealthy influencers is camouflaged behind webs of phony front groups and deployed through channels of anonymized dark money. Spending big money to support this apparatus is not an issue; for these big interests, the work of secret influence is a hugely profitable enterprise. The result is a campaign finance system described as “even more ethically unmoored than the one obtained before Watergate.” We are now closing in on one billion dollars in dark money spent in our politics since Citizens United. That’s a lot of powerful political artillery, packing a lot of influence. And understand this: it’s not just the dark money spending. Surrounding the direct impact of that political spending artillery is an even darker zone of influence, where the mere threat or promise of a spending barrage can achieve the desired political result. There’s not even the vague trail of an anonymous media buy to chronicle the deployment of that influence. This is the dark money double whammy: both secret spending and secret threats or promises. It’s big, and it’s wildly unbalanced in favor of big Republican interests. The three largest dark-money operations are run by the Republican U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. A recent report by the bipartisan reform group Issue One shows them spending $130 million, $110 million, and $59 million, respectively, since Citizens United. The top Democratic operation comes in at $18 million. I’m what you’d call a climate hawk. I saw years of Senate climate bipartisanship before Citizens United. Now I see these immensely powerful, climate-denying, dark-money front groups, all likely funded by fossil-fuel interests. And I see no Republican senator willing to cross them. It reeks. Look also at how dark- and unlimited money can influence party leadership. Consider the 2016 contest for the Senate. Three Democratic Senate candidates stood a good early chance of winning Republican-held seats in 2016: Russ Feingold, a former senator, in Wisconsin; Ted Strickland, a former governor, in Ohio; and Evan Bayh, a former senator and governor, in Indiana. All were solid, experienced candidates; all were ahead in early polling. But then the big influencers came in, early and hard. The attack on Feingold began with $700,000 spent against him between July and September of 2015—more than a year before the election. That’s like strafing the other side’s fighter planes while they’re still on the airfield. Feingold got through his primary in April of 2016; over $2 million more in TV and digital spending was launched that month against him. From October up to election day, the bombardment was $11 million more. In August of 2015, the barrage began against Ted Strickland, to the tune of over $1.3 million—again, well more than a year before the election. When he won his primary in March 2016, another $1.7 million was launched, and from April to June more than $9 million more bombarded him. A further bombardment of nearly $13 million came in from July to September. Evan Bayh declared late, in July of 2016; in the next two quarters, $24.35 million bombarded him. The total “outside group” spending against these three Democratic candidates totaled almost exactly $70 million. All three lost their races. Their losses made the difference for Republicans to retain majority control of the Senate. So back to leadership. If you are the Senate majority leader because big influencers spent $70 million—often very early in the races—well, you won’t forget that. And you will certainly be aware of what that means for the future. I cannot prove the majority leader coordinated that 2016 bombardment to protect his majority, but it is by far the likeliest scenario. If that’s true, it creates a Senate leadership deeply beholden to the interests behind that bombardment, particularly if the leadership team believes that bombardment can be called in again whenever needed. That $70-million-on-demand alliance buys influence for those donors, perhaps even controlling influence. Perhaps even climate-change-denying influence. This is happening mostly behind the scenes. All the public sees is a Congress that won’t even consider addressing climate change, or fair pharmaceutical pricing, or banning dark money, or investigating whatever financial ties our president has to foreign interests, but that will pass sleazy midnight tax bills that pour money to big political donors. Think I’m kidding? The recent Republican “donor rewards program” tax bill added $1.5 trillion to our national debt and showered the bulk of it on wealthy and corporate interests of the sort most likely behind those hundreds of millions in dark money. That’s a big payback. Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson gave a $30 million political check; his interests received a reported $700 million windfall from the tax bill. A Texas oil refinery company gave $1.5 million; it received a reported $1.9 billion tax windfall. These two small examples in a flood of donor payback represent what one academic researcher calls “a vicious cycle in which growing economic and political inequality are mutually reinforcing.”* You use your money to buy the power to loot your country to get more money to buy more power to loot your country more … The people of America from coast to coast smell that something is out of whack; we smell a rat. So this machinery then plays a game of misdirection, to focus elsewhere those well-founded resentments. We are led down paths of anger, division, resentment, and scapegoating. And that gives us Trump. Getting rid of Trump and his creepy minions will help heal our body politic from the injury the Trumps have done to our country. But heal that injury, and this virus of surreptitious influence will still lurk, and will still cause frustration and mischief, until we also cure that disease. Like a patient with both a wound and a virus, our democracy will not return to good health until both the injury is healed and the disease is cured. The disease isn’t new. For as long as there have been governments, powerful private forces have tried to bend the power of government to their purposes. We think now of great political battles as Republican versus Democrat, or progressive versus conservative. We think of specific fights: polluters versus environmentalists; security hawks versus civil libertarians; tax cutters versus big spenders. But threaded through and behind those familiar fights is the long, quiet, persistent effort by forces who seek to turn the power of government to their own private advantage. When they succeed, their victim is the non-predatory majority who just want to go about their business without being robbed through their own government. Distracted by Trumpian theatrics, or by the clash of specific fights, we pay too little attention to this battle over government itself. Distraction is just what the big influencers want for us. They want to win this battle silently; no end-zone antics by them when they capture another agency or judge or policy. They just want the lucrative proceeds of winning. And they have been doing a lot of winning lately. My thesis in this book is that many of the things that frustrate Americans today about our government are the result of losing this ancient contest to the modern big influencers. This is not new. It is as old as corruption. It’s just the latest inning in a long, long game, and now it’s “game on” for us to fight back. Understand the problem. Get mad. Join the fight. We need a gentle revolution now in this country, because if the distraction, corruption, connivance, and misrule continue, we will get a not-so-gentle one later. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse December 2018 * Thomas B. Edsall, “After Citizens United, a Vicious Cycle of Corruption,” New York Times, December 6, 2018. * Martin Gilens, Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012).


Introduction IN THE SENATE, I SEE EVERY DAY how power works in the political sphere. I see who’s got it. I see who uses it. I see how they use it. I see the devices by which that power is applied. I see the schemes used to obscure who’s pulling the strings. I see the smokescreens put up to distract people so they don’t notice the string-pulling. This is my world; it is the ecosystem I inhabit as a United States senator. The legendary, Pulitzer Prize–winning author William S. White observed, “A senator of the United States is an ambulant converging point for pressures and counter-pressures of high, medium and low purposes.” What I see all around me these days is immense pressure deployed by the corporate sector in our government. Some of this corporate power is deployed in traditional ways. For as long as there has been government, there have been efforts by powerful forces to bend government to their private advantage, and to evade or prevent government oversight. For as long as there have been legislatures, there have been efforts to acquire influence over them. For as long as there has been regulation of industries, there have been efforts to control the regulators and to condition them to the interests of the industries they are designed to regulate. But some of what I see is new. I’ve had a close-up look at government—as a prosecutor, as a regulator, as a government staffer, as a reformer, as a candidate, and as an elected official. Never in my life have I seen such influence in our elections from corporations and their managers and billionaire owners. Their presence in American elections has exploded, indeed become dominant, as the campaign finance world has become virtually lawless. Never in my life have I seen such a complex web of front groups sowing deliberate deceit to create public confusion about issues that should be clear. The corporate propaganda machinery is of unprecedented size and sophistication. Never in my life have I seen our third branch of government, our courts, the place in our governmental system that is supposed to be most immune from politics, under such political sway. The track record of the Supreme Court in particular shows patterns that are completely inconsistent with disinterested neutrality. It’s always been tough to go up against the big guys. But for most of my life I felt we had a fighting chance. American politics has deep traditions of honor. There were always pockets of government that could be counted on to do the right thing. And there was such wisdom and safety in our American system of separated powers that corrupting influences could never take over completely. As a lawyer, and as a student of our Constitution, I believed that our American system would always protect us—maybe not right away, maybe not every time, but ultimately and for sure. I’m no longer so sure. Huge segments of the American public think things have gone badly wrong. Indeed, nearly three of every four Americans—71 percent—reported in a February 2016 poll that they were “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time.” We see these numbers in action as voters across the political spectrum offer enthusiastic support to candidates pledging to change the status quo. How could this be? We’ve persevered through a revolutionary war, a civil war, and two world wars. We’ve endured massive expansions and great depressions. We’ve overturned slavery, brought women well toward full equality, pushed racism back, and recognized gay relationships. We invented automobiles, airplanes, telephones, TV, the atom bomb, and the Internet. Ours has been a tumultuous 240 years. What now, after all that tumult, has gone wrong? Abraham Lincoln reminded us at Gettysburg, over a field that covered the decaying remains of thousands of soldiers, both Union and Confederate, that it was our American destiny, and the prize of our Civil War sacrifice, that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth.” The thing that has changed the most in our government, and the thing that to me best explains what has gone wrong, is that our politics is no longer “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Corporations of vast wealth and remorseless staying power have moved into our politics, to seize for themselves advantages that can be seized only by control over government. Organizations of mysterious identity have moved into our politics, as screens for the anonymous power and “dark money” behind them. Political campaigns are now run by new and alien organizations, super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, bizarre creatures unknown to our politics until recently. When I speak of corporate power in politics, let me be very clear: I do not mean just the activities of the incorporated entities themselves. The billionaire owners of corporations are often actively engaged in battle to expand the influence of the corporations that give them their power and their wealth. Front groups and lobbying groups are often the ground troops when corporate powers don’t want to get their own hands dirty or when they want to institutionalize their influence. So-called philanthropic foundations are often the proxies for billionaire families who want influence and who launch these tools to professionalize their influence-seeking. I count them all as faces of corporate power—just as they do themselves. The internal coordination behind the scenes between the politically active corporate entities, the billionaire funders, the right-wing “philanthropies,” the front groups, and the lobbying organizations is constant. The structure of this enterprise, with common funders, interlocking directorates, and overlapping staff, is emerging as a result of academic and investigative studies. From my perch in the Senate, I see it all as one coordinated beast. That is how it behaves, and that is how I’m going to treat it in this book. This apparatus may seem like a very complicated and unwieldy way for corporations to exert influence, but it allows them to give the public the old razzle-dazzle, running intricate plays with what appear to be many independent voices. It’s smart strategy. These forces are everywhere, and they are dominant in every area where their influence on government can be brought to bear. They are right now, as a practical matter, our unseen ruling class. When you are running for office, they can quietly back you—or your opponent—with literally unlimited funds, depending on how comfortable they are with how you’ll vote. (The cudgel of secret spending need not even be swung to have its desired effect; merely brandishing it can be enough to get the attention, and obedience, of a politician.) Once you’re elected and in office, corporate influence comes in the form of corporate lobbying—the behemoth on the legislative stage, drowning out all other lobbying competition by a spending ratio of more than thirty to one.4 As a bill moves through Congress, corporate lobbyists exploit procedural opportunities to accomplish the industry’s purposes out of view of the public. Once a bill becomes law, relentless industry pressure is brought to bear on the agencies charged with enforcement: appointment of industry-friendly administrators; visible industry “caretaking” of friendly administrators when they depart their posts (and visible “freezes” on those who weren’t so friendly); heavy lawyering of the rulemaking and enforcement processes, often as simple brute pressure to cause delay and cost; and sometimes direct kickbacks. All these avenues give special interests undue influence over administrative agencies, to the point of outright capture of the agency. When there is a legal challenge to corporate behavior, or a legal challenge to the way a law is administered, having business-friendly courts to hear the case becomes important. Here corporate influence in the selection of judges is brought to bear, business-friendly “training” for judges at luxurious resorts is offered, and corporate-funded entities that are not traditional litigants appear in court, sometimes in flocks, to amplify the corporate message. The Supreme Court can do more than tilt the balance in business-related cases: the Court can change the very ground rules of democracy in favor of corporate interests. And corporate forces are hard at work using their power to fix the judicial system to seize more power. Civil juries, the Constitution’s designated check on outsized power in the private sphere, have had their place in government shrunk to a vestige of their intended role, leaving corporate forces free to wheel and deal with the established, repeat players in government who are most amenable to their influence. Meanwhile, a vast corporate enterprise is busy constructing and marketing a pro-corporate “alternate reality”: climate change is an illusion; tobacco is not really that bad for you; lead paint only hurts poor children with negligent mothers; the ozone hole isn’t being caused by chemicals; various products’ association with cancer is unproven; pollution controls will cost way too much and hurt the economy; consumers should be free not to live in a “nanny state.” Corporations have become less willing to say these things themselves, so over the years they have outsourced the crafting and selling of this alternate reality to an array of dozens of front groups with innocent-seeming, respectable-sounding names. And corporate forces have acquired influence in an increasingly compliant and even corporate-owned media. What better way to propagandize the American public than through the “news”? It all adds up to massive tentacles of corporate power—particularly emanating from a few highly regulated sectors, including finance and fossil fuels—that are usually invisible or obscured but which are quietly and steadily having their way with government. Small wonder people are angry about a nonresponsive democracy. Contrary to the popular sentiment that government isn’t working anymore, government is working fine; it’s just working for the corporations. Congress today is working great at helping polluters; it’s working great at protecting hedge fund billionaires’ low tax rates; it’s working great at helping corporations offshore jobs, at letting chemicals and genetically modified stuff into your food, at creating tax and safety loopholes for industry. Congress is also working great at ignoring corporate misbehavior—until after a crisis has hurt or killed a lot of people. Even then, Congress has worked great at having taxpayers bail out the industry that caused the harm. And worst of all, government is now working great, in a vicious cycle, to change its own ground rules and lock in the control over government by big special-influence operators. People can feel like they are in a car that won’t respond to them, that the car is dangerously out of control, that the car is broken. But the problem isn’t the car; the problem is who’s now driving it. Regular people are no longer in the driver’s seat of American democracy. A corporation is not an inherently bad thing. In proper circumstances and within proper bounds, the corporate form is an immensely valuable proposition. But the economic ability to amass money can spawn a political desire to amass power. And at a certain level of political power, corporate forces can upshift into political overdrive and use their power to change the political system itself. Beyond just improving outcomes for their industry from the political system, they can make changes to the political system itself that lock in lasting advantages for them and protect their dominance. That overdrive is the most worrisome use of power. That’s where I believe we are now, and why I’m writing this book. Today there is virtually no element of the political landscape into which corporate influence has not intruded, and it is usually the strongest political force arrayed in any part of that landscape. You may not see it, because it is bad strategy for the purveyors of corporate influence to herald their victories; they are better off quietly pocketing their winnings than bragging about them, and they’d rather you not know how effectively they have rigged the game. But, visibly or not, our government has been captured. The “gradual and silent encroachments” that James Madison warned of have come in a corporate guise that Madison and his compatriots did not foresee and were not able to preempt.5 The big corporate interests now in control would like you to give up on government. The better solution is not to give up on the American government that generations of Americans fought, bled, and died to leave to us. The better solution is to take it back and put it to work for us. It will be a battle. Even if you do not now see a clean path to victory, remember the admonition of Rabbi Tarfon: “It may not be up to us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.” As citizens, this must be our work.

What are YOU reading these days?

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