The United States political system is hopelessly inundated with money, and politicians of both parties have become corrupted. These corrupt politicians serve their campaign donors, rather than the voters, and thus have needed to find alternative ways to attract voter support.
For example, a conservative Republican who votes in favor of cutting social programs that benefit his constituents (e.g. SNAP) can use his strong opposition and grandstanding on abortion and “religious freedom” to garner support. Similarly, a corporate Democrat who supports school privatization and corporate welfare to pharmaceutical companies (hello Mr. Booker), can attract liberal support by loudly proclaiming his support for abortion rights and the protection of black lives.
In short, corporate politicians try to thread the needle between donors and voters by pushing economic policies that benefit their donors (e.g. tax cuts, deregulation, austerity, corporate welfare, war, etc.) and social policies/culture war issues (e.g. abortion, BLM v. police, religion, xenophobia, etc.) that appeal to their respective bases.
To fully understand this situation, you first need to understand how we got here.
The Deregulation of Campaigns
While the history of campaign finance deregulation involves a series of events over time, there were several key court cases that let this corruption into the system:
- County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886): During a tax dispute involving a railroad, the SCOTUS determined that corporations have 14th Amendment protections—this was later interpreted to mean that they are technically “persons.”
- Buckley v. Valeo (1976): In this case, the SCOTUS decided that spending money on politics is equivalent to speech, thus protected under the 1st Amendment. This decision allowed wealthy individuals to donate significant amounts of money to political candidates, giving them a significan influence over politicians.
- Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010): In this case, the SCOTUS synthesized the ideas of corporate personhood and money equaling speech, determining that corporations have the right to spend money in elections. This decision also led to the massive expansion of Super-PACS, which evade campaign finance laws because they are theoretically separate from campaigns and not coordinated with candidates (which is nonsense).
- McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014): In this case, the SCOTUS eliminated aggregate spending limits for donors, making it possible for rich individuals to dramatically increase the amount of politicians they give money to each election cycle.
In totality, these cases created a situation where politicians could take virtually unlimited money from rich individuals and corporations, with minimal transparency—money that they would then use to buy ads during elections and gain party influence. This selection pressure allowed the most corrupted politicians to consolidate power in Washington, perverting American democracy.
The corruption in the American political system is so endemic that researchers at Princeton University have argued that the US is no longer a true democracy. By plotting elite preferences and voter preferences with the likelihood of passage, they found that public support for a program has little correlation to its chance of passing. Conversely, if elite donors wanted a policy passed, there was a significant chance of it passing.
In order to remain in their position, despite not advocating for the economic policies that their voters prefer, politicians from each party have developed a unique toolkit of go-to issues to grandstand on to appeal to voters.
Corporate Republicans and the “Culture War”
For decades, Republicans have waged the “culture war” to mobilize and activate their base. This also serves to distract their voters from the fact that they are pushing enormously destructive policies that enrich their donors at the expense of the public. The defining characteristics of these culture war issues are 1) they are widely popular among the GOP base; 2) they don’t negatively impact the donor class enough to prompt a backlash; and 3) they don’t obstruct the economic agenda being implemented on the behalf of the moneyed class.
There are a variety of culture war issues that the GOP employs to attract and retain the base—here are some of the primary ones:
- Abortion: Since Roe v. Wade protected abortion rights nationwide, right wing Christian politicians have used opposing abortion as a rallying cry. Both on the federal and state level, they push anti-abortion policies and pander to the large group of Christians who consider opposing abortion to be a deciding political issue (Gallup: 9% of voters will not vote for a pro-choice candidate). Because Democrats typically support abortion rights, this gives many Republicans a captive group of voters who will support them no matter how destructive their other policies are.
- The 2nd Amendment: Republican fear mongering over Democrats trying to take their guns has reached parody levels. They have convinced (without any evidence) a significant number of voters that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for some unnamed bureaucrat, backed up by UN troops in black helicopters, coming to your home and taking your treasured guns.
- Anti-LGBT Discrimination: While they are currently backing off the anti-LGBT narrative to some degree, the Republicans have a long history of using this issue to increase their vote totals—in fact, it was a primary tactic that Karl Rove implemented during the 2004 election to help Bush beat Kerry.
- Racism: Race has been an explosive topic in American politics, essentially since the founding of our nation. The GOP’s current strategy of utilizing race to attract right wing voters—particularly white southern Christians—hails back to Nixon’s Southern Strategy and is still in use today. By convincing these voters that their problems are due to black and Hispanic people (e.g. “welfare queens”), rather than the destructive economic policies being pushed by the GOP (e.g. attacking unions), they can not only escape accountability, but also convince their victims to mobilize in their favor.
- Opposing Immigration/Nationalism: This tactic is a subset of the GOP’s use of racism to gain votes. By demonizing undocumented immigrants, the GOP creates an “other” to redirect anger from the declining economic health of the average American family. Rather than taking responsibility for their policies that have undercut American wages, destroyed union, outsourced jobs, and rigged the tax code, the GOP simply argues that everything would be fine if it weren’t for the evil immigrants taking jobs and welfare, while illegally voting Democrats into power.
The demographics that are targeted by the GOP using this bait and switch tactic include whites, low-information voters, socially conservative Christians (anti-LGBT and abortion rhetoric), and disaffected lower and middle class workers (racism and anti-immigration rhetoric). In some case, these demographics cross cut—for example, they will attract racist whites with anti-BLM rhetoric, while trying to attract blacks by arguing that immigrants are taking jobs from black communities.
Corporate Democrats and “Social Justice” Rhetoric
Corporatist Democrats are less obvious to spot than corporatist Republicans, because many of them will employ progressive economic rhetoric when there is no chance of it actually being implemented (e.g. Obama pushed single-payer…until he had the power to pass it). That said, they operate using a redirection tactic that is essentially identical to those of the corporate right, only with different distracting issues and target demographics.
Here are some of the primary issues that corporate Democrats redirect to in order to avoid offending their donors:
- Representative Demographics: Many corporate Democrats will focus on whether the elites of a group (e.g. executives at a corporation) are representative of the overall population, while completely neglecting areas where the elite are attacking those with no power. In effect, they are perfectly fine with a corporation exploiting workers, using loopholes to deny benefits and paying the minimum wage, just as long as the executives include acceptable number of minority, women and LGBT leaders.
- Using Anti-Bigot Rhetoric to Distract from Neoliberalism: By fomenting (justified) outrage against racists, anti-LGBT bigots, and anti-immigrant extremists, corporate Democrats can buff up their progressive accolades, while avoiding talking about how they support conservative economic policies. They focus all of their public outrage on non-economic racism, while quietly working with the corporate GOP to serve donors. The ultimate manifestation of this tactic came when Corey Booker loudly testified against Jeff Sessions’s nomination to the DOJ because of his racist history, and then joined the GOP the next day to kill an amendment that would make pharmaceutical cheaper for all Americans.
- Abortion: Just as corporate Republicans use their opposition to abortion to distract pro-life voters, corporate Democrats will argue that liberals have no choice but to support them because refusing to do so will allow the GOP to take power and destroy choice.
- Small Measures: On issues where corporate Democrats cannot reasonably argue against progressive change (e.g. environmental protection, minimum wage, etc.) they argue moderation and only ever seek inconsequential change. By pushing for weak—often token—change, these Democrats can trick the well-meaning, but ill-informed, voters into thinking that real change was successfully passed, while not offending the donor class. For example, when faced with the Fight for 15, these Democrats will push for $9 or $10 wages, and compromise from there.
- Russia: Since Trump was elected president, the go-to line for corporate Democrats has been to deflect any discussion of their bad acts to the grand Russian conspiracy theory that they have been spinning in the media. Rather than having to explain how they are buckling to Trump (e.g. not fighting against Gorsuch being appointed to the SCOTUS, voting in favor of Trump’s cabinet, etc.), they seek to take up all of the oxygen in the room by stirring up vitriol against Russia. Ironically, this is a tactic recycled from the GOP, from the Cold War, when they would call anybody who disagreed with them a communist.
The primary targets of these distraction and redirection tactics by corporate Democrats are educated voters, minorities, women, urban populations, social liberals, and students.
In addition to using these rhetorical tricks, corporate Democrats will employ the assistance of legitimate civil rights groups who align with their social justice interests, but also rely on many of the same donors. They use the good acts of these groups as a smokescreen to obscure their corruption on certain issues.
For example: Last month, the NAACP, Advocate, National Urban League, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and several other civil rights groups wrote a letter in support of letting the GOP Congress kill net neutrality. In a completely unrelated story, the NAACP and National Urban League have accepted millions in funding from Comcast and NBC to support programs aimed at increasing diversity in telecommunications (see “Representative Demographics” section above).
Sadly, the corporate Democrats’ tactics of distraction are harder to fight against than the corporate Republicans’ tactics. While the corporate Republicans advocate for abhorrent social policies like bigotry and xenophobia in order to attract the “Deplorables” in our nation, the corporate Democrats use positive issues to distract from their corruption. Issues like racism, sexism and xenophobia are extremely important and need to be addressed, but letting corrupt Democrats deflect all criticisms of their corruption by using these issues as a shield is simply not acceptable.
Edited by Lydia McMullen-Laird