Obama’s win can’t hide how the super-rich are perverting US democracy

The 2012 US election was the most expensive ever. A total of $6bn was spent on the two campaigns to persuade wavering voters, with Barack Obama shelling out $1bn and Mitt Romney $1.2bn. That leaves $3.8bn spent by organisations and individuals eager to magnify their point of view, not only in the presidential race but in the various Senate and House contests. Most contentiously, billionaires – almost all of them conservatives – spent many hundreds of millions trying to impose themselves on the democratic process. In the light of the disparity in personal incomes so starkly uncovered by the banking crisis, it began to seem that what Americans like to think of as the world’s greatest democracy was fast becoming a plutocracy – if not an oligarchy.

Elections were not always fought this way. The 2012 election was the first under new, no-holds-barred rules for political donations. A conservative-led case, Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, was brought before the Supreme Court in 2010 and the justices ruled that, under the First Amendment of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, any individuals or organisations were legally entitled without identifying themselves to give as much as they liked to “political action committees” to spend on adverts. The airwaves were soon awash with commercials made with the millions given by overwhelmingly conservative Croesuses.

Republican Cleopatra

Yet election night proved the Beatles adage that money can’t buy you love. Those looking silly and a good deal poorer the morning after were some of the richest men on earth. The biggest Republican donors are an unattractive bunch, including the Koch brothers David and Charles, gas and oil magnates who fund pseudo-scientific global warming “refutations” and egg on the Tea Party through the charities FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Among the many pernicious causes that the Kochs reportedly contribute to are: legal moves that would, in effect, racially resegregate schools; voter suppression laws that could keep the poor, the old and ethnic minorities from taking part in democracy; and buying the right to influence curriculums and who teaches at 150 colleges they endow. Notionally inspired by fear of a Big Brother state, the Big Brothers Koch own corporations that “recommended” their workers vote Romney or face the political consequences.

Karl Rove, George W Bush’s electoral guru, spent $300m cropped from rich conservatives and blew it on races in which he thought he could make a difference. Obama’s victory was particularly galling for Rove and has proved immensely damaging to his reputation as a know-it-all political pundit (for Murdoch’s
Wall Street Journal and Fox News, natch), because he did not manage to swing a single contest he tried to influence in Romney’s favour. On election night, it was amusing to watch Rove as he adopted the role of a Republican Cleopatra, Queen of Denial.

There were Democratic big spenders, too. One of the encouraging aspects of American society is that, unlike in Britain, the rich are by no means overwhelmingly conservative. Particularly in New York and California, the super-wealthy are often ultra-liberal and happy to splash the money around for good, progressive causes. Enlightened Dems such as Jeffrey Katzenberg, boss of the DreamWorks film studio, can reassure themselves that they got value for money this time because their guy won. One top Hollywood Democratic donor is the chat-show host Bill Maher, who gave $1m to Obama. After the Denver debate, in which the president mostly looked at his shoes or off into space, Maher said he thought Obama must have spent the whole million on pot.

One reason the president was re-elected was that, even before the race began, the Democrats had a candidate and didn’t have to spend money trying to find one. Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the resort company Las Vegas Sands, sank $10m of his family’s fortune into Romney’s failed campaign. He had already spent $24m in the Republican primaries, backing Newt Gingrich’s failed bid to become the party’s champion. Adelson’s money funded a vicious, ad hominem television campaign to paint Romney
as a self-serving, super-rich, spoiled, dissembling, untrustworthy, out-of-touch, rapacious asset stripper. According to what might be called Adelson’s law, the problem with backing two horses is that only one can win; you lose your shirt on the other.

Hey, big spender

The Democrats’ big advantage was that because they were expecting to be financial underdogs, they spent their money more wisely. Romney was hobbled because there was a long gap between beating his primary opponents and being crowned at the Tampa convention. Under electoral law, only when he had become the official candidate could he start spending his war chest, filled to bursting with rich men’s donations. A smart group of Democratic strategists, including the former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala, persuaded Obama to blow a mountain of cash early in the campaign to portray Romney as self-serving, super-rich, spoiled, dissembling, untrustworthy, etc, etc. It was a gamble but it paid off. In retrospect, between Adelson and Begala, Romney didn’t stand a chance. By the time he started buying television time, he was already toast.

Money is clearly perverting the course of American democracy but unless and until the Supreme Court changes complexion, the Citizens United ruling cannot be challenged. There is such a public outcry over the court’s decision that a nationwide campaign has been spawned to outlaw big-spender giving. A number of states, such as Montana, have already joined with the Eleventh Amendment Movement to mount legal challenges to the court’s ruling and there is a head of steam to amend the constitution to outlaw the monetisation of democracy. It’s an indication that, with the help of enough liberal millionaires and billionaires, Citizens United may eventually be overturned by citizens united.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash that Defined Modern Economics” is published in paperback by W W Norton (£12.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC