This has been the anti-democracy decade
BERKELEY — We’re coming to the end of what might be called the anti-democracy decade. It began Jan. 21, 2010, with the Supreme Court’s shameful decision in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission, opening the floodgates to big money in politics with the absurd claim that the First Amendment protects corporate speech.
It ends with Donald Trump in the White House, filling his administration with corporate shills and inviting foreign powers to interfere in American elections.
Trump is the consequence rather than the cause of the anti-democratic surge. By the 2016 election, the richest 100th of 1 percent of Americans — 24,949 very wealthy people — accounted for a record-breaking 40 percent of all campaign contributions. That same year, corporations flooded the presidential, Senate and House elections with $3.4 billion of donations. Labor unions no longer provided any countervailing power, contributing only $213 million — $1 for every $16 corporate dollars.
Big corporations and the super-wealthy lavished their donations on the Republican Party because Republicans promised them a giant tax cut if they won. As Sen. Lindsey Graham warned his Republican colleagues “financial contributions will stop” if the GOP didn’t come through.
The political investments paid off big. Pfizer, whose 2016 contributions to the GOP totaled $16 million, will reap an estimated $39 billion in tax savings by 2022. GE contributed $20 million and will get back $16 billion. Chevron donated $13 million and will receive $9 billion.
Groups supported by Charles and the late David Koch spent more than $20 million promoting the tax cut, which will save them and their heirs between $1 billion and $1.4 billion a year.
Not even a sizzling economy could match these returns.
With the help of the tax cut, corporate profits are now at an all-time high. But almost nothing has trickled down. Companies have spent most of their extra cash on stock buybacks and dividends. This has given the stock market a sugar high but has left little for workers.
The anti-democracy decade has been hard on American workers. Despite the longest economic expansion in modern history, real wages have barely risen. The share of corporate profits going to workers still isn’t back to where it was before the 2008 financial crisis. Never in the history of economic data have corporate profits outgrown employee compensation so clearly and for so long.
The so-called “free market” has been taken over by crony capitalism, corporate bailouts and corporate welfare.
No wonder confidence in political institutions has plummeted. In 1964, just 29 percent of voters believed that government was “run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” By 2013, 79 percent of Americans believed it.
Enter Donald Trump.
“Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place,” Trump charged in his nomination-acceptance speech at the Republican convention in 2016, and then he rode the rigging all the way into the Oval Office.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if Citizens United isn’t reversed by the Supreme Court or defanged by constitutional amendment, a principled Congress and decent president could still rescue our democracy.
House Democrats have already begun with their “For the People Act,” the first legislation introduced when they gained a majority. It expands voting rights, limits partisan gerrymandering, strengthens ethics rules and limits the influence of private donor money by providing $6 of public financing for every $1 of small donations (up to $200) raised by participating candidates.
On the other hand, a second Trump term of office could make the anti-democracy decade a mere prelude to the wholesale destruction of American democracy.
Trump couldn’t care less. As he said in 2016, “I gave money to everybody, even the Clintons, because that’s how the system works.” These might have been the most honest words ever to come out of his mouth.
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Robert Reich’s latest book is “The Common Good,” and his newest documentary is “Saving Capitalism.”