A Gilded Age on Steroids

Wealthy interests have vastly greater influence over the policies made by our democratically elected government than do average working families. Martin Gilens rightly notes that the disproportionately large political donations of the wealthiest, rather than their volunteering or voting patterns, are the sources of this influence.

I have seen this enormous disparity play out over the last several decades, first as a member of the Wisconsin legislature and then as a U.S. senator. But it has never been as bad as it is right now.

The recent explosion in the influence of wealthy individuals and corporations followed the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Citizens United overturned more than a century of settled law and gave corporations free rein over the political process. Those who question the impact of the decision need only look at recent history for a telling lesson.

In the 1990s serious abuses arose when Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and their lawyers exploited a loophole in campaign finance laws by creating something called “soft money.” These were unlimited contributions intended only for “get out the vote” operations, but the Clinton-Gore folks maintained that the money could be used by political parties for “issue ads.”

Phony, soft money–funded issue ads, mostly negative, began flooding the airwaves. Worse, soft money was corrupting. It created an obviously transactional situation: the same elected officials who were crafting our nation’s policies were also soliciting massive soft money contributions from donors seeking to influence those policies.

Gilens finds that when Democrats control government, they are no more likely than Republicans to set aside the preferences of the most affluent in favor of the less well off. Democratic lawmaking in the soft money era confirms that finding.

The soft money era was bad, but the influence of wealthy interests is now potentially far greater.

Trade agreements that Democrats almost never would have supported—such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and permanent normal trade relations (formerly called most favored nation status) with China—were approved because Clinton, Gore, Newt Gingrich, and Bob Dole all benefitted from huge amounts of money that corporations threw behind them. These trade pacts helped to ship millions of jobs overseas.

There are plenty of other examples, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which led to huge concentration of media ownership.

Possibly the worst legacy of the soft money era was a series of financial deregulatory measures, including the repeal of essential components of the common-sense and time-tested Glass-Steagall Act that had protected Main Street banks from the vagaries of Wall Street. This and other reforms paved the way for the growth of financial behemoths, banks that became too big to fail, leading to the financial crisis that triggered the worst recession since the Great Depression. We’re still trying to recover. All of these measures were enacted with significant support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

As bad as the soft money era was, the disproportionate influence of wealthy individual and corporate interests that Gilens lays out is now potentially far greater thanks to Citizens United, a decision so extreme that, unless it is overturned, it will return our nation to the Gilded Age. Only this time it will be the Gilded Age on steroids.

The robber barons of the first Gilded Age were at least restrained by their dependence on thriving American workers, farmers, and small businesses. But today’s multinational corporations shift capital across the globe at the speed of light and would rather pay substandard wages in emerging economies than living wages to American families. The self-control of earlier times is largely gone now.

If we are to avoid a second and more perilous Gilded Age, we need to enact a number of critical reforms, and we will need to do so in the face of corporate power fully unleashed by Citizens United.