Democracy of the Billionaires

The most expensive election ever is a billionaire’s playground. Unless you’re Bernie Sanders.

Money in politics.

This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch

Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up. How do you respond to a rampaging bull of a billionaire in the political arena?  In America in 2016, the answer is obvious. You send in not the clowns, but the matador: another billionaire, of course. So Michael Bloomberg is now threatening to enter the race as a third-party candidate. According to the New York Times, he’s considering spending at least $1 billion of his $36 billion (or is it almost $49 billion?) fortune if it looks like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (just about the only candidate in the race not backed by billionaires and so an obvious threat to any billionaire around) might truly be nominated for president. Of course, if he wanted to, Bloomberg could dump billions into an election run, since he may be worth 11 or more Donald Trumps.  (And he could potentially tip the election to the Republicans or, if no one ends up with a majority in the Electoral College, even put it in the House of Representatives, making Paul Ryan the equivalent of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.)

In the post-Citizens United era, after the Supreme Court let a flood of plutocratic money pour through a super PAC darkly, the billionaires began to run rampant.  Soon enough, new informal “primaries” were set up in which potential candidates on bended kneetoured the resorts and luxury locales those billionaires preferred, auditioning for their support.  And yet transformation has come so quickly to American politics that those may soon be considered the good old days of twenty-first-century democracy before the billionaires realized that, when it came to candidates, they didn’t have to buy them, they could be them.

Donald Trump was the first to take that aperçu to the bank big time (though Ross Perot in 1992 and Steve Forbes in 1996 and 2000 broke the ground).  Now, as TomDispatch regularNomi Prins, author of All the Presidents’ Bankers, points out (offering the dollars and sense to back it up), the American electoral system is a genuine billionaire’s playground — and ever more literally so.

And here, from the 1% point of view, is the heartwarming aspect to it all.  Once upon a time being a billionaire came with a certain taint, but in this great land of ours, such deficits can be overcome. Today — talk about equality at the top — you can be a billionaire, run for president, and stand a chance to win!  Think of this country in 2016 as a billionaire’s field of dreams.-Tom Engelhardt

Democracy of the Billionaires 
The Most Expensive Election Ever Is A Billionaire’s Playground (Except for Bernie Sanders) 
By Nomi Prins

Speaking of the need for citizen participation in our national politics in his final State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Our brand of democracy is hard.” A more accurate characterization might have been: “Our brand of democracy is cold hard cash.”

Cash, mountains of it, is increasingly the necessary tool for presidential candidates. Several Powerball jackpots could already be fueled from the billions of dollars in contributions in play in election 2016. When considering the present donation season, however, the devil lies in the details, which is why the details follow.

With three 2016 debates down and six more scheduled, the two fundraisers with the most surprising amount in common are Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Neither has billionaire-infused super PACs, but for vastly different reasons. Bernie has made it clear billionaires won’t ever hold sway in his court. While Trump… well, you know, he’s not only a billionaire but has the knack for getting the sort of attention that even billions can’t buy.

Regarding the rest of the field, each candidate is counting on the reliability of his or her own arsenal of billionaire sponsors and corporate nabobs when the you-know-what hits the fan. And at this point, believe it or not, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of 2010 and the super PACs that arose from it, all the billionaires aren’t even nailed down or faintly tapped out yet.  In fact, some of them are already preparing to jump ship on their initial candidate of choice or reserving the really big bucks for closer to game time, when only two nominees will be duking it out for the White House.

Capturing this drama of the billionaires in new ways are TV networks eager to profit from the latest eyeball-gluing version of election politicking and the billions of dollars in ads that will flood onto screens nationwide between now and November 8th. As super PACs, billionaires, and behemoth companies press their influence on what used to be called “our democracy,” the modern debate system, now a 16-month food fight, has become the political equivalent of the NFL playoffs. In turn, soaring ratings numbers, scads of ads, and the party infighting that helps generate them now translate into billions of new dollars for media moguls.

For your amusement and mine, this being an all-fun-all-the-time election campaign, let’s examine the relationships between our twenty-first-century plutocrats and the contenders who have raised $5 million or more in individual contributions or through super PACs and are at 5% or more in composite national polls. I’ll refrain from using the politically correct phrases that feed into the illusion of distance between super PACs that allegedly support candidates’ causes and the candidates themselves, because in practice there is no distinction.

On the Republican Side:

1. Ted Cruz: Most “God-Fearing” Billionaires

Yes, it’s true the Texas senator “goofed” in neglecting to disclose to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) a tiny six-figure loan from Goldman Sachs for his successful 2012 Senate campaign. (After all, what’s half-a-million dollars between friends, especially when the investment bank that offered it also employed your wife as well as your finance chairman?) As The Donald recently told a crowd in Iowa, when it comes to Ted Cruz, “Goldman Sachs owns him. Remember that, folks. They own him.”

That aside, with a slew of wealthy Christians in his camp, Cruz has raised the second largest pile of money among the GOP candidates. His total of individual and PAC contributions so far disclosed is a striking $65.2 million. Of that, $14.28 million has already been spent. Individual contributors kicked in about a third of that total, or $26.57 million, as of the end of November 2015 — $11 million from small donors and $15.2 million from larger ones. His five top donor groups are retirees, lawyers and law firms, health professionals, miscellaneous businesses, and securities and investment firms (including, of course, Goldman Sachs to the tune of $43,575).

Cruz’s Keep the Promise super PAC continues to grow like an action movie franchise. It includes his original Keep the Promise PAC augmented by Keep the Promise I, II, and III. Collectively, the Keep the Promise super PACs amassed $37.83 million. In terms of deploying funds against his adversaries, they have spent more than 10 times as much fighting Marco Rubio as battling Hillary Clinton.

His super PAC money divides along family factions reminiscent of Game of Thrones. A $15 million chunk comes from the billionaire Texas evangelical fracking moguls, the Wilks Brothers, and $10 million comes from Toby Neugebauer, who is also listed as the principal officer of the public charity, Matthew 6:20 Foundation; its motto is “Support the purposes of the Christian Community.”

Cruz’s super PACs also received  $11 million from billionaire Robert Mercer, co-CEO of the New York-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. His contribution is, however, peanuts compared to the $6.8 billion a Senate subcommittee accused Renaissance of shielding from the Internal Revenue Service (an allegation Mercer is still fighting). How’s that for “New York values”?  No wonder Cruz wants to abolish the IRS.

Another of Cruz’s contributors is Bob McNair, the real estate mogul, billionaire owner of the National Football League’s Houston Texans, and self-described “Christian steward.”

2. Marco Rubio: Most Diverse Billionaires

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has raised $32.8 million from individual and PAC contributions and spent about $9 million. Despite the personal economic struggles he’s experienced and loves to talk about, he’s not exactly resonating with the nation’s downtrodden, hence his weak polling figures among the little people. Billionaires of all sorts, however, seem to love him.

The bulk of his money comes from super PACs and large contributors. Small individual contributors donated only $3.3 million to his coffers; larger individual contributions provided $11.3 million. Goldman Sachs leads his pack of corporate donors with $79,600.

His main super PAC, Conservative Solutions, has raised $16.6 million, making it the third largest cash cow behind those of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz. It holds $5 million from Braman Motorcars, $3 million from the Oracle Corporation, and $2.5 million from Benjamin Leon, Jr., of Besilu Stables. (Those horses are evidently betting on Rubio.)

He has also amassed a healthy roster of billionaires including the hedge-fund “vulture of Argentina” Paul Singer who was the third-ranked conservative donor for the 2014 election cycle. Last October, in a mass email to supporters about a pre-Iowa caucus event, Singer promised, “Anyone who raises $10,800 in new, primary money will receive 5 VIP tickets to a rally and 5 tickets to a private reception with Marco.”

Another of Rubio’s Billionaire Boys is Norman Braman, the Florida auto dealer and his mentor. These days he’s been forking over the real money, but back in 2008, he gave Florida International University $100,000 to fund a Rubio post-Florida statehouse teaching job. What makes Braman’s relationship particularly intriguing is his “intense distaste for Jeb Bush,” Rubio’s former political mentor and now political punching bag. Hatred, in other words, is paying dividends for Rubio.

Rounding out his top three billionaires is Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who ranks third on Forbes’s billionaire list.  Last summer, he threw a $2,700 per person fundraiser in his Woodside, California, compound for the candidate, complete with a special dinner for couples that raised $27,000. If Rubio somehow pulls it out, you can bet he will be the Republican poster boy for Silicon Valley.

3. Jeb Bush: Most Disappointed Billionaires

Although the one-time Republican front-runner’s star now looks more like a black hole, the coffers of “Jeb!” are still the ones to beat. He had raised a total of $128 million by late November and spent just $19.9 million of it.  Essentially none of Jeb’s money came from the little people (that is, us). Barely 4% of his contributions were from donations of $200 or less.

In terms of corporate donors, eight of his top 10 contributors are banks or from the financial industry (including all of the Big Six banks). Goldman Sachs (which is nothing if not generous to just about every candidate in sight — except of course, Bernie) tops his corporate donor chart with $192,500. His super PACs still kick ass compared to those of the other GOP contenders. His Right to Rise super PAC raised a hefty $103.2 million and, despite his disappearing act in the polls, it remains by far the largest in the field.

Corporate donors to Jeb’s Right to Rise PAC include MBF Healthcare Partners founder and chairman Mike Fernandez, who has financed a slew of anti-Trump ads, with $3.02 million, and Rooney Holdings with $2.2 million. Its CEO, L. Francis Rooney III, was the man George W. Bush appointed ambassador to the Vatican. Former AIG CEO Hank Greenberg’s current company, CV Starr (and not, as he has made pains to clarify, he himself), gave $10 million to Jeb’s super PAC. In the same Fox Business interviewwhere he stressed that distinction, he also noted, “I’m sorry he is not living up to expectations, but that’s the reality of it.” AIG, by the way, received $182 billion in bailout money under Jeb’s brother, W.

4. Ben Carson: No Love For Billionaires

Ben Carson is running a pretty expensive campaign, which doesn’t reflect well on his possible future handling of the economy (though, as he sinks toward irrelevance in the polls, it seems as if his moment to handle anything may have passed). Having raised $38.7 million, he’s spent $26.4 million of it. His campaign received 63% of its contributions from small donors, which leaves it third behind Bernie and Trump on that score, according to FEC filings from October 2015.

His main super PACs, grouped under the title “the 2016 Committee,” raised just $3.8 million, with rich retired people providing the bulk of it.  Another PAC, Our Children’s Future, didn’t collect anything, despite its pledge to turn “Carson’s outside militia into an organized army.”

But billionaires aren’t Carson’s cup of tea. As he said last October, “I have not gone out licking the boots of billionaires and special-interest groups. I’m not getting into bed with them.”

Carson recently dropped into fourth place in the RealClearPolitics composite poll for election 2016 with his team in chaos. His campaign manager, Barry Bennett, quit. His finance chairman, Dean Parke, resignedamid escalating criticism over his spending practices and his $20,000 a month salary. As the rising outsider candidate, Carson once had an opportunity to offer a fresh voice on campaign finance reform. Instead, his campaign learned the hard way that being in the Republican hot seat without a Rolodex of billionaires can be hell on Earth.

5. Chris Christie: Most Sketchy Billionaires

For someone polling so low, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has amassed startling amounts of dosh. His campaign contributions stand at $18.6 million, of which he has spent $5.7 million. Real people don’t care for him. Christie has received the least number of small contributions in either party, a bargain basement 3% of his total.

On the other hand, his super PAC, America Leads, raised $11 million, including $4.3 million from the securities and investment industry. His top corporate donors at $1 million each include Point 72 Asset Management, the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Foundation, and Winnecup Gamble Ranch, run by billionaire Paul Fireman, chairman of Fireman Capital Partners and founder and former chairman of Reebok International Ltd.

Steven Cohen, worth about $12 billion and on the Christie campaign’s national finance team, founded Point 72 Asset Management after being forced to shut down SAC Capital, his former hedge-fund company, due to insider-trading charges. SAC had to pay $1.2 billion to settle.

Christie’s other helpful billionaire is Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot. But Langone, as he told the National Journal, is not writing a $10 million check. Instead, he says, his preferred method of subsidizing politicians is getting “a lot of people to write checks, and get them to get people to write checks, and hopefully result in a helluva lot more than $10 million.” In other words, Langone offers his ultra-wealthy network, not himself.

6. Donald Trump: I Am A Billionaire

Trump’s campaign has received approximately $5.8 million in individual contributions and spent about the same amount. Though not much compared to the other Republican contenders, it’s noteworthy that 70% of Trump’s contributions come from small individual donors (the highest percentage among GOP candidates). It’s a figure that suggests it might not pay to underestimate Trump’s grassroots support, especially since he’s getting significant amounts of money from people who know he doesn’t need it.

Last July, a Make America Great Again super PAC emerged, but it shut downin October to honor Trump’s no super PAC claim.  For Trump, dealing with super PAC agendas would be a hassle unworthy of his time and ego. (He is, after all, the best billionaire: trust him.) Besides, with endorsements from luminaries like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and a command of TV ratings that’s beyond compare, who needs a super PAC or even his own money, of which he’s so far spent remarkably little?

On The Democratic Side:

1. Hillary Clinton: A Dynasty of Billionaires 

Hillary and Bill Clinton earned a phenomenal $139 million for themselves between 2007 and 2014, chiefly from writing books and speaking to various high-paying Wall Street and international corporations.  Between 2013 and 2015, Hillary Clinton gave 12 speeches to Wall Street banks, private equity firms, and other financial corporations, pocketing a whopping $2,935,000. And she’s used that obvious money-raising skill to turn her campaign into a fundraising machine.

As of October 16, 2015, she had pocketed $97.87 million from individual and PAC contributions.  And she sure knows how to spend it, too. Nearly half of that sum, or $49.8 million — more than triple the amount of any other candidate — has already gone to campaign expenses.

Small individual contributions made up only 17% of Hillary’s total; 81% came from large individual contributions. Much like her forced folksiness in the early days of her campaign when she was snapped eating a burrito bowl at a Chipotle in her first major meet-the-folks venture in Ohio, those figures reveal a certain lack of savoir faire when it comes to the struggling classes.

Still, despite her speaking tour up and down Wall Street and the fact that fourof the top six Wall Street banks feature among her top 10 career contributors, they’ve been holding back so far in this election cycle (or perhaps donating to the GOP instead).  After all, campaign 2008 was a bust for her and nobody likes to be on the losing side twice.

Her largest super PAC, Priorities USA Action, nonetheless raised $15.7 million, including $4.6 million from the entertainment industry and $3.1 million from securities and investment. The Saban Capital Group and DreamWorks kicked in $2 million each.

Hillary has recently tried to distance herself from a well-deserved reputation for being close to Wall Street, despite the mega-speaking fees she’s garnered from Goldman Sachs among others, not to speak of the fact that five of the Big Six banks gave money to the Clinton Foundation. She now claims that her “Wall Street plan” is stricter than Bernie Sanders’s. (It isn’t. He’s advocating to break up the big banks via a twenty-first-century version of the Glass-Steagall Act that Bill Clinton buried in his presidency.) To top it off, she scheduled an elite fundraiser at the $17 billion “alternative investment” firm Franklin Square Capital Partners four days before the Iowa Caucus. So much for leopards changing spots.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Hillary has billionaires galore in her corner, all of whom backed her hubby through the years.  Chief among them is media magnate Haim Saban who gave her super PAC $2 million. George Soros, the hedge-fund mogul, contributed $2.02 million. DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg gave $1 million. And the list goes on.

2. Bernie Sanders: No Billionaires Allowed

Bernie Sanders has stuck to his word, running a campaign sans billionaires. As of October 2015, he had raised an impressive $41.5 million and spent about $14.5 million of it.

None of his top corporate donors are Wall Street banks. What’s more, a record 77% of his contributions came from small individual donors, a number that seems only destined to grow as his legions of enthusiasts vote with their personal checkbooks.

According to a Sanders campaign press release as the year began, another $33 million came in during the last three months of 2015: “The tally for the year-end quarter pushed his total raised last year to $73 million from more than 1 million individuals who made a record 2.5 million donations.” That number broke the 2011 record set by President Obama’s reelection committee by 300,000 donations, and evidence suggests Sanders’s individual contributors aren’t faintly tapped out. After recent attacks on his single-payer healthcare plan by the Clinton camp, he raised $1.4 million in a single day.

It would, of course, be an irony of ironies if what has been a billionaire’s playground since the Citizens United decision became, in November, a billionaire’s graveyard with literally billions of plutocratic dollars interred in a grave marked: here lies campaign 2016.

The Media and Debates

And talking about billions, in some sense the true political and financial playground of this era has clearly become the television set with a record $6 billion in political ads slated to flood America’s screen lives before next November 8th. Add to that the staggering rates that media companies have been getting for ad slots on TV’s latest reality extravaganza — those “debates” that began in mid-2015 and look as if they’ll never end. They have sometimes pulled in National Football League-sized audiences and represent an entertainment and profit spectacle of the highest order.

So here’s a little rundown on those debates thus far, winners and losers (and I’m not even thinking of the candidates, though Donald Trump would obviously lead the list of winners so far — just ask him).  In those ratings extravaganzas, especially the Republican ones, the lack of media questions on campaign finance reform and on the influence of billionaires is striking — and little wonder, under the money-making circumstances.

The GOP Show

The kick-off August 6th GOP debate in Cleveland, Ohio, was a Fox News triumph. Bringing in 24 million viewers, it was the highest-rated primary debate in TV history. The follow-up at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, on September 16th, hosted by CNN and Salem Radio, grabbed another 23.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN’s history.  (Trump naturally took credit for that.)  CNN charged up to $200,000for a 30-second spot.  (An average prime-time spot on CNN usually goes for $5,000.) The third debate, hosted by CNBC, attracted 14 million viewers, a record for CNBC, which was by then charging advertisers $250,000 or more for 30-second spots.

Fox Business News and the Wall Street Journal hosted the next round on November 10th: 13.5 million viewers and (ho-hum) a Fox Business News record. For that one, $175,000 bought you a 30-second commercial slot.

The fifth and final debate of 2015 on December 15th in Las Vegas, again hosted by CNN and Salem Radio, lassoed 18 million viewers. As 2016 started, debate fatigue finally seemed to be setting in. The first debate on January 14th in North Charleston, South Carolina, scored a mere 11 million viewers for Fox Business News. When it came to the second debate (and the last before the Iowa caucuses) on January 28th, The Donald decided not to grace it with his presence because he didn’t think Fox News had treated him nicely enough and because he loathes its host Megyn Kelly.

The Democratic Debates

Relative to the GOP debate ad-money mania, CNN charged a bargain half-off, or $100,000, for a 30-second ad during one of the Democratic debates. Let’s face it, lacking a reality TV star at center stage, the Democrats and associated advertisers generally fared less well. Their first debate on October 13th in Las Vegas, hosted by CNN and Facebook, averaged a respectable 15.3 million viewers, but the next one in Des Moines, Iowa, overseen by CBS and the Des Moines Register, sank to just 8.6 million viewers. Debate number three in Manchester, New Hampshire, hosted by ABC and WMUR, was rumored to have been buried by the Democratic National Committee (evidently trying to do Hillary a favor) on the Saturday night before Christmas. Not surprisingly, it brought in only 7.85 million viewers.

The fourth Democratic debate on NBC on January 17th (streamed live on YouTube) featured the intensifying battle between an energized Bernie and a spooked Hillary.  It garnered 10.2 million TV viewers and another 2.3 million YouTube viewers, even though it, too, had been buried — on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. In comparison, 60 Minutes on rival network CBS nabbed 20.3 million viewers.

The Upshot

So what gives? In this election season, it’s clear that these skirmishes involving the ultra-wealthy and their piles of cash are transforming modern American politics into a form of theater. And the correlation between big money and big drama seems destined only to rise.  The media needs to fill its coffers between now and election day and the competition among billionaires has something of a horse-betting quality to it.  Once upon a time, candidates drummed up interest in their policies; now, their policies, such as they are, have been condensed into so many buzzwords and phrases, while money and glitz are the main currencies attracting attention.

That said, it could all go awry for the money-class and wouldn’t that just be satisfying to witness — the irony of an election won not by, but despite, all those billionaires and corporate patrons.

Will Bernie’s citizens beat Hillary’s billionaires? Will Trump go billion to billion with fellow New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg? Will Cruz’s prayers be answered? Will Rubio score a 12th round knockout of Cruz and Trump? Does Jeb Bush even exist? And to bring up a question few are likely to ask: What do the American people and our former democratic republic stand to lose (or gain) from this spectacle? All this and more (and more and more money) will be revealed later this year.


Nomi Prins is the author of All the President’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power (Nation Books).

Obama’s State of the Union address and the breakdown of American democracy

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 12:  President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 12, 2016 in Washington, D.C.  In his final State of the Union, President Obama reflected on the past seven years in office and spoke on topics including climate change, gun control, immigration and income inequality. (Photo by Evan Vucci - Pool/Getty Images)

14 January 2016

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism…A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.”

George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language,” 1946


The final State of the Union address given by President Barack Obama on Tuesday night was a litany of lies, banalities and military threats. The speech underscored the inability of the American political establishment to honestly address a single social question facing the broad masses of the population.

The address was generally praised by the media as a statement of confidence in America’s future. In fact, it combined bluster about the strength of the US economy absurdly at odds with economic and social reality with self-praise for “taking out” the enemies of American imperialism and assurances of more military havoc to come.

To the extent that Obama touched in passing on the growth of social inequality, the ever greater domination of the corporate-financial elite, falling wages and rising poverty, these pervasive features of social life in America were ascribed to cosmic forces of “change” entirely disconnected from government policies in general and those pursued by his administration in particular over the past seven years.

There is an objective significance to the reduction of the State of the Union address, an American political tradition that goes back to George Washington, to an empty and cynical media spectacle. This process did not begin with Obama. It has been underway for decades, in parallel with the ever further turn of the ruling elite and both big business parties to the right and the widening chasm between the entire political system and the broad mass of working people.

While there was never a golden age of American bourgeois politics, the annual State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress once had a certain democratic content. There was a time when the president in the form of this speech sought to make a sober assessment of the actual state of the nation’s economic, political and social life and the condition of its relations with other nations. It was both a means of internal communication within ruling circles and a report to the broader population.

In Abraham Lincoln’s December 1862 message to Congress, the Great Emancipator spoke in favor of abolition. “Fellow-citizens,” he declared, “we cannot escape history… In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free and honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.”

In a later period, Franklin D. Roosevelt pledged a “Second Bill of Rights” that would include provisions ensuring “freedom from want.” (The proposal was a dead letter almost as soon as it was made.) In 1963, John F. Kennedy cautioned that “the mere absence of war is not peace.”

Even some of the more reactionary presidents of an earlier period could seriously acknowledge the existence of social problems. In 1922, Warren G. Harding began his State of the Union address by declaring, “So many problems are calling for solution that a recital of all of them, in the face of the known limitations of a short session of Congress, would seem to lack sincerity of purpose.”

The immense growth of social inequality in parallel with the dismantling of much of US industry, the decline in the global economic position of American capitalism and the increasing domination of a parasitic and quasi-criminal financial elite have made any objective accounting of the real “state of the union” a political impossibility. All those in attendance Tuesday night were well aware that the important policy decisions on both the domestic and international front are made neither by the president nor Congress, but rather by the military brass, the intelligence establishment and Wall Street. The same conviction is growing within broad layers of the population who are increasingly alienated from and disgusted by the entire political and economic set-up.

Having come to power by posing as an opponent of the war in Iraq and the militarism of the Bush years, Obama could hardly make an honest assessment of his foreign policy, which has added to the war in Afghanistan new wars in Libya, Syria and Iraq, an expansion of drone assassinations and a policy of military provocation against Russia and China that has brought the world closer to world war than at any time since 1945.

A major part of his address Tuesday was given over to boasting of America’s destructive military power and his readiness to use it. Responding to his critics among the Republican right, he proclaimed: “The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. It’s not even close. We spend more on our military than the next eight nations combined. Our troops are the finest fighting force in the history of the world. No nation attacks us directly, or our allies, because they know that’s the path to ruin.”

Having posed as a critic of Bush’s anti-democratic buildup of the police powers of the state in order to get elected, Obama was in no position to discuss his expansion and institutionalization of police state measures such as pervasive government spying; the jailing and persecution of whistleblowers like Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden; the shielding of the authors and organizers of torture programs; the militarization of the police and defense of killer cops.

Among the most blatant lies in Obama’s speech was the assertion, “For the past seven years, our goal has been a growing economy that works better for everybody.” Had Obama added “who counts” to the end of this sentence he would have been closer to the truth.

Trillions of dollars for the banks and speculators whose recklessness, lawlessness and greed triggered the Wall Street crash and ensuing depression, not a single “bankster” prosecuted in seven years—that on one side. On the other, sweeping wage reductions for autoworkers imposed by Obama’s “Auto Task Force,” and austerity, school closures, pension cuts and attacks on health benefits for millions of working people under “Obamacare.”

The result: 95 percent of all income gains during the Obama presidency going to the richest 1 percent of households!

In what has become a hallmark of American political rhetoric, Obama concluded his speech with sheer bathos: “I see [the voice of America] in the worker on the assembly line who clocked extra shifts to keep his company open, and the boss who pays him higher wages instead of laying him off… The protester determined to prove that justice matters—and the young cop walking the beat, treating everybody with respect, doing the brave, quiet work of keeping us safe.”

A political system that must resort to such stupid and transparent posturing is a political system in terminal crisis. The mounting indignation and militancy of the masses will seek new avenues of struggle outside of and in opposition to the entire rotten edifice of official politics.

Eric London and Barry Grey

The third Republican debate: The myth of “big government”


By Patrick Martin
30 October 2015

Media commentary and analysis of the third Republican presidential debate, held Wednesday night in Boulder, Colorado, has focused mainly on the horse-race aspects of the contest for the Republican nomination: which candidates “won” and which “lost,” which candidate expected to pick up big money support (Marco Rubio, from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson), which candidates may be soon forced out of the race (Rand Paul, Chris Christie).

The performance of the candidates at the debate was assessed based on who had the most insults and one-liners against various rivals, or directed at the panel of moderators from CNBC, who served as doormats and whipping boys (and girls) both during and after the two-hour televised spectacle.

There has been precious little discussion of what was actually said by the candidates about the nominal subject of the debate, US economic policy, or what this reveals about the nature of the Republican Party and of social conditions and class relations in the United States.

If one were to summarize the outlook of the candidates—and they all expressed nearly identical right-wing viewpoints—it would run something like the following. Ordinary Americans are facing terrible economic conditions, spreading poverty, low wages, even social devastation. This is not due to the profit system, in which all the increases in wealth and income of the past three decades has been monopolized by a tiny financial elite. It is entirely due to something called “big government,” sometimes referred to simply as “government” or “Washington.” Once “big government” is dismantled, the American economy will bloom like a garden and everyone will live happily ever after.

A few citations demonstrate this fairy-tale theme:

Dr. Ben Carson, the new frontrunner in national polls after taking over Donald Trump’s position, perhaps the most politically ignorant person on the stage in Colorado, although he had stiff competition: “It’s so important, this election, because we’re talking about America for the people versus America for the government.”

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, speaking about the crisis of college student debt, now higher than credit card debt: “We don’t need the federal government to be involved in this, because when they do, we create a $1.2 trillion debt.” How the federal government helped “create” this debt, when it is the result of huge increases in tuition and fees charged by private and state colleges (and decades of low wages), he did not explain. He nonetheless continued, with typical Bush syntax, “It’s always a solution of the left to create more government from the federal government. It is broke, it is not working.”

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky: “Liberty thrives when government is small. I want a government so small I can barely see it. I want a government so small that the individual has a chance to thrive and prosper. I think, though, government is too big now.”

Similar sentiments were sounded by the “undercard,” the four Republicans who debated separately and earlier on CNBC because they failed to reach three percent in published polls.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose state is bankrupt and has never recovered from the combined blows of Hurricane Katrina and the oil price collapse: “I’m the only one that’s reduced the size of government. Let’s shrink the government economy. Let’s grow the American economy.”

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: “I’m the one in the—on this stage and, frankly, on both stages that has actually gone to Washington, said we would shrink government, said we would shake things up and actually delivered for the conservative cause, everything from welfare reform, which was the largest, most significant accomplishment in the last 25 years for conservatism.”

Some of the candidates doubled down on the denunciations of “big government” by claiming that big corporations were allied with “big government” in a conspiracy against ordinary Americans. Thus Senator Ted Cruz: “The truth of the matter is, big government benefits the wealthy, it benefits the lobbyists, it benefits the giant corporations. And the people who are getting hammered are small businesses, it’s single moms, it’s Hispanics.”

Cruz is telling a fraction of the truth, albeit in highly distorted form, while lying about his own attitude to this alliance of the capitalist state and big business. His own campaign is largely financed by one wealthy investor, hedge fund mogul Robert Mercer, and Cruz has a record of shamelessly sucking up to every multi-millionaire and billionaire in sight. He seeks to disguise this with populist demagogy that takes advantage of the right-wing record of the Obama administration to advocate even more right-wing policies.

Carly Fiorina followed the same tack, declaring, “Big government favors the big, the powerful, the wealthy and the well-connected, and crushes the small and the powerless.” Once she got started on this line of argument, it proved impossible for the CNBC moderators to divert her and slow down her diatribe.

“The more the government gets engaged in the economy, the slower the economy becomes,” she declared. “There is no constitutional role for the federal government in setting up—retirement plans. There is no constitutional role for the federal government to be setting minimum wages.”

It was noteworthy that not one of the other nine Republican candidates on the stage with Fiorina disputed her remarkable assertion that both Social Security and minimum wage laws are unconstitutional. Nor did any of her media questioners challenge this claim.

She went to declare that the alliance of “big government” and big business constituted “socialism,” and that the United States was well on its way there. “You see, folks, this is how socialism starts. Government causes a problem, and then government steps in to solve the problem.”

Fiorina’s presentation was particularly bizarre since her claim to credibility as a candidate consists in her tenure as CEO of Hewlett-Packard, one of the 50 largest corporations in America, and a huge government contractor (particularly of the National Security Agency) making her the personification of the alliance of big business and “big government” which she was stridently condemning.

What do the Republican candidates actually mean by their demonization of “big government”? It is notable that none of them condemns or proposes to shrink the single largest part of the federal government, the gigantic military-intelligence apparatus that constitutes the biggest threat both to the democratic rights of the American people and the physical survival of the human race.

Consider the distribution of federal employment in 2010, well into the third year of the Obama administration. There were just over three million people employed by the federal government. Of these, 391,800 worked in departments largely concerned with domestic social services: Agriculture, Commerce, Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor, Transportation. But some 2,980,400 worked in departments related to military, intelligence and domestic repression (CIA, Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, State, Veterans Affairs).

The latter figure balloons still further, to 5,580,400 working for the federal agencies concerned with repression and war, when one adds the 1.5 million Pentagon and intelligence agency contractors, and 1.1 military reservists, available for mobilization either for war or national emergency. That does not include members of the National Guard or state and local police forces.

The Obama administration, like its predecessors for the previous six decades, since the United States became the dominant imperialist power, presides over a state machine whose main function is spying and mass murder. The social programs run by the federal government are only a veneer applied to conceal the essentially repressive nature of the capitalist state.

When the Republicans demonize “big government,” they are targeting solely the 12 percent of federal workers who enforce health, safety and pollution regulations, administer federal social programs like Social Security and Medicare, or assist and subsidize largely state and local public services like education and transportation.

In other words, their focus is not on the federal agencies that threaten the democratic rights of the American people, or spy on, attack and kill the citizens of other countries, but the federal agencies that restrict in any way, however slightly, the operations of the giant corporations and banks. While employing somewhat different rhetoric, the current administration has pursued the same aim laid out by the Republican candidates by privatizing public education, undermining regulations on corporations and attacking social programs.

Obama’s “60 Minutes” interview and the crisis of US policy in Syria


By Barry Grey
13 October 2015

In an extraordinary interview Sunday evening on CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program, President Barack Obama sought to defend his policy in Syria against a mounting chorus of detractors within the foreign policy and military/intelligence establishment who are demanding an even more massive and reckless military escalation than that which he has authorized.

Under aggressive, bordering on belligerent, questioning from “60 Minutes” moderator Steve Kroft, Obama was unable to present a coherent explanation of either the purpose of the war in Syria or the reasons for the fiasco thus far of Washington’s four-year drive to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The interview was broadcast a week after Russia launched a military intervention to prop up the Assad regime against the US-backed Islamist militias. These militias form the backbone of the so-called “rebels” carrying out the war for regime-change on the ground.

Conducted at the White House on October 6, the interview was aired just two days after Obama announced that he was ending the Pentagon’s disastrous yearlong attempt to recruit and train a “moderate” force to fight both Assad and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL), and was instead increasing US arms and air support for existing “rebel” militias. What Obama did not say was that these forces are dominated by Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the al-Nusra Front, which the US State Department lists as a foreign terrorist organization.

Obama’s announcement, far from a military retreat, marked an escalation of the American intervention in Syria, one that threatens to trigger a direct conflict with Russia, the possessor of the world’s second biggest nuclear arsenal after the US.

These steps, however, are deemed woefully inadequate within broad sections of the state and political establishment, including layers of the Democratic Party. What the “60 Minutes” interview revealed is the disarray and crisis of US policy and the existence of bitter divisions within the ruling elite. Powerful factions are pushing for the deployment of thousands of US troops to take out Assad, regardless the risks of war with Russia and the possibility of a Third World War.

One expression of the depths of the political crisis over Washington’s debacle in Syria and the broader Middle East was the inquisitorial posture adopted by Kroft. He repeatedly interrupted Obama and bluntly listed the failures of his policy.

Within the first minute of the interview, Kroft declared, “I mean, if you look at the situation and you’re looking for progress, it’s not easy to find. You could make the argument that the only thing that’s changed is the death toll, which has continued to escalate, and the number of refugees fleeing Syria into Europe.”

When Obama attempted to answer a question, he interjected, “I mean, what’s going on right now is not working. I mean, they [ISIS] are still occupying big chunks of Iraq. They’re still occupying a good chunk of Syria. Who’s going to get rid of them?”

On the Pentagon’s failed program to create a “moderate” anti-ISIS and anti-Assad militia, Croft said, “You have been talking about the moderate opposition in Syria. It seems very hard to identify… You got a half a billion dollars from Congress to train and equip 5,000, and at the end, according to the commander of CENTCOM, you got 50 people, most of whom are dead or deserted. He said four or five left?”

In response, Obama made the astonishing admission that he did not believe in the program from the beginning. The following exchange took place:

Obama: “Steve, this is why I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL.”

Kroft: “If you were skeptical of the program to find and identify, train and equip moderate Syrians, why did you go through the program?”

Obama: “Well, because part of what we have to do here, Steve, is to try different things…”

Aside from the virtual acknowledgment that his policy lacked any coherence, Obama’s attempt at an explanation for the failure of the Pentagon plan amounted to an admission that his administration’s claims of the existence of a “moderate” anti-Assad military force were fraudulent. The only significant forces fighting to overthrow Assad are and always have been Islamist elements linked to Al Qaeda.

Kroft was careful not to press this point because it shatters the pretense that the bloody wars waged by Washington and its regional allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen—which have taken well over a million lives and destroyed entire societies—were carried out to fight terrorism.

On Russia’s intervention in Syria, Kroft was no less adversarial. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Kroft: “Mr. Putin seems to be challenging [American] leadership.”

Obama: “In what way?”

Kroft: “Well, he’s moved troops into Syria, for one. He’s got people on the ground. Two, the Russians are conducting military operations in the Middle East for the first time since World War II, bombing the people that we are supporting…

“He’s challenging your leadership, Mr. President. He’s challenging your leadership…

“There is a perception in the Middle East among our adversaries, certainly and even among some of our allies that the United States is in retreat, that we pulled our troops out of Iraq and ISIS has moved in and taken over much of that territory. The situation in Afghanistan is very precarious and the Taliban is on the march again. And ISIS controls a large part of Syria.”

Obama’s response to this accurate description of the present situation in the Middle East was both highly revealing and ominous. After a half-hearted attempt to argue for a political settlement to transition Assad out of power—this supposedly being the only basis for defeating ISIS—he focused on the alternative being advanced within the ruling class to his reluctance to deploy large number of US troops.

Obama: “I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican Party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is sending back several hundred thousands troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and—that the fact that we might have more deaths of US troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spending another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that. There are people who would like to see us do that…

“And if, in fact, the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of the region, that would be a bad strategy, Steve.”

These words should be taken as a warning by working people and youth in the US and internationally. Here Obama blurted out what is being intensively discussed and planned in the offices of the CIA, the Pentagon and various corporate boardrooms.

These plans for greater conquest and empire cannot be carried out by the forces available in a volunteer army, especially when American imperialism is preparing for even greater wars against rivals such as Russia, China and, eventually, potential challengers to US supremacy such as Germany and Japan. They require the reintroduction of the draft, to dragoon untold thousands of youth to serve as cannon fodder in the American ruling class’s manic pursuit of global domination.

These words describe a policy of all-out war that, opposed for the present by Obama on the basis of tactical considerations, is nevertheless the inevitable and logical outcome of the entire foreign policy of US imperialism, particularly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union nearly 25 years ago.

From the first Gulf War launched in 1991 by George H.W. Bush under the banner of America’s “New World Order,” to the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the wars for regime-change in Libya and Syria and the latest war in Yemen, American imperialism has single-mindedly pursued a policy of world hegemony, seeking to utilize its military superiority to offset its economic decline.

This policy has produced one disaster after another, the Syrian debacle joining the creation of a regime in Iraq that aligns itself with Russia and Iran and the installation of a hated and despised puppet government in Afghanistan that cannot survive without the permanent presence of thousands of US troops.

American imperialism will not, however, accept its eclipse by one or another rival power. The crisis of US policy in Syria and the broader Middle East makes all the more urgent the building of a new antiwar movement based on the working class united internationally in the struggle against capitalism.

Chris Hedges: How Black Lives Matter is Part of a Larger Historic Rebellion

“What we seem to be moving toward in the United States is a kind of de facto apartheid.”

On the second episode of his new teleSUR show Days of Revolt, former New York Times reporter-turned-polemicist Christopher Hedges sat down with long time New Jersey civil rights activist Lawrence Hamm to discuss the current state of African-American rebellion and how it fits into the larger historical continuum. The conversation is very illumnating, and like much of Hedges’ writing attempts to show the intersection between poverty and race.

“Half of the prison population is African-American.” Hamm pointed out. “There’s no father for the children, no husband for the wife, and on and on and on. And it has a rippling effect that just never ceases to stop. Poor black folk live in a daily state of crisis. Daily life is one crisis after another.”

The theme of on-going crisis is reflected in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a broad-based effort defined by urgency and a resistance to typical political structures. For Hamm, the situation is a matter of real democracy vs. race-based illegitimate government — marked by bourgeois white liberals and a “bought off” black middle class working to keep poor blacks poor.

“What we seem to be moving toward in the United States is a kind of de facto apartheid”. Hamm said. “The United States is beginning to look and will look more and more like South Africa. You will have a white minority, very small minority controlling most of the wealth, and everybody else, including white lower class and elements of the white working class, on the outside.”

Watch the interview below:

Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter at@adamjohnsonnyc.

Noam Chomsky: How America’s Way of Thinking About the World Naturally Produces Human Catastrophes

The scholar talks about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another.

Tavis: Noam Chomsky is, of course, internationally recognized as one of the world’s most critically engaged public intellectuals. The MIT professor of linguistics has long been an unapologetic critic of both American foreign policy and the ideological role of the mainstream media.

He joins us now from MIT to talk about the seemingly innocuous elements of our socialization that promote one-world view over another. Before we start our conversation, a clip from “The West Wing” that I think will set this conversation up quite nicely.

Tavis: Professor Chomsky, good to have you on this program. Thank you for your time, sir.

NoamChomsky: Glad to be with you.

Tavis: I think that clip, again, sets up our conversation nicely. Let me just jump right in. Why all these years later is the west better than the east, the north better than the south, Europe better than Africa? These notions continue to persist. Tell me why.

Chomsky: There’s a generalization. We are better than they, whoever we are. So if you look through the whole history of China, one of the most ancient, most developed, civilizations which, in fact, was one of the centers of the world economy as late as the 18th century, China was better than everyone else.

It’s unfortunately a natural way of thinking, very ugly and destructive one, but it’s true. We are the west, the north, Europe and its offshoots, not Africa. So, of course, we’re better than them.

Tavis: When you say it’s a natural way of thinking, unpack that for me. What do you mean by a natural way of thinking?

Chomsky: It’s not unusual for people to think that our group, whatever it is, has special traits that make it better than others. So, for example, I happen to be Jewish. If you look at the Jewish tradition, the leading rabbis and so on, many of them held the position that Jews are a special race above ordinary mankind.

China had similar views. The north and the west had the same views and, of course, it’s enhanced by the imperialist history which ended up with Europe and its offshoots conquering and controlling most of the world.

Actually, this world view about, you know, the north somehow being on top and the south being on the bottom goes way back to the origins of what’s called western civilization.

So, for example, it was believed in classical times that nobody could live south of the equator because their heads would be pointed downward. I think even St. Augustine held that view, if I remember correctly.

And it carries over up to the present when Henry Kissinger says, “Nothing important ever came from the south.” He’s essentially expressing a modern version of the same racist conception.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Henry Kissinger, I was just about to ask, so I will now, Professor Chomsky, how our socialization–or as you might put it–how this natural way of thinking ultimately impacts and affects our foreign policy. If we think that we are better than everybody else, how does that impact and affect our foreign policy?

Chomsky: Oh, very definitely. You see it very clearly if you study internal documents, you know, declassified documents discussing how leaders plan things among themselves.

So go back to, say, 1945 when the U.S. pretty much took over domination of the world. It was incredibly powerful without any counterpart in history, half the world’s wealth, incomparable security, military powers.

So, of course, it planned detailed plans as to how to run the world. Now a lot of it was laid out by the State Department policy planning staff. It’s head was George Kennan, one of the highly respected diplomats, one of the framers of the modern world.

And he and his staff parceled out different areas of the world and described what they called their function within the U.S.-dominated system. So, for example, the function of southeast Asia was to provide resources and raw materials for the industrial countries of Europe and the United States and so on.

When he got to Africa, he said, well, we’re not that much interested in Africa, so we will hand Africa over to Europe for them to exploit–his word–for them to exploit for their reconstruction. If you look at the history of relations between Europe and Africa, some slightly different conception might come to mind, but it never entered the thought of the planners.

So the idea that Europe should exploit Africa for Europe’s reconstruction passed without comment. This is just deeply imbedded in the consciousness of what’s sometimes called white supremacy which is an extraordinary doctrine.

Comparative scholarly studies, George Frederickson, for example, one of the main scholars who dealt with it, concludes that in the United States, white supremacy was even more extreme than in apartheid South Africa. It’s a very powerful concept here. It’s buttressed by imperial domination.

The more powerful you are, the more you dominate others, the more you create justifications for that in ideology and education and media and so on. If you’ve got your boot on someone else’s neck, it’s typical to provide a justification for it. We’re doing it because we’re right, they deserve it, we’re better and so on.

Tavis: I want to come back to how we change that thinking before our conversation ends. Let me go back one more time, though, to your Kissinger reference when Henry Kissinger said that, “Nothing good ever came out of the south”.

If the earth is a sphere–think about this–if the earth is a sphere and we’re constantly in motion, what is to be gained by drawing consistently certain countries on the top half and other countries on the bottom half? What is to be gained by that?

Chomsky: What’s to be gained by that is a graphic representation of the fact that we are more important and better than them. We’re the north, they’re the south. We dominate because of our essential superiority of character, qualities, righteousness and so on.

It’s a graphic manifestation of the we are better than them conception that, as I said, is unfortunately pretty natural and is greatly enhanced by when it’s associated with power. So when you actually dominate others, that enhances the natural we are better than them conceptions.

Tavis: Speaking of conceptions, it seems that every other day now someone else is announcing that he or she is running for president. And I suspect, between now and November 2016, we will hear the term “American exceptionalism” over and over and over again.

By any other definition or espoused any other way, is this notion again that we’ve been talking about tonight that the USA is all that and then some, what do you say to the American people about how we challenge our own thinking, how we reexamine our assumptions, how we expand our inventory of ideas, as it were, about this notion that we hold onto so dearly?

Chomsky: Well, the best way to do it is to look carefully at the facts that are easily available to us. So take the phrase, “American exceptionalism”, which is supposed to express our unique superiority to other countries, the unique benevolence of our intention with regard to others. You get this across the spectrum.

So a recent issue of the New York review of books, the kind of ideological journal of the left liberal intelligentsia, has an article by the former head of the Carnegie Institute for Peace saying that it’s just obvious beyond discussion that the United States is unique. Other countries work for their own interests. We work for the interests of mankind.

That’s American exceptionalism. There are two problems with it. For one thing, it’s flatly false. As soon as you look at the record, you see nothing like that is true.

The second problem is it’s not uniquely American. Take other great powers in their day in the sun, they had the same doctrine. England was British exceptionalism. France was France’s civilizing mission. Anywhere you look, you find the same thing.

We happen to be the world dominant power for a long time, certainly since the Second World War economically, even before that. Sure, American exceptionalism is our version of the same disgraceful conception of history that’s concocted by the powerful. And how do you combat it? With the facts.

Tavis: Easily said, not easily done. Always pleased to be in conversation with this brilliant thinker, Noam Chomsky, challenging us tonight to reconsider our world view. Professor Chomsky, thanks for your time. Never enough time with you, but I’m honored to have had you on this program tonight, sir.

Chomsky: Thank you.

Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.