Why Democracy Doesn’t Work,
Aside from campaign contributions, wealthy donors and special interest groups can also be gateways to extremely lucrative career opportunities after a politician’s time in office. These special interest groups often lace their campaign contributions with extremely tempting and lucrative private-sector opportunities such as book tours, speaking tours, and privileged consulting positions and careers at the apex of the corporate world, which have allowed many politicians to monetize their political careers and become extraordinarily wealthy.
Between 2001 and 2016, Bill and Hillary Clinton made more than $153 million in speaking fees alone, receiving an average payment of $210,795 every time they gave a short 30-minute speech to executives at Citigroup or Goldman Sachs. While Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she also received millions of dollars in donations via her Clinton Foundation, which is regularly criticized as a slush fund for facilitating political corruption and selling influence.
After his presidency, George H. W. Bush made more than $7 million in book deals and was hired by the “secretive” Carlyle Group hedge fund to give speeches and act as a senior advisor. The details regarding his compensation package have not been disclosed, but it is undoubtedly incredibly lucrative. Bush made more than $14 million from the shares he earned for a single speech he gave in the late 1990s.
Shortly after leaving office as the Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley was appointed by investors to the Board of Directors of Boeing as a reward for passing favorable legislation and giving the company hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies while she was in office.
Such opportunities also often extend to the family members of prominent politicians as well. For example, despite having no journalism experience or training, Chelsea Clinton was hired by NBC while her mother was Secretary of State and earned $26,724 for every minute she was on air. Called “media legacies” by William McGowan, similar opportunities have been extended to the children of dozens of other high-profile politicians in recent years.
President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who was not trained as an artist and only took an interest in art recently, has been selling his paintings for prices ranging upwards of $500,000 through an art gallery which has arranged to keep the identities of its buyers secret. Walter Shaub of the Office of Government Ethics has described the amount of money involved as “absolutely appalling,” particularly because “buyers may [obviously] be interested in something beyond Hunter’s paintings.” As law professor Kathleen Clark explains, this “leaves, frankly, the Biden administration wide open to concerns that people are going to buy influence by buying Hunter Biden’s paintings at what might be inflated prices.” While Hunter was selling his paintings, Biden’s own Treasury Department ironically issued warnings that art can serve as a money laundering vehicle for “those engaged in illicit financial activity.”
Pay-to-play, political bribes, self-dealing, quid pro quo, kickbacks funneled to public servants and politicians as donations to private foundations or compensation for commodities or services, and “the revolving door from Congress to Wall Street or K Street[, ] the honeycomb of lobbyists’ offices [that] lead[s] to the most lucrative rewards” — Formisano calls this corruption market the “gift economy.” And combined with campaign contributions, it reinforces the long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that exist between lawmakers and wealthy special interests, forming the basis of the thriving, multi-billion-dollar lobbying industry.
“Directly buying votes is illegal and probably rare.” As Richard Smith explains, the “purpose of campaign contributions is to buy access rather than votes.” Nevertheless, “representatives may ‘hear you better,’” remarks John Wright, “when a contribution [or an offer for a lucrative private-sector opportunity] precedes lobbying.” Politicians everywhere “compete to bask in the presence of the .01 percent,” because the billionaire donor class not only holds the keys to their political success but can also set politicians on the path to becoming members of that exclusive club themselves. Financial incentives “influence” everything that politicians do, including “whom legislators talk to, the amount of energy they devote to particular issues, and what they do in informal settings, committee hearings, and markup sessions.” According to Matt Stoller,
The dirty secret of American politics is that, for most politicians, getting elected is[n’t even actually] that important. What matters is post-election employment. It’s all about staying in the elite political class, which means being respected in a dense network of corporate-funded think tanks, high-powered law firms, banks, defense contractors, prestigious universities, and corporations . . . [Politicians] are speaking not to voters, but to potential post-election patrons. That’s what their policy goals are organized around. If you run a campaign based on populist themes, that’s a threat to your post-election employment prospects. This is why rising Democratic star and Newark Mayor Corey Booker reacted so strongly against criticism of private equity — he’s looking out for a potential client after his political career is over, or perhaps, during interludes between offices. Running as a vague populist is manageable, as long as you’re lying to voters. If you actually go after powerful interests while in office, then you better win, because if you don’t, you’ll have basically nowhere to go. And if you lose, but you were a team player, then you’ll have plenty of money and opportunity.
As Chrystia Freeland, Canadian Minister of Finance and author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, explains, politics is about earning favors with “plutocratic networks,” which politicians are free to “fully monetize . . . [once] they retire.”
When Senator Joe Manchin was trying to flip the votes of several Republican legislators from “no” to “yes” on a filibuster bill in 2021, he circumvented the legislators in question by going directly to their donors instead. A leaked phone call published by The Intercept between Manchin and several billionaire megadonors revealed how the Senator asked the billionaire donors to convince Missouri Senator Roy Blunt to change his vote by “dangl[ing] future financial opportunities in front of the outgoing senator”:
Roy is retiring. If some of you all who might be working with Roy in his next life could tell him, that’d be nice and it’d help our country. That would be very good to get him to change his vote. And we’re going to have another vote on this thing. That’ll give me one more shot at it.
Notorious Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff once remarked that his “most powerful move” to influence staffers was to casually remark:
When you are done working for the Congressman, you should come to work for me at my firm . . . With that . . . I would own him and, consequently, that entire office . . . Suddenly, every move the staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind.
As one Washington lobbyist put it, “I was participating in a system of legalized bribery. All of it is bribery, every bit of it.”
“Interest group lobbying . . . goes hand in hand with financial support.” At least 86% of contributions made to PACs come from entities “that also employ lobbyists,” complementing their financial contributions with vigorous and targeted lobbying efforts. Beth Leech estimates that “nearly $3 billion is spent each year on lobbying and political action committee (PAC) campaign contributions in apparent attempts to influence public policy.” This lobbying industry comprises some 12,000 distinct organizations, employs more than 11,000 in-house lobbyists (many of whom used to be former politicians, staffers, and regulators who use their relationships, connections, and insider knowledge to influence policy on behalf of corporate clients), annually produces some 12,000 Congressional testimonies and 7,000 amicus briefs, and coordinates $550 million in bundled PAC donations. These “budgetary resources . . . can be converted into a wide variety of inputs into the policy-making process . . . [including] such traditional lobbying activities as undertaking policy-related research, seeking to inform and persuade policy makers, drafting bills, testifying at hearings, issuing policy statements and reports, and the like . . . Moreover, organizations with deep pockets can spend more generously in hiring the talent to undertake these activities.”
Financial contributions from special interest groups purchase special access for professional, full-time lobbyists who insert themselves into the minutiae of the policymaking process, exerting influence over every aspect of drafting legislation in both official and unofficial capacities. The political scientist Rogan Kersh studied one corporate lobbyist’s influence in the process of drafting a bill, and found that
the corporate lobbyist . . . had been instrumental at every other step: she was heavily involved in drafting the bill, helping sign up congressional cosponsors, organizing the hearing and strategizing with staff about its timing and composition (she identified several witnesses and wrote testimony for two of them), and meeting with staffers during the hearing to clarify points and scribble questions for legislators to ask witnesses: all this even though the . . . issue was only a distant concern to the corporation she represents.
Several other studies have revealed that interest groups and corporations often ghostwrite bills for politicians, who regularly sign them into law without even reading them.
While many former politicians and staffers move on to work for corporations or corporate lobbying and consultancy firms in the ‘influence industry’ for absurdly inflated salaries, many lobbyists also pass through the ‘revolving door’ and get appointed by politicians to work inside an administration. According to Open Secrets, the Trump administration alone boasted some 511 of such ‘revolvers,’ including numerous cabinet-level officials. Patrick Shanahan of Boeing and Mark Esper of Raytheon were each appointed Secretary of Defense. Patrick Pizzella, a corporate lobbyist, was appointed Labor Secretary, which is “kind of like appointing an antiwar activist to lead the Pentagon or a coal lobbyist to run the Environmental Protection Agency” — which Trump also did by later appointing the coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler and later the oil lobbyist David Bernhardt to head the EPA. Goldman Sachs alumni Steve Mnuchin was appointed Secretary of Treasury. While the Republicans are often attacked as the party of the rich and powerful, the Democrats are also backed by their own megadonors such as George Soros, Eric Schmidt, Haim Saban — called “Team Clinton’s favorite billionaire” — and Tom Steyer. Democratic administrations have also consistently maintained close ties with investment bankers and Goldman Sachs alumni such as Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, and Timothy Geithner, who served in key positions within the Clinton and Obama administrations and shaped financial policy in ways that were contrary to the public’s interests.
Professor Robert W. McChesney summarizes:
Letting people spend as much money as they want is simply letting people at the top buy their way out of a genuine democracy with a level playing field. In the United States the richest one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans make 80 percent of individual campaign contributions, and corporations outspend organized labor by a margin of ten to one. These contributions are really better regarded as investments, with which millionaires, billionaires, and corporations purchase the allegiance of politicians who, when in office, pass laws that work to the benefit of the wealthy few. In this environment, the broader notion of civic virtue and principle — so necessary for a democratic culture to prosper — has disappeared from sight. U.S. electoral politics is basically a special interest grab bag, where the ante for admission limits the possibility for meaningful participation to a small portion of the population. Is it any surprise that voter apathy, cynicism, and abstention are so high?
The political scientist Sheldon Wolin similarly observes that in America,
[o]ne cannot point to any national institution that can accurately be described as democratic . . . surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media . . . Politically organized interest groups with vast resources operate continuously, . . . are coordinated with congressional procedures and calendars, [and] occupy strategic points in the political processes . . . The citizenry is being displaced, severed from a direct connection with the legislative institutions that are supposed to ‘stand in’ for the people. If the main purpose of elections is to serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape, such a system deserves to be called ‘misrepresentative or clientry government.’ It is, at one and the same time, a powerful contributing factor to the depoliticization of the citizenry, as well as reason for characterizing the system as one of antidemocracy.
There is a saying in Washington: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Wealthy individuals have vast resources at their disposal to secure privileged special access to insiders, secure a seat at the table, and influence the political system from the inside in ways that are simply inaccessible to ordinary citizens. The Onion satirizes the abysmal lack of access and influence that most ordinary citizens have in Washington:
[T]he American people had hired Jack Weldon, a heavy-hitting Washington lobbyist from Patton Boggs, to help to represent their concerns before Congress . . . Unlike R. J. Reynolds, Pfizer, or Bank of America, the U.S. populace lacks the access to public officials required to further its legislative goals . . . Jack Weldon gives us that access . . . His daily presence in the Capitol will ensure the American people finally get a seat at the table . . . And it will allow him to advance our message that everyone, including Americans, deserves to be represented in Washington.
“If you are not at the table when decisions are being made,” writes McChesney, “you are what’s being served.” Confronted by billions of dollars from corporations and wealthy donors in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts, ordinary Americans have incredibly little sway over the political system, and it is showing. The political system is deliberately working to favor wealthy special interests. Our political leaders have deregulated and deindustrialized our economy at the behest of wealthy special interest groups, leading to soaring
economic inequality [that] has reached levels not seen for a hundred years . . . While the wealthy keep piling up riches, many Americans are hurting from job losses, low wages, high health-care costs, and deteriorating public services. Whole communities have been devastated by factory closings. Our public schools are neglected. Our highways and bridges are in disrepair . . . [E]conomic inequality and political inequality mutually reinforce and increase each other. This mutual reinforcement threatens to cause a downward spiral that might continue indefinitely unless we make determined efforts to stop it.
In a recent study, the political scientists Gehl and Porter concluded that “our political system has become the major barrier to solving nearly every important challenge our nation needs to address.”
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We see how our political institutions fail to live up to the folk theory of democracy, and we often assume that this failure is an aberrance, an anomaly. We never question our preconceived notions about democracy; instead, we search for problems elsewhere. The problem isn’t democracy, or our expectations about democracy, we assure ourselves. The problem must be that democracy simply isn’t working the way that it is supposed to work. And, we are certain, once we identify which external procedural or legal factors are subverting the democratic process and hindering the proper functioning of our democratic institutions, we can fix our democracy with simple and straightforward reforms. Money, lobbying, bribery, corruption, blackmail, and the media are corrupting our institutions; low voter turnout, an insufficiently educated electorate, and our electoral procedures are compromising the ability of voters to hold their leaders accountable. If only we could address these problems, we continue to hope in vain, then our elected representatives will once again become the faithful and impartial servants of the public good, working diligently to carry out the will of the people instead of the narrow agendas of elites and special interest groups. While searching for solutions to our political crisis, we rarely question or challenge our fundamental assumptions about the logic of our democratic institutions. We do not stop to consider whether our theories about democracy itself are wrong. And until we do, we will not be able to work out solutions to our political problems.
Hundreds of books have been published in recent decades exploring solutions for the failings of our democratic institutions, and by far the most common solution proposed to “equalize political voice” is to regulate money out of politics “by placing limits on campaign contributions.” As Gilens argues, “the top priority among political reforms is to . . . dilute and decrease large-donor contributions” and “reduce or eliminate the power of private money in American politics” by reintroducing regulations resembling the 1970s-era restrictions on campaign financing that were repealed by the Citizens United ruling in 2010. These solutions are usually accompanied by proposals to introduce requirements for the full disclosure of all political contributions and all lobbying activities, for publicly-funded vouchers providing every citizen with a sum of money that they can donate to their preferred parties to counteract the influence of private donors, and for the creation of publicly-funded “people’s lobbies” to counteract the impact of private lobbyists.
However, neutralizing the influence of money in politics is obviously easier said than done. In his study of the Israel Lobby, Professor John Mearsheimer concludes that
the prospects for meaningful campaign finance reform are dim. Incumbents have too great a stake in the current system, and plenty of other special interest groups would join forces to resist any effort to revise the system that currently gives them disproportionate influence . . . In the short term, trying to weaken the lobby directly is not going to work.
There is further reason to suspect that such campaign finance reforms would ultimately be fruitless, given that these proposals have received hypocritical public endorsements from career politicians, special interest groups, and “major [plutocrat funded] philanthropic foundations — including Ford, Carnegie, MacArthur, Open Society, Hewlett (with a large-scale ‘Madison Project’), and Rockefeller Brothers” — which benefit from the current system and can hardly sincerely desire “to enhance democracy.” Hillary Clinton, who notoriously earned tens of millions of dollars in Wall Street speaking fees throughout her political career, has even herself “proposed a thorough overhaul of federal campaign funding (including a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United),” alongside promises to reform “‘a political system that has been hijacked by billionaires and special interests who will spend whatever it takes to crowd out the voices of everyday Americans.’” The extent to which these reforms have been endorsed and promoted by major financial interests should be reason to suspect that these reforms might not be the radical system overhaul that many make them out to be.
Contrary to popular belief, American democracy hasn’t just recently been “hijacked” by corporations and wealthy special interests. Any study of American history will show that powerful financial groups were exerting disproportionate influence over the political system long before the Citizens United ruling abolished limits on campaign contributions. The Citizens United ruling itself was the product of years of wealthy special interest groups lobbying and chipping away at federal regulations. Reintroducing these limits might give the wealthiest special interests and mega-donors slightly less leverage over the political system, but they will never completely neutralize their disproportionate power and influence. Despite whatever ‘voter reform’ and ‘campaign finance regulation’ solutions might be adopted, the wealthy will always continue to exert outsized influence behind the scenes, and representative institutions will keep failing to fulfill the will of the people.
Bribery is already illegal on paper, and yet while it seems like common sense, political scientists and courts have regularly struggled to prove a connection in empirical and legal terms between financial contributions and “an altered vote.” Identifying bribes and illicit financial contributions can be extraordinarily difficult. And even with strict legal definitions, there will always be loopholes for creative individuals with extraordinary financial resources at their disposal to find and use to circumvent restrictions, making anti-corruption laws largely useless and ineffective. Financial compensation is already laundered through speaking fees, art sales, donations through private foundations, and a variety of other legally ambiguous arrangements that creatively sidestep anti-bribery legislation. The never-ending prospect of corruption therefore “seems especially damaging” to the prospect of electoral reform, because “under liberal democratic regimes, corruption represents an additional and illegal advantage of wealthy interests over and above the legal advantages they normally enjoy by virtue of large campaign distributions, muscle in the courts, and so forth.”
Outright bribery can be notoriously difficult to prosecute precisely because it can be so difficult to identify. There is generally only a very fine distinction between bribery and lobbying, which means that lobbying will also always be virtually impossible to eradicate. Even with the most draconian restrictions against campaign contributions and bribery on the books, lobbying “proceeds out of the public eye, in low-visibility settings where no public awareness or opposition is likely to arise.” This has created problems for
political scientists[, who] have regularly struggled to assess the importance of lobbying; many analyses have been simplistic, even useless. Much of the difficulty comes from a lack of understanding of what lobbyists actually do. How do you quantify ‘schmoozing’ or assess the implicit bargains that transpire between lobbyists and legislators over an obscure bit of tax law? Moreover, neither legislators nor lobbyists want to fully acknowledge their reliance on each other, even when such reliance is central to decision making in a complex democratic society.
How can you eliminate something that you cannot quantify?
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 Robert Yoon, “$153 million in Bill and Hillary Clinton speaking fees, documented” (CNN Politics Data: 2016).
 Tim Shorrock, “Crony Capitalism Goes Global” (The Nation: 2002). Oliver Burkeman and Julian Borger, “The ex-presidents’ club” (The Guardian: 2001). Robert Scheer, “Making Money, the Bush Way” (Los Angeles Times: 2002). Julian Borger, “The day George Bush talked himself into $14 million” (The Guardian: 1999).
 “Boeing Board: Nikki Haley Cashes In – Crony capitalism is alive and well…” (FITSNews: 2019). Tom Barton, “Nikki Haley could make $315,000-plus a year if elected a Boeing director” (The State: 2019). Formisano, 5.
 Formisano, 82.
 Shirin Ali, “Hunter Biden’s controversial art gallery show draws fierce critics” (The Hill: 2021). Ben Schreckinger, “‘Hiding the Ball’: Hunter Biden Complicates White House Anti-Corruption Push” (Politico: 2021).
 Formisano, 39.
 Quoted in Schlozman, 307. Formisano, synopsis. Matt Stoller, “Bill Clinton’s $80 Million Payday, or Why Politicians Don’t Care That Much About Reelection” (naked capitalism: 2012). Cynthia Freeland, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (The Penguin Press: 2012), 140.
 Lee Fang and Ryan Grim, “Leaked Audio of Sen. Joe Manchin Call with Billionaire Donors Provides Rare Glimpse of Dealmaking on Filibuster and Jan. 6 Commission” (The Intercept: 2021). Sharon Zhang, “Leaked Call Reveals Manchin Colluding With Wall Street to Preserve Filibuster” (truthout: 2021). Ryan Cooper, “The corrupt reality of Joe Manchin’s bipartisanship” (Yahoo News: 2021).
 Quoted in Formisano, 72.
 Gilens and Page, Democracy in America?, 144. Leech quoted in Schlozman, 283. Schlozman, 430, 273. See also Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell, “The truth about lobbying: 10 ways big business controls government” (The Guardian: 2014). Jimmy Williams, “I was a lobbyist for more than 6 years. I quit. My conscience couldn’t take it anymore.” (Vox: 2018).
 Kersh, “Corporate Lobbyists as Political Actors,” quoted in Schlozman, 300. See also Robert G. Kaiser, So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: 2010). Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It (Grand Central Publishing: 2015). Bruce C. Wolpe and Bertram J. Levine, Lobbying Congress: How the System Works (SAGE Publications: 1996). Jeffrey Birnbaum, The Lobbyists: How Influence Peddlers Work Their Way in Washington (Crown: 2015). Ken Kollman, Outside Lobbying: Public Opinion and Interest Group Strategies (Princeton University Press: 2020). Robert G. Kaiser, Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group: 2014). Christina Manduley, “Congressman admits he didn’t read full health care bill before voting” (CNN Politics: 2017). Rob O’Dell and Nick Penzenstadler, “You elected them to write new laws. They’re letting corporations do it instead.” (The Center for Public Integrity: 2019). Robert Schlesinger, “Not So Dirty Little Secret” (USNews: 2017). Brian Christopher Jones, “Don’t Be Silly: Lawmakers “Rarely” Read Legislation and Oftentimes Don’t Understand It . . . But That’s Okay” (Penn State Law Review: 2013). Amy Melissa McKay, “Fundraising for Favors? Linking Lobbyist-Hosted Fundraisers to Legislative Benefits” (Political Research Quarterly 71, no. 4: 2018).
 “Revolving Door: Search Results” (Open Secrets: 2020). Paul Waldman, “In Trump’s swamp, the corporate lobbyists are in charge” (The Washington Post: 2019). Emily Atkin, “Lobbyists Are Feasting in Trump’s Swamp” (The New Republic: 2018). Chris Riotta, “Trump’s Swamp Of Billionaires And Lobbyists Revealed In Secret White House Visitor Logs” (Newsweek: 2017).
 McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, 261.
 Wolin, xxix, 59.
 Quoted in Schlozman, xvii.
 McChesney, lvi. Gilens and Page, Democracy in America?, 90. Katherine M. Gehl and Michael E. Porter, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America” (Harvard Business School: 2017), 1.
 Schlozman, 546. Gilens and Page, Democracy in America?, 184, 192.
 Mearsheimer and Walt, 350. Gilens and Page, 253, 266.
 Gilens and Page, 140, 144. Schlozman, 293.
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