When, in 2015, former President Jimmy Carter told talk show host Thom Hartmann that the United States had become "an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery", he did so in relation to the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous 2010 decision in Citizens United --- a decision that removed virtually all restraints on corporate campaign donations. This, the 39th President asserted, has produced "a complete subversion of our political system".
"Complete" but not irreversible.
While sometimes difficult to notice amidst our Trumpian nightmare, the U.S. is, nonetheless, in the midst of what 2016 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders described as a "political revolution" that strives to diminish the grip of corporate wealth at the polls via grassroots-funded progressive candidates who refuse to accept corporate money. Progressive activists and candidates have been succeeding by utilizing every inexpensive means of communication available to ordinary citizens that does not entail the inordinate expense of political advertising via the corporate-owned mainstream media. It is a task that has been most effectively taken on by a younger generation of adept, tech savvy activists and candidates.
While overcoming the power of corporately-powered political propaganda during the 2018 midterm election, a newly elected class of young progressives recently entered the U.S. House of Representatives only to be confronted with a second obstacle: the insidious reach of corporate lobbyists…
Step 1: Overcoming the "Democracy Deficit" at the polls.
At the beginning of Sanders' 2016 Presidential campaign, progressive activists embarked upon a revolutionary strategy that was designed to undermine the reach of corporate wealth and power. If the problem, as identified by President Carter, was politicians beholden to their corporate donors, the solution was to be found in bottom-up democracy: grassroots-funded candidates who eschew corporate campaign contributions.
The Sanders-inspired "political revolution" entails a substantive, issue-driven strategy that strives to overcome what Noam Chomsky described, in Failed States (2006), as the "democracy deficit" --- the significant gap between the policy positions of the electorate and their elected "leaders". Chomsky attributed the "democracy deficit" to the manner in which traditional "elections are skillfully managed to avoid issues and marginalize the underlying population".
The word "revolution", as used by progressives in this context, signifies a dramatic societal change from oligarchy to an egalitarian democracy. It does not signify sudden change. The success of this "political revolution" cannot be measured by the results of a single election. Instead, success is measured by the extent to which each election leads to a better informed electorate and by a growing recognition that genuine democracy cannot be attained solely by electing a progressive President. Progressives must target every elective office --- local, state and federal.
By that measure, the 2018 midterm was a success. A significant number of progressive House candidates, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), were swept into office by the "Blue Wave" not only because they eschewed corporate campaign contributions but because the policies they advocate --- despite what you may have heard via the corporate media --- are immensely popular.
81% of the electorate support a Green New Deal. 70% of all Americans --- including 52% of Republicans and 84% of Democrats --- support Medicare for All. Some 75% of Americans support tuition free college. 82% of Americans want the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices. 59% support the Ocasio-Cortez proposal to raise the top marginal tax rate to 70%.
Where corporate wealth and power thrives upon deceptive, high-cost advertising and the avoidance of issues, grassroots activists and candidates succeed via an honest discussion of issues that matter. It's a substantive discussion that serves to educate the public. The deceptive power of corporate propaganda loses its force when it is delivered to an informed electorate.
These were the basic elements behind what The New York Times described as a then 28-year old Ocasio-Cortez's "shocking" defeat of ten-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY). At the time of that defeat, Crowley was the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in U.S. House leadership. He was considered by many to be a potential successor to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
In the eyes of the progressive left, Crowley was a prototypical, corporate-money compromised politician. He had raised more than $3 million, principally from the Wall Street and real estate sectors, and spent more than $4.2 million on his re-election bid. It wasn't enough.
Crowley lost in the 2018 primary by a whopping 15% (57.5% to 42.5%). Ocasio-Cortez's victory demonstrated that the power of corporate wealth can be defeated by the awesome power of an engaged and informed electorate. However, as Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives quickly learned, there are additional obstacles to their quest to attain a more democratic society even after oligarchic power is defeated at the polls.
Step 2: Challenging the insidious reach of corporate lobbyists
In December 2018 all newly elected members of Congress attended a three-day "Bipartisan Orientation Program" that might better be labeled the "Corporate Indoctrination Program". During the program, unelected corporate lobbyists and CEOs deigned to lay down the rules by which the people's elected representatives are to operate.
Ocasio-Cortez wryly observed in a tweet, there were four CEOs who addressed the newly elected members but zero representatives of labor. "Lobbyists are here," she declared via social media. "Goldman Sachs is here. Where's labor? Activists? Frontline community leaders?" She added that other members of the freshmen class "quietly expressed...their concern that this wasn't told to us in advance."
In a separate tweet, newly-elected progressive Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) took exception to a remark made by Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, who served as President Donald Trump's chief economic advisor from 2017 to 2018.
"You guys are way over your heads", Cohen told the incoming freshmen. "You don't know how the game is played."
"No Gary," Tlaib wrote, "YOU don't know what's coming --- a revolutionary Congress that puts people over profit."
Even as the newly elected progressives set out to inform the public about the insidious and pervasive corporate presence inside Congress, seasoned corporate lobbyists were working behind-the-scenes with corporate-financed Dems to rig the game in order to fend off the immensely popular progressive agenda.
The lobbyists principle weapon was the insertion of "Pay-Go" into the House rules package [PDF].
"Pay-Go" is a neoliberal austerity measure which requires that any new federal spending be off-set by spending cuts or revenue increases elsewhere. It serves to head-off progressive legislative initiatives like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal before they can even gain traction. If strictly applied, under "Pay-Go" no new spending bill could be passed absent offsetting tax increases or corresponding reductions to other categories of federal spending.
Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) promptly announced their intent to oppose the rules package so long as it retained the "Pay-Go" provision. Their opposition drew support from leading progressive economists.
In a tweet, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich described "Pay-Go" as "a brainless Republican idea". Stony Brook University economist Stephanie Kelson described 'Pay-Go" as a form of "fiscal madness" that needed to be stopped in its tracks.
Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman regards the "deficit obsession" behind Pay-Go as "deeply destructive" and, for Democrats, a self-imposed "straightjacket."
Even when jobs are plentiful, Krugman proclaimed, the federal government, which can borrow money cheaply, "should be spending money on fixing our deteriorating infrastructure...education, health care and adequate nutrition. Such spending", he adds, "has big long-run payoffs, even in purely monetary terms."
For Democrats, embracing fiscal austerity at the expense of social programs is also bad politics.
Where Democratic Presidents, like Bill Clinton, combined tax increases on the wealthy with modest austerity to limit the deficit or even produce a budget surplus, every Republican administration since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan has blown huge holes in the deficit via application of what George H.W. Bush once labeled "voodoo economics": to wit, combining massive tax breaks for the wealthy with runaway military spending.
[Note, the above chart only goes through 2013, but the similar pattern of fiscal austerity continued through Obama's second term. Moreover, as noted on the chart, the fiscal stimulus set in motion by George W. Bush in response to his global economic meltdown was re-assigned to count against Obama's record in the above calculations.]
In just the past year, Republicans, who only pretend to be fiscal conservatives when they oppose social programs that benefit the vast majority of the electorate, blew a $1.9 trillion hole in the deficit by what might aptly be described as "voodoo economics on steroids". Yet, Krugman observed, "polling consistently shows" that a majority of Americans consistently fall for the myth that Republicans are more fiscally responsible than Democrats.
Ocasio-Cortez and second-term progressive Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) needed only 18 House Democrats to join them in order to block the rules package within the Democratic Caucus --- far less than the number of House Democrats, who are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus ("CPC"). House Democratic leaders averted a defeat on the first day of the 116th Congress, however, by assuring newcomer Rep. Pramil Jayapal (D-WA) and Rep. Marc
Pocan (D-WI), co-chairs of the CPC that the "Pay-Go" rule can be waived --- just as Republicans waived the provisions of the Pay-Go Act of 2010 in order to pass massive tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Americans.
Jayapal, observing that legislative change was of greater importance than the new rules package, promptly introduced a new bill to repeal the Pay-Go Act of 2010. Jayapal's repeal bill was then co-sponsored by Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna.
Given the Democratic leadership's waiver assurances --- not to mention the introduction of a Pay-Go repeal bill --- the CPC's "yes" vote on the rules package cannot accurately be described a "defeat" with respect to the opposition voiced by Khanna and Ocasio-Cortez. To the contrary, it represented a tactical maneuver in which the CPC would continue to pursue bold progressive policies, seeking waivers when necessary.
Yet, when she appeared on Hill.TV's Rising, hosted by Krystal Ball and Buck Sexton, lobbyist Kristin Hawn described the rules vote as a "huge defeat" for Ocasio-Cortez --- one that, in Hawn's view, demonstrates that the newly elected Congresswoman from New York will not be "an effective legislator."
Hawn, who failed to mention the waiver promise, Jayapal's repeal bill or academic criticism of "Pay-Go", claimed Ocasio-Cortez was "soundly defeated behind the scenes when more moderate members of the caucus, including the Blue Dog coalition, went to the Speaker and said 'we have the votes to take this rules package down if you do not include it'." Hawn also pointed to the final floor vote in favor of the rules package (234 - 197). She neglected to mention that the CPC, which is immensely larger than the Blue Dog coalition, could have easily voted down the rules package before it came to the floor if the House Democratic leaders had not promised that the "Pay-Go" rule could be waived.
Disturbingly, Hawn was identified by The Hill as a "Democratic strategist". In truth, Hawn is a career corporate lobbyist. She began her corporate public relations career at Fleishman-Hilard in 2002. She then served as the Communications Director for the Blue Dog Coalition from 2007 to 2011. In 2012, Hawn co-founded Granite Integrated Strategies. The Granite webpage boasts that Hawn had "a decade of experience specializing in corporate public affairs."
In its coverage of Hawn's appearance on Rising, the Hill did note that she is presently "a senior advisor at Agenda Global". A simple link to Agenda's website reveals that the company is a sophisticated, corporate PR firm that boasts about its innovative methods "to engage target audiences". The logos of many of the world's largest corporations, including fossil fuel industry giants, like BP, Chevron and ConocoPhillips, appear at the bottom of its front webpage.
Hawn's approach bookended Gary Cohen's at that indoctrination for freshmen, where the unelected former Trump official deigned to lecture incoming members of Congress on the corporate rules of the game. Hawn made clear in her appearance on Hill.TV that any who do not abide by the corporate rules will be publicly dismissed as "ineffective."
Such is the pervasiveness of an insidious corporate presence in our public institutions and over our public airwaves. By exposing that corporate presence --- in Congress and in alternative media --- progressive leaders and activists help to weaken the influence that corporate lobbyists and the corporate PR industry exert on our democratic institutions.
The revolution continues...