Chalk one up for the 99%. But just barely.
Late last week, in a cliff hanger vote after midnight, the Senate saved healthcare for millions of Americans, by one vote. There’s no guarantee that decision will hold. In fact, President Trump already tweeted, demanding that the Republicans get back to the table and get something passed.
As this healthcare battle made clear, what’s at stake is broader than healthcare. It’s about whom government will serve.
Over the last few decades, accelerated by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, billionaire ideological extremists have taken over our democratic system. In the 2016 elections, according to Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money, the Koch Network of about 400 multi-millionaires and billionaires outspent the Republican National Committee and staffed their own larger operation, essentially usurping the RNC and forcing it to go along. These funders think of their political spending not as donations, but as investments. Many of them lead corporations that have run up against tax laws or environmental or labor standards. They want to be free of such requirements. They’re opposed to taxes, and want to pay none. Unrestrained global capitalism is the ultimate goal. In addition, they want Medicaid and Medicare abolished and Social Security privatized.
These descendants of the archconservative John Birch Society—best known in the 1950s and 60s for stealth operations and spreading conspiracy theories about a Communist takeover—originally copied Bircher tactics and planned their political agenda in secret; their economic and social views are so extreme, they scared even other wealthy people. But over time, the Kochs built a network of ideological think tanks, propagandist media and social welfare organizations through which to channel huge sums of money for political purposes.
They have been extremely successful. The Koch Network’s funding backs key political positions, including Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Although President Trump rebuffed them during his campaign, saying he didn’t need their money, many of his Cabinet positions and appointments are billionaires or backed by them, such as Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency, Rick Perry, Department of Energy, and Mike Pompeo, Central Intelligence Agency. Now, with their tremendous capacity to influence opinion and power over politicians, they’ve become so confident that when the ACA repeal began to fail, they told Republicans the “piggy bank” is closed until they get the changes they want in healthcare and taxes. That is the return on investment they expect.
What started in secrecy is now blatant and coercive. And we are seeing in the attempted ACA repeal how raw, how draconian their self-interested views are. They want their way, regardless of cost—financial or otherwise. The Koch Network affiliates aren’t the only wealthy political investors, but the infrastructure they’ve created to propagate their views and influence allows other wealthy people to exert outsized influence and profit as well. These investors’ wealth is so vast, yet it has increased exponentially as they’ve used it to change or block federal policy and funding to get even more.
This small group of extremely wealthy people treat government as if it is for sale and they have every right to buy it. Like so many people who profit from the system, they believe they’ve become wealthy on their own and are therefore entitled to run the world as they see fit. Yet, in reality, their wealth has come from government contracts, tax breaks, subsidies, and numerous forms of what they would call “handouts” if given to the poor. These rich elites even bite the hand that feeds them, as they’re being fed.
Despite their extremist, minority views, they expect to get what they want from government regardless of ordinary Americans’ opposition and needs. Their attempts to strip the social safety net and undermine people in need are not endorsed by the majority of voters. That, though, doesn’t deter them. They just use various tactics to make their unpopular views appear popular. And their agenda won’t stop with the ACA.
When Congress returns from its August recess, tax reform is the first order of business. The Koch Network, and other wealthy political investors, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get their taxes reduced and eliminated. In addition to traditional lobbying, they plant questions at town hall meetings, pay people to visit and call legislators to demand lower taxes so the advocacy appears to be grassroots, and run ads to pressure lawmakers and get their message out to voters.
National, and even some State and local elections, are now so expensive because of the wealthy’s exorbitant political spending, that ordinary Americans can’t run for office without these investors. Already, hundreds of millions of dollars is being collected for the U.S. House mid-term campaigns.
The Kochs and Mercers are even bankrolling a massive, multi-state push for a constitutional convention to get amendments that would remove government from healthcare, impose term limits on congress, require a balanced budget, mandate nationwide voter ID, privatize and give states sole control over education, and generally limit federal power.
In a democracy, governance requires collaboration, negotiation and compromise. But with such extreme minority interests being foisted on financially-backed Congress members, instead, it has become a competition. Neither side can focus on problem-solving, nor the broad public good, because one side must win. Asked about class warfare by a New York Times reporter, Warren Buffet, one of the richest Americans, and one who doesn’t support the coercive use of money in politics, said, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
In announcing the Democrats’ new slogan, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said, “Americans believe they’re getting a raw deal from both the economic and political systems in our country, and they’re right.” Whether healthcare, taxes, budget or regulations, it all boils down to whether 400 or so of the richest Americans are entitled to their way, or whether enough conscience and independence remains for government practice to be “of the people, by the people, for the people.”