Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It
a book by Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman
(our site's book review)
America stands at a historic crossroads. One path leads to a renewal of our Democratic ideal, the other to government by the few, the rich and the powerful
Potter and Penniman argue that America stands at a historic crossroads. One path leads to a renewal of our Democratic ideal, the other to government by the few, the rich and the powerful. The book is written by two concerned citizens, one author is a former insurance executive turned whistleblower: Wendell Potter.
“Potter and Penniman offer practical answers and point out that reform beginning at the local level is most effective and that ‘sunlight is the baseline for all reform’…A well-written must-read for those ready to give up hope about politics and government in the United States.” – Kirkus Reviews
“Potter and Penniman, veteran public-policy analysts and critics, weigh in with a trove of supporting evidence to expose and explain current big-money corruption, and offer concrete ways citizens can indeed unite to overturn such abuses.” – Booklist
"If it isn’t enough that the top 1% control 20% of all the wealth in the country, they also decide how dirty your air is, how polluted your water may be, and how much money goes to their special interests and not yours. Nation on the Take lays bare the greed of corporations and ultra-rich individuals whose sense of entitlement disregards basic needs and dignity for the working class (most of us)." (Source: Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It, New York Journal of Books, Roberta E. Winter)
The people have no power. The billionaires, PACs and SuperPACs have the power, since they're the ones putting their money where their mouthes are. It's the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.—something smells rotten in Washington! The game is rigged. Bailouts? The biggest companies got help while the little guy got the finger.
The desires of the constituents that politicians represent are often irrelevant and usually secondary to special interests
"The link between ordinary American people and their government is broken, and special interest groups increasingly control every level of government. The necessity of raising huge sums has completely changed the character of politics, determining what elected representatives stand for and how they spend their time. Wealthy individuals have seized control of the levels of power, and money, in form of PACs, SuperPACs, and their ilk, influences every policy initiative and piece of legislation. . . . This marriage of great wealth and political influence has strangled the political process, leaving us unable to address our most pressing problems as a nation, from climate change to the wealth gap." (Source: New Book About The Corrupting Influence Of Money In Politics, NH Labor News)
Republicans went crazy, Democrats became useless, and the Middle Class got shafted (or is it Trumped?)—this drunken party of greed gone mad is NOT the plan our founders envisioned! Party? Since gridlock prevents governing, Congress people have to spend their time somehow, and they do: party on, dude!
The pushmi-pullyu: a perfect symbol of U.S. political gridlock
Potter and Penniman, two of Washington’s most vigilant watchdogs, expose the corrupting influences of moneyed interests and plot a way forward, toward the recovery of America’s original promise. “We the people are losing our faith in the dream of democracy as our collective power is increasingly eclipsed by a rigged system of politics and governance dominated by a handful of billionaires and a phalanx of well-financed special interests,” say Potter and Penniman. The system is rigged. The voters are irrelevant. That is no democracy. We no longer have democracy. See Democracy—an American Delusion.
The too-much-money-in-politics issue is no longer just that nasty but inevitable scandal that all Americans hate, right? It’s really reached the point analogous to a person with stage IV cancer, where it’s shutting down the body politic and our ability to self-govern, say the authors. The people that politicians see constantly, in their jobs, are lobbyists, not their constituents, and Capitol Hill crawling with lobbyists now compared to what it was just a few years back. They forget the people back home, who have problems for them, and focus on the lobbyists, who have money for them. The people have no power. The billionaires, PACs and SuperPACs have the power, since they're the ones putting their money where their mouthes are. It's the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.
The Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.
In 1999 Bill Clinton signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley legislation. Because the banks have hundreds of lobbyists in Washington and the American people have none, this anti-citizen, pro-bank move made Clinton popular with elite oligarchs and Big Banking but the citizens got royally screwed, like they did with the horrible Citizens United decision handed down by our Supreme Court. This is just one of dozens of such examples. Like Big Pharma. The pharmaceutical industry legislation was written largely by pharmaceutical industry lobbyists who worked with congressional leaders to shape the legislation in ways that led to huge profitability in the pharmaceutical industry and higher costs for consumers. Therefore, people in the US pay far more for medications, including people who are Medicare beneficiaries, than anywhere else in the world. The fix is in, folks.
Big Pharma spreading "good health via medicine" across the land
Supreme Court of the U.S. in 2010—Thanks a Lot for Your Idiotic Citizens United Decision!
The guy responsible for shaping the legislation that led to huge profitability in the pharmaceutical industry and higher costs for consumers is Billy Tauzin, who "was still inordinately influential in helping to draft the legislation that became Obamacare. Despite the promises that Barack Obama had made when he was running for president that at the very least Medicare should have the ability to negotiate with drug companies to lower prices for Medicare beneficiaries, President Obama gave this promise up under intense pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to be able to get something passed. Obama also sold out consumers about his promise to make it lawful for Americans to reimport medications from Canada where drugs are a lot cheaper. Obama broke more promises than any president ever. The end result is ObamaDon'tCare, a windfall for Big Pharma but a plan that only covered some people, screwed over some, excluded some, etc. Bottom line: Citizens keep getting screwed by greedy oligarchs, elites, too-big-to-fail megacorporations, and the Corporatocracy in general.
Citizens keep getting screwed by greedy oligarchs, elites, too-big-to-fail megacorporations, and the Corporatocracy in general
Potter and Penniman say the mess in the U.S. is fixable by:
- We need to create new ways of financing politics in America, ways that shift the system over to small donors away from the big donors
- Ethics and lobbying reform, such as banning lobbyists’ contributions to political campaigns and jamming the revolving door—insisting on at least five years as a cooling-off period between when you can serve on Capitol Hill and go into the lobbying industry
- Transparency and disclosure
- You’ve got to put a stronger cop on the beat—the Federal Election Commission is useless
We must jam the revolving door—insisting on at least five years as a cooling-off period between when you can serve on Capitol Hill and go into the lobbying industry
Potter and Penniman say to mobilize millions of people, then once we’ve got that bigger army, we’ve got to bring the pressure to bear on members of Congress. And we need grassroots organization.
The Declaration of Independence says "whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness." And the United States Constitution—another American document we in the USA are very proud of—established the strategy of citizens voting for representatives, governors, and presidents, expecting that this innovative structuring of our democratic republic would send the will of the people from the polity to the politicians running for offices. Which it did and does, for the most part, at the level of local offices. But more and more the moneyed interests, fatcats, bigwigs, oligarchs, elites, corporatocracy and shadow government rendered the will of the people moot and the voice of the people mute.
United States Constitution
Letting neocons run the decisions in Washington is like letting a fox guard a henhouse
There was no corporatocracy initially, but with the industrial revolution, railroads uniting a westward expanding United States, commerce and trade expanding rapidly inside and outside the nation (and the British Empire expanding in the world), and capitalism exploding in the U.S. and Europe, eventually greedy oligarchs were no longer satisfied to just be filthy rich. They wanted to control various aspects of government so as to tilt legislature, laws, and regulations in their favor, which would not only make them richer yet, but more powerful as well.
In the U.S., the 1% people get 99% and the 99% people (us) get 1%. Is it fair we get leftover scraps and they pig out?
These oligarchs together represented a loosely organized corporatocracy that together had so many of the elected officials bought off, paid off, or outright bribed that it ensured things went their way. Oligarchs helped election laws evolve to such a loose condition that eventually Citizens United crushed the last iota of pretense of the U.S. being a functional democracy. Those in the know admitted it—the USA was now an oligarchy, and the two parties were irrelevant since a growing aggregation of neocon powermongers and warmongers ran the show, while many elected officials are simply puppets whose strings are being pulled by the shadow government neocons.
Many elected officials are simply puppets whose strings are being pulled by the shadow government neocons
Unregulated profit-seeking corporations cannot be trusted to protect the Public, because their main objective is to make profits, not to be a do-gooder for the Public; but the neocons lie about the "bad" effects of regulations constantly and the public drinks the Kool-Aid
Capitalism is the reason that big money is corrupting our democracy-turned-oligarchy. But it is such things as predatory capitalism, environmentally-destructive capitalism, social darwinism capitalism, military-industrial-complex capitalism that have overwhelmed the legitimacy of government operations and the ethics of our elected representatives so we've ended up with a kind of mercenary capitalism where our government is for sale to the highest bidder. Elections are for sale. The media is bought and paid for and 90% of it is not a watchdog but a lapdog. But it doesn't stop there. It isn't just the mainstream media that are whores of the corporatocracy. So are many think tanks, some academics, some scientists, some right-wing fundamentalist preachers, some talkshow pundits, some news anchors, etc.
We need to be sceptical of talk show pundits and always check 'where the money comes from'—many pundits are whoring for the corporatocracy or shadow government
It isn't just the mainstream media that are whores of the corporatocracy. So are many think tanks, some academics, some scientists, some right-wing fundamentalist preachers, some talkshow pundits, some news anchors, etc.
The 10% of the media that are not mainstream are labeled alternative press (e.g., alternet.org) and they get called wackos and conspiracy theorists by the mainstream press, even though they often tell the truth while the mainstream press reports shadow government filtered propaganda and lies except in areas they consider irrelevant like fluff news, entertainment news, and some technology news. See Freedom of the Press—an American Delusion.
The only certain, irrefutable, perpetual and insidious bias in reporting comes from the neocon elites themselves, which make an all-out effort to stay covert and invisible to the unsuspecting citizen
Journalists have been under attack in the United States—their first amendment rights have been violated and their status as the watchdogs of democracy, dismissed
Mainstream journalists have been bought and paid for by the shadow government so they are NOT watchdogs—they are lapdogs
This mess, above, is what Potter and Penniman, two of Washington’s most vigilant watchdogs, were up against as they expose the corrupting influences of moneyed interests and attempt to plot a way forward, toward the recovery of America’s original promise. There are two problems they leave unaddressed:
How do you take wealth from a rich, powerful oligarch? The same way you take a banana from a 900-pound gorilla—very carefully!
The authors can describe a more equitable political system and tell citizens to demand, organize, use collective power, cry, and scream about wanting this more equitable political system, but how in the world would those in charge allow the bought-and-paid-for Congress to alter the current situation so they had less power and citizens had more power? When in history has anyone voluntarily relinquished power? They would lose power and then some wealth if they allowed a more equitable political system to evolve. Right now, everything is perfect in the oligarchs' eyes, so they purposely manipulate the two parties into terminal gridlock so nothing gets done but the media gets entertained by the culture war screaming of political candidates who are pretending to represent something different from the staus quo, but they know full well that no matter who is elected, nothing will change and the neocons of the shadow government will have their way, wasting vast wealth (ours, not theirs) on their empire building and warmongering and plunging us into debt so the Big Banks can manipulate this debt into ginormous profits.
The widening income gap between the haves and the have-nots is part of the neocons' and corporatocracy's plans
The author's description of what needs to be and what needs to happen is correct. But even though problem one is vast powers aligned against their political and governmental "fixes" who will not let go of power, problem two is that the recovery of America’s original promise of a working democracy isn't even high on the priorities of the citizens. Democracy has turned into such an absurd pretense that seems hollow and useless and we as a nation seem to be going in such a wrong direction, that people are not that sure "democracy" even works. Most do not see that it is now an oligarchy so that is why it no longer functions for, of, and by the people. They see it as a failure of democracy itself, not the loss of it. Millions of Americans care only that they have a job, house, money, and security, and they are utterly uninspired by political and governmental shenanigans. They'd be okay with authoritarians running things if they delivered on promises (which no politician does now) and they ended up with a job, house, money, and security. A benign dictator that delivered the goods would be better than a fubar, fake, pretense that delivers mostly war, danger, casualties, spying, loss of rights, huge debt loads, and economic collapses and hid under the "democracy" label.
World values survey with attitude toward democracy and authoritarian rule
Note that only 3 of 10 in the younger people in the U.S. consider democracy to be their most important value while nearly 3/4 of those alive during WWII consider democracy to be their most important value, and nearly 1/6 of U.S. people approve of authoritarian rule in 2015 while it was only 1/15 twenty years ago in 1995. People's experience of democracy is not that good. The rich are taking our money and the government is starting wars and taking away our rights and spying on us and making us less safe while saying they're doing the opposite and making enemies everywhere—creating terrorists wherever they go, and they're oppressing whistleblowers mercilessly and feeling fine about torturing enemies. The system is rigged and we've been sidelined. All this from our so-called "democracy"!
Like the authors say, a recent CBS poll finds that “Americans see their leaders in Washington as overpaid agents of wealthy individuals and corporations who are largely disconnected from the concerns of average Americans.” So perhaps something works better than democracy, because democracy is working very poorly for all but the infamous 1%. That is why the 99% did the Occupy Wall Street protest, which had no effect on the fatcat bigwigs but they spoke for most of us with their frustration and disappointment even though the corrupted, bought-and-paid-for media flunkies downplayed it and the authorities oppressed it, sometimes violently, sending the message that "your dreams of democracy in which the right to protest is protected by the Constitution are no longer valid: the elites run things and you saps are seen as troublemakers who the elites want spanked, so spank we shall do and you 99%ers can like it or leave and Constitution be damned." And that, then, was the essense of the event then: Constitution be damned.
Wall Street Protest: Occupy Wall Street—Copyright © 2011 by Louis Lanzano
'You know, Archibald, my bladder is a tad too full—do these windows open? I'd like to send my regards to those pesky OWS protesters'
Getting the money out of politics is no answer, say the authors. However, they add, "What we can do is restore our power — the people’s power — within the system by limiting the most egregious sources of the money, by creating new ways of financing politics that reorient politicians to their voters back home, by demanding total transparency in the giving and spending of political cash, by enacting new ethics and lobbying laws that reduce conflicts of interest and shut down the most transactional forms of political giving, and by making sure that campaign and lobbying laws are evenly and effectively enforced."
The above half-measures seem timid and underwhelming to us. Robert B. Reich, in Supercapitalism, comes up with a more dramatic, creative, intelligent idea: Reich says that "corporations are not people and should no longer be granted the rights people have. They should not be allowed to participate in democratic decision making. He supports abolishing the corporate income tax, ending the practice of prosecuting corporations for criminal conduct, no longer expecting or insisting that companies be patriotic, not granting them standing to challenge duly enacted laws in court. Let everyone in every company pay taxes according to how much they make. Let those who do bad things at the behest of corporations be held liable. Let people who work for companies be patriotic—how can a company be patriotic? Only people can be patriotic. Let people and only people challenge laws in court."
Let people and only people challenge laws in court
Without overstating the obvious, the problem with the authors' solution is the same as the problem with Reich's solution: the elites will stand in the way of any change. The Citizens United decision was not just sick, stupid, and horrendous. It was also very indicative. It was the handwriting on the wall. Like the banjo in the movie Deliverance, it points the way to the disaster coming soon.
The Citizens United decision, like the banjo in the movie Deliverance, points the way to a disaster coming soon
The authors say the people are seeing the problem of too much money in politics. But polls say they saw it 20 years ago and did nothing but complain. New campaign finance systems are already functioning in places including Connecticut (Dem), Arizona (leaning Dem in 2016), and New York City (Dem) and resolutions have passed in others. Note that no red state is serious about reform since rich Republicans like the Kochs would block change for reasons already covered in this review. So there won't be national reform, and if there was, the elites would ensure that the legislation would be full of loopholes before it passed so merely the appearance of reform is actualized (to mollify the angry citizens), not the reality. This probably occurred in Connecticut, Arizona, and New York City as well. Author caveat: for these types of executive actions and state-based efforts to take root, we must immediately build a much stronger—and politically broader—citizen army. Get everyone you know to join, they say. They push our patriotic buttons and try to get us to rally to the cause, but many have learned to be skeptical in the school of hard knocks, and many are holding down two jobs just to keep a roof over their heads and have no time for protests. The authors say "There is already a battalion of reformers working hard every day" for reforms, but a battalion is only 300 to 800 people.
We wish the authors luck with these reforms that need a huge army of recruits. We know—and they know—that when the 1% kept screwing the 99% in various ways so the gulf between 1%s and 99%s grew huge, only a tiny minority joined the Occupy movement while most people did not even bother to watch the miniscule TV coverage of the event. They were too depressed and feeling hopeless about it. Even though 75,000 people got in on the biggest march on Wall Street, that did not last long and most went home and a few die-hards were shuffled off to a park—out of sight, out of mind. The 200 hard-core organizers and the 200 park campers can be seen as true activists, but most marchers were seen as disorganized participant-observers. This was 5 years ago and things have only gotten worse, so one can only conclude that OWS did not work, which explains why no truly significant subsequent marches occurred, although a few marches happened, here and abroad.
So 0.0000606% of the U.S. decided to be activists and 0.0227% participated superficially for an hour or two. The fact that it changed nothing and things got worse tells future activists all they need to know. The authors say it will take a huge citizen army of actvists to get results. We do not see a dust cloud over the horizon of the approaching hordes anytime soon, much as we'd love to see it. Too many people realize that group action gets you not results but oppression, pepper spray, rubber bullets, injuries, tear gas, and put on the no-fly list. A lot of military equipment has been given to big city police departments to deal with any major protests.
9/11 terrorist attack
The bottom line is that the elites do not want change and they are prepared to put up all needed barriers to prevent it. They aren't just a bit selfish. Recent history shows they are really really really greedy and are willing to climb over fresh corpses of soldiers or citizens or protesters to get to their wealth and/or protect it. When Dubya and Cheney wanted to start a war in Iraq—the former because he thinks he's a Crusader and the latter because he wants his Halliburton company to get tons of wealth rebuilding Iraq after our military destroys it—the people and the Congress balked. No one wanted the war. So they conjured up a WMD fantasy and started a huge fearmongering campaign with Cheney and others on talk shows stirring up images of mushroom clouds over Manhattan and telling everyone he had proof Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. (See Shadow Elite: How the World's New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government, and the Free Market.) Months of this lying excrement was spewed onto our airwaves until the majority of the public were onboard. As we said, Recent history shows they are really really really greedy and are willing to climb over fresh corpses of soldiers or citizens or protesters to get to their wealth and/or protect it. And Dubya smelled OIL in Iraq, and you know what the smell of oil does to a Texas oilman! As mentioned, the elites get whatever they want, and public opinions are worthless and irrelevant to elites.
Dubya smelled OIL in Iraq, and you know what the smell of oil does to a Texas oilman!
The huge mess the U.S. created in the Middle East has made many people miss Saddam Hussein.
We'll not be surprised if Iraqis start seeing billboards with 'Miss me yet?' under Saddam's picture!
Wendell Potter and Nick Penniman, two vigilant watchdogs, spend most of the book exposing legalized corruption and linking it to the kitchen-table issues citizens face every day. The solutions offered are a bit pale, but the problems are detailed competently.