Back in the 1890s, Republican power broker and former U.S. Senator from Ohio, Mark Hanna, explained, “There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.” While Hanna’s clever observation places money at the pinnacle of political power, there is something else that can be just as forceful in politics. That is, we, the people, which, as Hanna’s quote illustrates, are often forgotten by our politicians. Nevertheless, while Big Money usually drives our politics, when enough people do rise up, they can overcome the power of Big Money and achieve great social advancements.
More about that in a minute, but first, let’s be clear about one basic fact: Big Money’s grip on our government is not a partisan issue. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle as well as presidential administrations of both parties are very often guilty of unduly favoring their Big Money donors over their constituents. The truth is, that is how our political system works, and has worked for a very long time. Here are just a couple of outrageous examples:
During the George W. Bush administration, Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil-services companies, used his position as Vice President to strongly support the extractive energy industry. First, he held secret meetings with oil and gas industry executives while drafting the nation’s new energy policy. According to the Los Angeles Times, Cheney’s task force consulted extensively with corporate executives while environmental groups had little input. Many of the executives at the White House meetings were generous donors to the Republican Party. Big Money bought very valuable access to the policymaking process.
Later, Chaney went as far as deceiving our nation into believing Iraq had WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), so that the United States would invade Iraq and presumably gain control of its vast oil reserves for the benefit of Big Oil. While Big Oil never got possession of Iraq’s oil reserves, with Cheney’s help, Halliburton did obtain numerous government contracts in Iraq worth close to $40 billion during our occupation of that country. At the same time, this needless war-of-choice cost close to two trillion dollars, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi lives, and thousands of American lives. Despite all the death and mayhem he unleashed, Cheney now enjoys a very comfy retirement thanks to his ample government pension and Halliburton nest egg.
A few years later, the Great Recession of 2008 struck our nation. Millions of innocent people lost their homes and/or jobs when the economy crashed. Though the economic disaster was mostly due to the unscrupulous and fraudulent practices of Wall Street’s big banks, the Obama administration allowed practically all of those bankers to get off scot-free. Could the facts that some of Obama’s biggest donors during his 2008 campaign were Wall St. banks, and that he appointed a number of Goldman Sachs people, like Larry Summers, Gene Sperling and Rahm Emanuel, to important positions in his administration have had something to do with his failure to hold the bankers accountable? Despite the fact that the TARP legislation (Troubled Asset Relief Program) included instructions to use a portion of the funds to prevent foreclosure of people’s homes, President Obama not only used little or none of it to assist those homeowners, but also refused to extract foreclosure relief measures from our nation’s biggest banks in return for the huge bailout they received.
Now President Trump and his billionaire friends are running our government. Given the corrupting influence of Big Money in the past, it’s hard to believe that their financial interests won’t play a significant part in how they determine our nation’s policies. Rex Tillerson, the new Secretary of State and former head of Exxon Mobil, and Steve Mnuchin, the recently appointed Secretary of the Treasury who previously worked for Goldman Sachs, are just two members of Trump’s cabinet whose policy decisions may very well be influenced by their private financial affairs.
Then, there’s Trump himself. He reportedly was offered up to a 19% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil company, in return for his lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia by Pres. Obama. Subsequently, a similar portion of Rosneft was sold to a mysterious partnership partly owned by a shadowy company in the Cayman Islands, the ownership of which is unknown, according to Reuters. And then the sanctions were, in fact, relaxed.
Moreover, last month the Chinese government granted President Trump and his business valuable trademark protection for the use of the Trump name in the construction industry, something he had been seeking for more than a decade. While Trump had fought unsuccessfully in Chinese courts for years for control of the trademark, in November, soon after the election, China awarded the trademark to the Trump Organization. This is just one of a number of instances where Trump has corrupted his presidency. Another is Trump’s pay-to-play scheme at his private, Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach resort. Soon after he became president, Trump doubled its initiation fee to $200,000.
So, what are we, the people to do to counter Big Money’s dominance and revive our democracy? The most potent force for change in our country’s history has been the grassroots movement. From the abolitionists to women’s suffrage to more recently civil rights and LBGTQ rights, when millions of Americans come together and demand a more just society, they can and do compel the status quo to change.
Whether the issue is the environment, immigration reform, affordable healthcare, gun violence, you name it, the common denominator that prevents the enactment of real, positive solutions to practically every issue Americans face is the power of Big Money. Now a Democracy movement is developing throughout the nation to eliminate the corrupting influence of Big Money and give all Americans an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.
In Santa Fe, as part of this movement, we have formed New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics, or NM MOP, to work on breaking Big Money’s grip on our government. On April 1, we will be conducting a free, 3-hour training on the 28th Amendment Initiative to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which found that money is speech and corporations are people, effectively giving corporations the same first amendment rights as people. American Promise, a national, nonpartisan organization focused on the 28th Amendment Initiative, will conduct the training. If you wish to attend, write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Whether or not you come to the training, I urge you to join this mass movement to break Big Money’s grip on our government and revive our democracy. The future of our country is riding on your active participation.
Bruce Berlin is the state coordinator of New Mexicans for Money Out of Politics and the author of Breaking Big Money’s Grip on America.