What's the latest fun thing to do with that extra billion dollars gathering dust in your wallet or purse?
You've taken that trip around the world, you were ferried up Everest by native porters, and you've eaten yourself into Weight Watchers by gorging every three-star restaurant in France.
Here's the latest fun activity for the top one percent of the one percent: influencing the outcome of American presidential elections.
In Big Money, $2.5 billion, One Suspicious Vehicle, and a Pimp: On the Trail of the Ultra-Rich Hijacking American Politics, Politico reporter Kenneth P. Vogel has an absolutely delightful time getting thrown out of secret big money conferences at seven-star hotels across the fruited plain. Big Money reveals that a few hundred extremely wealthy people in the Republican and Democratic parties are having radically more influence than all those millions of grassroots donors who are supposed to be deciding who runs and who wins.
The Democrats never seem to get their national political act together for long, but according to Vogel, they finally figured out something that unifies all of them. Large, corrosive amounts of money. The Democrats have typically been the big tent party of individuals and groups with all sorts of interests, viewpoints, and philosophies, all of which are in opposition to one another. But when you have a hundred or so ultra-wealthy Democrats writing checks, it doesn't much matter what individuals in the party think. As the late, great Senator Sam Irvin of North Carolina said during the Watergate hearings forty years ago, "Whose bread I eat, his song I sing."
The Republicans have it harder, because their deck of millionaires and billionaires fall into two camps. You've got the country club types, who are somewhat open-minded on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Then you've got the Tea Partiers, who pride themselves on their ideological purity. The two camps within the Republican party compete for donor dollars and violate Ronald Reagan's famous 11th commandment, thou shalt not attack a fellow Republican.
As a result, in the 2012 election cycle, Las Vegas casino gazillionaire Sheldon Adelson propped up a failing Newt Gingrich's primary campaign as if it were a remake of Weekend at Bernie's. In so doing, Adelson forced Romney to spend time and money deflecting Gingrich's attack from the right, leaving the Romney bloodied, bowed, and broke by the time the conventions and the general election came along. Didn't Lincoln say something about a house divided? Well, that's how things look for the the Party of Lincoln today. It's divided deeply along ideological lines.
So what do you get for the hundreds of thousands or millions or tens of millions of dollars you donate? First, snazzy baseball caps and lapel pins that indicate your exalted status as a high-dollar donor. Next, you get admitted to secretive conclaves conducted by the likes of the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, or other famous and somewhat shadowy figures in the Democratic and Republican parties. These gatherings allow you to rub shoulders with candidates, senators, opinion leaders, and other members of the chattering classes. It gives you a heck of a lot more to talk about than your neighbor Joe down the block. All he did this summer was break par at Augusta.
Where does all this money go, after you deduct the cost of caviar, champagne, and hotel suites? Mostly to television, and this is where things get interesting. It turns out that a new, youngish class of political consultants have arisen to consult with and spend the money of these high-dollar donors. The only problem is that most of the money gets spent on television, not all of it effectively or with positive results, and a lot of it ends up lining the pockets of those consultants.
Brilliantly, Vogel investigates real estate records and shares with us news of consultants who have bought six- and seven-figure properties, either in Washington D.C. or in other locations, like garden spots of the American West, within a month or two after the 2012 elections. Vogel is quick to point out that some of those houses might've been purchased with money that was honestly earned, perhaps by a spouse working two jobs, but let's get real. Where do you think that money really came from?
Vogel is a master of Politico's deliciously snarky political style and offers us glimpses of our elders and betters at their least dignified. You've got Tommy Thompson indecorously reloading at a mega-dollar donor buffet. You've got Josh Romney, the "dreamy one" among the five Romney sons, whipping a high-dollar donor crowd into a frenzy at a millionaires-only rally and possibly crossing ethical lines by inviting all present to his Dad's inauguration. If you have to ask how much it cost to see these things for yourself, as the saying goes, you probably can't afford it.
Vogel also takes great pleasure in describing the manner in which he is identified and thrown out of various secret conferences; at one Koch brothers affair, he barely eludes arrest or worse at the hands of former Blackwater security men. When the event planners tell you they don't want interlopers, they really, really mean it.
Vogel's Big Money is a must-read if you are concerned about politics and the future of this country. The bottom line: one billionaire, one vote. That's how electoral politics will look going forward, no matter what side of the aisle you and your checkbook may find yourselves.