F. Scott Fitzgerald: "The rich are different from you and me, Ernest.
Ernest Hemingway: "Yes, they have more money."
The rich don't just have more money than you and me. The rich use their money to legally bribe politicians to support policies that favor themselves over the middle class in the auction that we call elections. And the policies they support are different from those supported by the majority of middle class Americans voters.
"We are the 99%" isn't just a brilliant piece of political messaging. It's an accurate reflection of the division of wealth and power between the richest 1% and the other 99% and the degradation of American democracy into a political auction in which politicians are bought by the highest bidder. Until we change this -- if necessary by a 28th Amendment to the Constitution declaring the corporations aren't people and money isn't speech -- American democracy will continue its descent into a hollow shell in which political power is wielded not by the people but by a tiny oligarchy of the richest Americans and their political servants.
A critical new study by The Russell Sage Foundation shows the extreme disconnect between the opinions of most Americans and those of the top 1%. The results of that study, as well as another study by the Sunlight Foundation, shows that campaign contributions are even more concentrated in the richest 1% than wealth is. Is it any surprise, then, that the policies of our government more closely reflect the interests of the wealthiest Americans who contribute the bulk of campaign financing, than they do the interests of the other 99%?
According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll 57% of Americans believe that the economy and jobs are the country's most important problem and only 5% believe the most important problem is the budget deficit/national debt.
The wealthiest Americans see it differently, According to The Russell Sage Foundation survey of the wealthiest Americans (with an average net worth of $14 million) 32% think the country's most important problem is budget deficits and only 11% think it's unemployment. According to the survey,
"most of our wealthy interviewees opposed the idea that the government in Washington should 'see to it' that anyone able to work can find a job. They overwhelmingly opposed the idea that government should 'provide' jobs if private enterprise cannot. There was very little support for generous unemployment insurance or for expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-wage workers."
"...Many mentioned cutting government programs, especially entitlements...This emphasis on dealing with deficits by cutting programs rather than raising taxes--significantly different from the view of most members of the general public--also emerged...Most of our wealthy respondents tilted towards cutting back, rather than expanding, most federal government programs (nine out of twelve we asked about), including popular entitlements like Social Security and health care. There was little sentiment for substantial tax increases on the wealthy or on anyone else.
"...Our wealthy respondents...often tend to think in terms of 'getting government out of the way' and relying on free markets or private philanthropy to produce good outcomes. Evidence from identical questions asked in various surveys of the general public indicates that in this respect the wealthy tend to differ markedly from less affluent citizens."
In sum, the largest block of wealthy Americans think the country's biggest problem is deficits while most Americans as a whole think its jobs. Most of the wealthy oppose raising their own, or anyone's, taxes -- according to a recent Gallup poll, by a 2-1 margin Americans as a whole favor raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for President Obama's proposed jobs plan. Most of the wealthy want to "get government out of the way" and "rely on free markets" while the general public and less affluent citizens disagree with this premise.
So if America were really a democracy in which the government tended to follow the will of the majority, one would think that most politicians would be focusing on job instead of deficits, raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for jobs programs, and using government to regulate the excesses of the markets and the global financial casino that crashed the economy in 2008 and threatens to do so again.
But this is clearly not the case. Washington remains obsessed with deficits and cutting entitlements over job creation. President Obama doesn't dare propose a large-scale jobs program and can't even get political traction for his modest jobs program. Congress refuses to pass even a small tax increase on millionaires to pay for a temporary reduction of payroll taxes for the middle class. And bank lobbyists and their congressional vassals are tying up the implementation of the extremely moderate financial regulation bill passed last year in response to the meltdown of the banking system in 2008.
Why the disconnect? The answer is that our elected officials are far more influenced to by the small number of wealthy individuals and corporations who donate to their campaigns than they are by the average voter.
According to The Sunlight Foundation study, during the 2010 election cycle, 26,783 individuals (or about 0.01%) of Americans contributed more than $10,000 to federal political campaigns for a combined total of $774 million or 24.3% of the total from individuals (not counting corporations) to politicians, parties, PACs and independent expenditure groups and 44.1% of individual donations of more than $200. More than 80% of party committee donations com from these elite donors.
The average contribution of this One Percent of One Percent group was $28,913, more than the national median individual income of $26,364. Among the top donors of Bob Perry, CEO of Perry Homes, who gave $7.3 million to Karl Rove's American Crossroads 2010 and $4.4 million to Swift Vets and POWs for Truth in 2040, Wayne Hughes, chairman of Public Storage, Inc. go gave $3.25 million to American Crossroads, and Fred Eshelman, CEO of Pharmaceutical Production Dvelopment who spent $3 million on his own group, RightChange. Individuals affiliated with Goldman Sachs were the largest group of top 0.01% donors with those affiliated with Citigroup coming in second.
As the study points out, "In a world of increasingly expensive campaigns, The One Percent of the One Percent effectively play the role of political gatekeepers. In other words, almost no one can be taken seriously as candidate for office unless s/he has already raised substantial sums from the top 0.01%. Candidates who are not politically aligned with the interest of the toe 0.01% are screened out of the process before they even get started.
Moreover, according to The Starlight Foundation, "Unlike the other 99.99% of Americans who do not make these contributions, these elite donors have unique access." As the Russell Sage Foundation study points out, about half of its wealthy respondents had personally contacted Federal officials. A number of them were on a first name basis with top officials, referring to them by first name like "Rahm" (Emmanuel) or "David" (Axelrod).
The studies provide a clear picture of why the government pays more attention to the views of the top 1% (or top 0.01%) than those of the majority of voters. As MSNBC anchor Dylan Ratigan has repeatedly pointed out, 94% of the time the candidate who raises the most money wins which means we don't have elections, we have auctions. And candidates depend on The One Percent of the One Percent for an increasing share of their campaign funds, giving these donors unique influence over the ordinary voter.
Increasingly, American democracy is degenerating into an oligarchy is which government policy is determined the top One Percent of the One Percent. Supreme Court decisions in Citizens United that corporations are people with the right to donate unlimited sums to support or oppose candidates, and in Buckley v. Valeo that money equals speech an no limits may be placed on the amount a candidate may spend to get elected, makes it all but impossible to reverse this system of legal bribery by legislation.
It may be that nothing less than a 28th Amendment to the Constitution declaring that corporations aren't people and money isn't speech is the only thing left that can save democracy in America.