We hope someone is around, one day, to record what happened to American democracy.
Never a perfect system, its death spiral could have been obvious to anyone who knows how to use a calculator. First came the super-PACs with their millions of dollars for attack ads, always under the veil of nominal independence from any particular candidate. Then came the “charitable” super PACs, which hid from scrutiny the identity of the political puppet-masters. Then came the billionaires, like Charles and David Koch, buying virtually any election they pleased, and neutralizing the millions of citizen contributors who could pitch in twenty or fifty bucks to their favored candidates. Then came congressional redistricting, which made it all but impossible to replace incumbents. Then came the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and a host of state-backed measures to discourage voting by marginalized communities.
And most of this was made possible by the highest court in the land, which enshrined as “free speech” the use of unfathomable wealth by the richest corporate “persons,” to make sure that democracy didn’t infringe on their profits.
The energy industry featured prominently among those big spenders. In 2012, they gave $143.7 million to political candidates, with 80 percent of it going to Republicans. Of course, that doesn’t count the soft “issue-spending,” on things like fracking, offshore drilling, mountain-top-removal mining and the Keystone XL pipeline.
And if $144 million sounds like it might buy an election or two, get ready for much, much worse. The biggest energy-industry political bankers, Charles and David Koch, have announced plans to spend nearly $900 million in the 2016 election cycle – almost a billion dollars from two unfathomably rich oil guys. That $20 click you made to some worthy cause last year is about to be overwhelmed 45 million times over.
American voters: You never stood a chance. Against this money, your candidates are being swept away, or are cutting their own deal with the devil.
And with that much money being poured into politics, you can be sure that it’s getting a fair return. Consider Exxon Mobil.
Exxon had a problem in New Jersey. For decades, they had poisoned Newark Bay and Arthur Kill, plus more than 1,500 acres of wetlands, from their two refinery sites in Bayonne and Linden. Eventually, the state sued the oil giant for $8.9 billion in damages. The lawsuit went forward under the administrations of four different governors. Exxon denied any wrongdoing. But the court saw through the denials, and found the company liable for the pollution. All that remained was for the court to settle on the numbers.
Now, $8.9 billion is a pretty big loss, even for Exxon. And even if the award were cut by half or even more, it could spoil their whole afternoon. But Exxon lays out a lot of money to influence lawmakers. In 2014, they spent $12.7 million on political lobbying (admittedly, way down from the $29 million they spent in 2008 when faced with the threat of an Obama presidency).
It’s worth noting that in 2014, New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie, was the head of the Republican Governor’s Association, charged with raising money to elect GOP gubernatorial candidates. Of course, Governor Christie was also in charge of New Jersey’s huge lawsuit against Exxon, although it was being handled by the state’s attorney general and career state employees who had developed the case over years. So at first, no one gave much notice to the $500,000 donation that Exxon gave to Christie’s GOP governors group.
But then something really amazing happened. Christie’s own chief counsel took a sudden interest in the case, and reportedly muscled aside the attorney general, to cut a deal with Exxon. The judge was believed to be ready to announce the amount of the award against Exxon. But the Christie administration asked him to defer his ruling while they worked on a settlement.
Settlements happen all the time. Exxon was guilty. Naturally, they’d rather settle than be hit with unknown billions in damages. So maybe this would be all for the best for New Jersey’s beleaguered taxpayers.
Well, for Exxon, it was definitely all for the best. Better than their wildest dreams. The Christie administration settled for a mere $250 million – on an $8.9 billion claim. On a claim where Exxon had already been found guilty. That’s three cents on the dollar. Three cents.
Now, in order to send someone to jail, you’d have to find a direct link between Exxon’s $500,000 pocket change for Christie, and Christie’s $8.65 billion claim release. And they’re way too smart for that. But the message to the state’s taxpayers was cruelly clear: Polluters, come to our state and do whatever you want; as long as you take care of our politicians, we’ll pick up 97 percent of your clean-up costs. The profits are for you; the costs are for us. So long as you keep the campaign funds rolling in.
At Beloved Planet, we’re not out to enshrine anyone’s national myths. But much of what was once noble about the American experiment is now at risk of being drowned in a flood of political cash. Our water, our atmosphere, our wetlands – these things belong to all people and all God’s creatures. But with the collapse of virtually all limits on cash to control our lawmakers, we fear that these common blessings are in peril as never before.
Sooner or later, those who believe that this world belongs to God – and not to the rich and powerful – are going to have to take a stand. God help us.