Quick: Name a senator who served between the Civil War and World War I. Struggling? Now name a tycoon who bought senators during the same period. J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller ... it’s easier.
And for good reason. The tycoons mattered more. Gilded Age industrialists—who had amassed levels of wealth unseen in American history—frequently dominated the politicians who enjoyed putative power to write the laws. In 1896, when corporations could give directly to political candidates, pro-corporate Republican presidential candidate William McKinley raised $16 million to populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan’s $600,000. “All questions in a democracy,” declared McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna, are “questions of money.”
The Roberts Court seems to agree. The astonishing concentration of wealth among America’s super-rich, combined with a Supreme Court determined to tear down the barriers between their millions and our elections, is once again shifting the balance of power between politicians and donors. You could see it during last weekend’s “Sheldon primary,” when four major presidential contenders flocked to Las Vegas to court one man. When Chris Christie, not known for backing down from a fight, used a phrase (“occupied territories”) that Adelson disliked, he quickly apologized. And with good reason. Adelson, who probably spent north of $100 million in the 2012 election, can single-handedly sustain a presidential candidacy, or wreck one. He’s certainly wields more influence over American politics than most members of the United States Senate.
It’s time the press starts behaving accordingly. The media, for the most part, still treats elected officials as the key players in our political process. They get most of the scrutiny. Mega-donors, by contrast, are permitted a substantial degree of anonymity. Now that must change. If Adelson or the Koch brothers or their liberal equivalents can single-handedly shape presidential campaigns and congressional majorities, their pet concerns and ideological quirks deserve more journalistic attention than do those of most members of congress. It’s no longer enough to have one reporter covering the “money and politics” beat. Special correspondents should be assigned to cover key mega-donors, and should work doggedly to make their private influence public.
What Mother Jones proved by exposing Mitt Romney’s now-infamous 47 percent comment in 2012, and Huffington Post proved by revealing Barack Obama’s “cling to guns or religion” line in 2008, is that politicians offer their benefactors a candor they would never offer the public at large. This gap between the private and public campaigns must be closed. Every time a mega-donor hosts a fundraiser for a politician, journalists should do everything they legally and ethically can to find out what transpired. When television stations and op-ed pages give Beltway pseudo-scholars a platform, they should identify the mega-donors who pay their salaries. It’s relevant that Adelson, who helps fund the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies—a hawkish think tank whose scholars say new sanctions will help avert war with Iran—has called for nuking that country. It’s relevant that the Koch brothers fund some of the country’s fiercest climate-change deniers while Koch Industries ranks among the nation’s top air polluters.
Big donors will likely fund all this publicity unpleasant. Most would rather shape public policy in private. But the press has an obligation to follow power, to explain how our political system actually works, not to hew to a civics-class fantasy that less and less resembles reality. Since the Roberts Court is dismantling the legal obstacles that prevent America’s 0.1 percent from purchasing politicians, the press should erect cultural obstacles in their place. Our best hope now is massive scrutiny, and, hopefully, some measure of shame.