How Big Money Keeps Populism at Bay

By Thomas Ferguson, Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Paul Jorgensen, Assistant Professor of Political Science at University of Texas and Jie Chen, University Statistician at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Originally published at Alternet

Did the ball that dropped in Times Square at midnight on January 1 really signal a new political era?

Headlines in the major media proclaim that a wave of “populism” is building. Inequality and the minimum wage are suddenly front-burner political issues. Cities like New York and Boston have just elected progressive mayors with strong ties to unions and are now being touted  as liberal laboratories for testing the limits of the grudging free-market conservatism and neo-liberalism that have been the sun and moon of our political system for decades.

Even the atmosphere within the DC Beltway is subtly altering. The steady decline of the deficit is turning the tables on the massively funded campaign to cut Social Security and Medicare. In December 2013, the corporate-oriented Democratic policy group Third Way launched a campaign in the Wall Street Journal to smear Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and other Democratic politicians who favor raising Social Security benefits. It backfired ignominiously.

Progressive groups mounted a powerful counterattack. Within days politicians started tumbling off the centrist bandwagon, and the president of the Center for American Progress, perhaps the most important of all the corporate-funded, centrist Democratic think tanks (with perhaps the best ties to the White House) spoke out against efforts to short-circuit discussions of inequality and whether the rich were paying their fair share of taxes.  

With evidence like this, you don’t need a weatherman to tell you that political winds are shifting. But we are old enough to remember Nixon attorney general John Mitchell’s famous admonition to “watch what we do, not what we say.” For sure, the new mayors of Boston and New York genuinely hope to usher in real, progressive change in their cities, yet the larger national context gives us pause.

Reality Check

Three facts are crucial in understanding what is happening. Firstly, the national Democratic Party is in deep trouble as it faces the 2014 Congressional elections. The strong media framing of “populist” tendencies reflects a prior White House determination signaled by the President himself to move left to reenergize voters turned off by the serial disasters of 2013, including the economy’s continuing doldrums, public revulsion against surveillance, and the healthcare rollout debacle. Not for nothing has John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s one-time chief of staff and the key figure in the Center for American Progress, returned to the White House, even as he was being touted as Hillary Clinton’s likely adviser on handling inequality as a political issue.

Secondly, after five years, the Obama administration has simply failed to deliver on the economy. Whoever you blame for this — the Republicans for stonewalling, the timidity and mistakes of the President and his advisers, or sheer Washington gridlock —the plain fact is that even with the modest uptick in the economy, ordinary Americans are really hurting. Unlike 2012 (despite all the reminders we will be getting about the Kochs and their allies within the GOP), the Democrats cannot count on running against a Republican nominee who looks, acts, and talks like someone Central Casting selected to caricature the GOP as the party of the superrich. Even now, Stanford’s John Taylor and other Republican economists are mounting increasingly aggressive attacks on the administration’s record. Regardless of how you assess their claims, they are certain to reverberate in 2014.           

The most important background condition concerns the facts of political money. Until the campaign reports for the 2013-14 political cycle are filed, the precise facts will be elusive, but the leadership of both major parties appear to be concentrating on activities that are anything but populist. They are beseeching big donors for money at a breakneck pace, while the Supreme Court prepares to take up, and possibly strike down, another of the few restrictions on money in politics left, namely, the limits on total contributions to formal political parties and candidates.

Campaign $$ More Concentrated Than Ever

Despite all the commentary about super-PACs, the situation is even worse than you think. Our analysis of political money in the 2012 elections confirmed that it’s not simply that the apparent relation of money to votes in congressional elections appears to be shockingly direct – indeed, almost a straight line. The larger problem is that campaign donations turn out to be far more concentrated than even we imagined.  

Presidential elections probably draw more money and interest from ordinary Americans than other, less visible campaigns at lower levels, where funds from corporate PACs commonly make up much larger shares of the totals. So if you want a guide to what political money in the 2014 congressional elections will look like, the answer is that it will probably look like an even more lopsided version of 2012.

And in 2012, alas, political money was absurdly top heavy. Basically the campaign was a contest between different parts of the 1 percent.

For 2012, we looked at regular presidential campaign committees, plus 527s, super-PACs, and other forms of independent expenditures that supported those campaigns, and combed these sources for every “itemized” contribution by specific contributors. We also tracked down all the lump sum reports of un-itemized contributions — that is, those totaling less than $200 from individual contributors, wherever they could be found, including 527 committees that report to the IRS, not the Federal Election Commission. This allowed us to directly compare revenue streams to candidates and parties from big and small donors alike. (See our full-length study, published by the Roosevelt Institute.)

Here’s what we found: small donations were almost twice as important in percentage terms to President Obama’s campaign as they were to Romney’s. About 37 percent of the President’s political money consisted of unitemized contributions amounting to less than $200. Romney’s percentage was just over half of that — 18 percent. This is important, and on its face, appears to support traditional views of Republicans as the party of affluent Americans.

But there is more to the picture. When you sort through all the contributions that appear to be coming from different people and firms and add them all up, the true extent to which both major party campaigns depend on big donors emerges. For both, contributions of $10,000 or more bulk larger than un-itemized contributions.

Exactly who qualifies as a member of the famous 1 percent of top income earners is not easy to assess. The Economist suggested in 2012 (on the basis of figures for 2007) that the cutoff might be as low as $347,000. Other, perhaps less careful estimates put the threshold higher— at somewhat over a half a million dollars. In any case, we think it is reasonable to treat contributions over $500 as coming largely from the 1 percent.

If you apply that standard, then our study of 2012 implies that both major party campaigns float their campaigns on the basis of appeals to the 1 percent — fully 59 percent of President Obama’s campaign funding in 2012 came from contributions of $500 or more (56 percent if one applies the higher threshold of $1,000!) while 79 percent of the funds mobilized by Romney’s campaign originated there.

If you reckon, as we suspect many politicians actually do, not in terms of total funds raised, but total itemized contributions — $200 or more, or in other words the money that comes with somebody’s name on it — the dependence on the 1 percent becomes breathtaking: Almost two thirds of the itemized financing for the President’s campaign came from donors contributing more than $10,000, while over 70 percent of the Romney campaign’s financing comes from donors of that scale. By that metric, both major party presidential hopefuls rely for about 90 percent of their funding on donors giving a $1000 or more.

Direct financial contributions to presidential races by labor unions are relatively low – our figures indicate about $47 million in 2012. By contrast, labor contributions to congressional campaigns ran substantially higher – more than $200 million, though those are far outweighed by spending by business and affluent Americans. The best face one can put on all this is that if you assume that the un-itemized funds come mostly from unorganized average Americans, then you understand that while the 1 percent largely funds both presidential parties, average folks continue to have a more substantial toehold among the Democrats. (We will consider the case of the Tea Party another time; suffice for now to say that Mitt Romney’s serious challengers, Gingrich and Santorum, benefited from very large contributions indeed. Candidates like Bachmann and Cain, who really did run heavily on small donations, flamed out fast.)

What both major investors and candidates have long known is true: a relatively small number of giant sources provide most of the funding for successful major party candidates. The relatively thin stream of small contributions simply does not suffice to float (conventionally managed) national campaigns and all insiders know it.

Populism and Big Money Don’t Mix

We are now in the sixth year of prolonged austerity following a major financial collapse. If you step back and assess the see-saw pattern of American electoral behavior since 2008, it is plain that many voters are responding rather like voters in many countries did in the Great Depression: their first response is simply to vote the outs back into office. When that doesn’t work, they try again, voting back in the outs. When things still fail to improve, they drift to extremes, and begin exploring strange new alliances that signal deeper desperation. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements represent early forms of this pattern; the dismay driving them remains potent.            

State and municipal unions are now being hammered like industrial unions were some decades ago, with well-funded campaigns mounted to persuade voters that things like pensions are luxuries that, really, no rich person should ever have to pay taxes for. The relentless attacks launched by the political right at the state level, as well as the increasing nationalization of political finance even there, pose enormous threats to these unions. Doesn’t sound like populism, does it?

In areas where unions retain strength, it makes perfect sense for them to band together behind candidates they trust, pool resources to make sizeable political investments, and make a progressive case directly to the electorate. These open and unapologetic appeals, which mainstream, business-oriented Democrats have long recoiled from, clearly come as a tonic to many fed up voters who sense that they are being fleeced by banks, telecom providers, and the medical-industrial complex. 

In New York, where Mayor Bloomberg has left essentially all labor contracts for de Blasio somehow to negotiate, and in Boston, where similar issues are unresolved, both local and national unions mobilized. In Boston, quite unprecedented amounts of outside spending rolled into the election, much of it from labor sources.

Once upon a time, mobilization on this scale would have triggered a media blizzard of warnings about the dangers of a takeover of City Hall by “special interests” (as labor is routinely labeled; bankers, of course, usually are not). In both Boston and New York, there was some of this, and there will likely be more. But national Democratic elites, including the investor blocs that back them, are in a bind and they know it. They are cautiously experimenting to see if they can work out arrangements with the newly assertive state and municipal unions and work with and through them to better reach out to African Americans, women, Hispanics, and other groups that Republicans have thus far scorned. The problem, of course, is that they are walking a tightrope. What they promise voters cannot cut seriously against the interests of their major donors.

History Lesson

This is not the first time in world history that alert leaders of a declining empire dominated by a giant financial sector have been tempted to juryrig political coalitions with organized workers and hard-pressed groups that are coming under pressure to organize in their own defense. In Great Britain just before World War I, “Lib-Lab” (Liberals and Labor) coalitions emerged; after the war, Keynes and Lloyd George famously tried to revive that alliance to end furiously maintained austerity policies and an over-valued currency that were crushing living standards. In 1931, those efforts failed calamitously. Britain abandoned the gold standard, the British navy threatened to mutiny, and most liberals split from labor, as a conservative “National” government headed by a former labor Prime Minister took power. It was a big setback for “populism,” though in the longer run those tumultuous events were clearly stages in the birth of an independent Labor Party.

Whether we are seeing something akin to the earlier British case is anyone’s guess. The finances of American cities depend crucially on Washington, not mayors; the latter’s powers are very limited. And city finances depend above all on the still feeble American economy. A few mistakes, clumsy contract negotiations, or bad economic luck could shatter the nascent accords beyond repair. By contrast, even a modest economic recovery would lift city finances and with that, chances that populist mayors can actually deliver to long suffering constituents.

It is interesting that even some Republicans appear see the logic of striking deals with what’s left of the organized workforce, if only to divide and fool. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie explained recently: “We have an opportunity as a party to drive a wedge in the union movement…And the laboratory where that is happening right now is in my state.’” As the Wall Street Journal reported, Christie “contrasted his long-running feuds with the state’s public-sector unions with his friendliness toward the private-sector unions, noting that he had won the endorsement of 24 building-trade unions.”

Our conclusion is that the fabric of American politics may in fact be breaking down, but the basic structure of national power is, if anything, hardening. The most important fact about political talk is the real context in which the conversation occurs. And in 2014, that context is clear: Competition between the national political parties mostly represents competing blocs of the 1 percent. These older national political forces are now testing whether they can absorb and profit from changing local power constellations thrown up by years of persisting austerity. Whether the old center or the new populists come out on top will be a critical issue going forward; the fate not only of the Democratic Party, but the whole political system may well hang in the balance.

The authors’ “Party Competition and Industrial Structure in the 2012 Elections” has just appeared in theInternational Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 42, No. 6 (2013), pp. 3-41.


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  1. bob goodwin

    Big money is keeping populism at bay on both sides of the aisle.

    Good facts on contributions and wealth. I wonder which party has more 1%ers?

    1. ScottS

      The party that already has more 1%ers isn’t the one to watch out for. Beware of the party that tries harder to attract more 1%ers.

    2. Jim Shannon

      Yet another article talking about how the CentaMillionaire$ and Billionaire$ are corrupting the government.
      Continued observed reality and proof that we need to TAX the .01% out of existence!

  2. American Slave

    I tend to hold the view like some others that we are on an irreversible path to neo-surfdom, there’s probably no turning it back now except that hopefully they will let some people build there own communities for those who really want it like the people who want to build the commonwealth of Bell Isle.

    I dont agree with the kind of society they want to build specifically or its exact location but I do think they should be able to have there own community and that others can do the same such as the Amish, Mormons, Socialists etc as long as they don’t cause harm to others or get in the way of there freedom. This one size fits all system doesn’t work for everyone and will always be corrupted, people need to unite to be able to live in there own community amongst like minded people and not have there lives controlled by Wall Street or Washington DC because lets face it, people are different and not everyone wants the same thing even amongst family members.

    1. Massinissa

      The problem is, all these separatist communities have to interact with the rest of the world. And right now that means interacting with the corrupt system of global capitalism.

      Believing that one can just isolate oneself from global capitalism on some kind of commune is pure fantasy.

      Of course, mentioning that Bell Isle fantasy, its just more Libertarian gobbledygook.

      1. Massinissa

        P.S. What I mean by Libertarian Gobbledygook, is that Libertarianism is basically the fastest path to corporate neo feudalism… You dont need government oppression for neo feudalism, corporate oppression is even more effective for that.

        1. American Slave

          Its true that that the new small communities would have to interact with each other and the world, I imagine that a significant majority would stay where there at but maybe at least some people could build even on a small scale a community that works and isn’t as dependent on wall street corporations as most big cities are today.

          The main role I would imagine the federal government playing is to be a peace keeper more or less so that communities don’t fight or invade each other but I don’t think we need them telling us a city cant own a phone company if the county has over 10,000 people.

          From the former Soviet Union to China to everywhere in Europe it seems multinationals are always able to capture the central government but if more decisions were made locally by vote in intensive town hall meetings than maybe more places can have things like public housing which they do have already but are selling them off do to outside pressure from apartment corporations.

          Over-centralization brought down the Roman Empire, its bringing down the European Union and it will bring down America because it easier to focus on and run a city rather than a whole country full of thousands of city’s.

        2. Bruce MacKenzie

          Right. Corporations are flat out authoritarian structures. They hold elections, but it’s not one-man/one-vote but, rather, it’s by the number of shares. Those elected are given dictatorial power. Once in authority, they are far more efficient at oppression than governments, especially ones pretending to be a democracy. It’s an old story. See Brown’s “Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900.”

  3. middle seaman

    Obstacles to success in a new wave of populism abound. We all see them and live with them. Trying, therefore, to predict future failure self-evident. Many of us hope beyond hope that the OWS/Warren/unions effort succeeds. We hope. David against Goliath ends up at a loss for David, except when it doesn’t.

    1. James Levy

      As I see it we are in a race. On the one side, you have big money, the surveillance and police apparatus, the military industrial complex, and the legacy party hacks. My guess is that fully mobilized, this represents about 7% of the population. They are as powerful, or more powerful, than they have ever been, and are doing their damnedest to cement that power in perpetuity (what people around here call neo-feudalism). On the other side is just about everyone else. Being a pessimist, and having my eyes open, I believe that new technology and media control will pretty quickly (10-20 years) win the day for the neo-feudal order unless the system collapses first via a financial crash, a pandemic, an oil shock, or the early onset of climate change. The awful reality as I see it is that without such a collapse, the concentration of money, power, and information that the current technological trajectory portends will only lead us to one place–neo-feudalism. Dirty, expensive, and environmentally disastrous tar sands have stabilized the whole system temporarily, as peak conventional oil has already happened. But it has only bought the elites time for more looting, as they have no intention of solving any of the problems this civilization faces. No, they are lining their pockets and hording their wealth for the coming crack-up, if they are smart, and just hording for the fuck of it if they are just greedy.

      Given this reality, I believe our limited resources are better spent preparing our communities for the future. Part of that could be political action, but I don’t think it is the best place to meet the enemy–they have too great an advantage in what has become Scalia’s America. Better to position ourselves carefully for what James Howard Kunstler dubbed The Long Emergency.

  4. Hugh

    “Progressive Democrat” is an oxymoron. The authors are correct that voting the ins out and outs in is a deadend strategy. However, it will likely another crash before large numbers of the 99% become receptive to alternatives. “Union movement” is an oxymoron too in the sense that unions stopped being social movements about a hundred years ago. As it is, union leaderships are oriented mostly to the Democratic party, occasionally to the Republicans, and always to the Establishment. At most, they will give their lukewarm support to a few minor changes and reforms, almost none of which have a snowball’s chance in hell of being enacted. So if we are looking for real change, we have to look beyond all the existing institutions of the parties and the unions.

    The way you beat big money is with organization and lots of it. A clear program. And an inclusive social movement.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Hugh, you tend a bit to the Manichean. Alan Grayson is a progressive Democrat; one might argue that that’s why the DCCC didn’t give him a dime in his 2010 re-election campaign, a clear effort to cut him off at the knees. There are a few progressives who are trying to work within the party apparatus. They score the occasional partial victory through forming clever alliances (like Audit the Fed).

      1. William C

        On a point of information, are there ways that candidates in the US can lawfully pay themselves out of campaign expenditure? I came across a suggestion a while back that, if a candidate set up a management company to place advertising, the company could take a cut of the advertising expenditure as commission. I was unsure whether to credit this assertion or not.

      2. Hugh

        Alan Grayson tries to have it both ways. He voted for Obamacare, but then he said he was for comprehensive, universal, affordable healthcare. Obamacare was never a first step or bridge to this. As he wrote about his vote at the time,

        “I’m fighting for a decent life for all, especially our children. That’s why I voted yes on Sunday’s health care reform bill. It’s an historic first step. Historic.”

        That’s a hell of a way for a “progressive” to write about one of the biggest corporate cons of our times.

        It’s a basic choice. If you think the system can be saved, then reform is an option. If you don’t think the system can be saved, then reformism, that is working within the system, is a distraction and waste of time.

        1. Ulysses

          While I’m very sympathetic to your impatience with reformists trying to work within the system, I don’t agree that their efforts are always a “waste of time.” At best, people like Alan Grayson or Bernie Sanders can shame their more thoroughly corrupt colleagues into actually mitigating some of the harshness of their actions. At worst, their failure, to prevent their colleagues from slashing food stamps and committing other atrocities, exposes the system as fundamentally broken and aids those of us who argue for more radical change.
          Even Noam Chomsky or Chris Hedges works “within the system” to some degree. I think Gramsci was right in arguing that waiting around– for the purest of heart to rise up for only the purest of motives– is really just surrendering to the fascists. Alan Grayson is no Gramsci, but he’s actually worked really hard to expose the menace posed by TPP/TAFTA, to push back against the NSA, etc.

          I have certainly suffered professionally and personally due to my outspoken, uncompromising nature. Yet it would be the worst sort of self-righteousness for me to condemn those who have chosen a less confrontational path.

          Radicals will often rightly disagree with well-meaning reformists. Yet to condemn the latter outright doesn’t make sense. If you and I building a lever of sufficient strength to shift a boulder, we need to vanquish those who would smash our lever-making tools, or actually add to the boulder’s weight. Why waste energy complaining about those who try to chip away a few small flakes of the boulder?

          1. Jess

            With all due respect, Grayson is a fraud. I remember him going on various MSNBC shows and vowing not to vote for any bill that didn’t include a Public Option, then doing exactly the opposite and, as Hugh pointed out, calling the ACA “historic”. Grayson is like Warren; both are useful in the kabuki that Dems somehow really care about the middle and working classes.

          2. Brooklin Bridge

            Grayson and Warren are vital to fooling, not all of the people all of the time, nor even some of the people some of the time, but rather enough of the people enough of the time.

    2. Rashers

      “Secondly, after five years, the Obama administration has simply failed to deliver on the economy.” This is the problem as a strong economy does indeed make all the difference. But It isn’t big money that has kept populism at bay, it’s the The Third Way New Dem Corporate shilling of Clinton/Gore and now Obama that has killed the American dream. Populism may be the only way to level the political landscape but it won’t get any help from today’s Democratic Party. They may “feel” our pain but will not fight to restore even a level playing field, never mind jobs (The Magic Bullet), a living wage or any sense of security. The fix is in.

    3. F. Beard

      And an inclusive social movement. Hugh

      So why the deafening silence from the MMT folks and Progressives in general on Steve Keen’s universal fiat giveaway (A Modern Debt Jubilee)? Simple debt forgiveness would encounter a LOT of opposition from non-debtors.

  5. Klassy

    In Lorain, OH, labor said enough is enough and broke from the Democratic party and ran their own candidates in city council races. They were largely successful. I believe a candidate from the teacher’s union defeated the chamber of commerce’s guy, among others.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I need to write up what has happened in Minnesota re changes in voting procedures. I’m not at all clear on the details (as in not sure whether this is just Minneapolis or state-wide), they’ve implemented a voting preferences system which greatly increases the odds of third party candidates winning elections. Also has the side effect of increasing turnout, as in makes voters think their votes might count and the process is more efficient (no runoffs, if there is not a majority, then the secondary choices come into play).

      1. susan the other

        Let’s hope there is such a thing as political nullification and that it will catch on and turn into an avalanche. Akin to jury nullification. Discounting the absurd rationalized mess big capital has made of just about everything; discounting the ideas of debt, growth and profit for only a few; discounting all political promises and simply saying that this whole American political process is null and void of any lasting social benefit or justice, except for the rich and powerful or the very, very lucky. And as such it has nothing whatsoever to do with democracy.

        1. F. Beard

          We need a Constitutional Amendment separating government from private (NOT to say public since that is an inherent right of government) money creation to purge the fascism from our system. And, of course, we need restitution for theft from the current fascist money system.

      2. habenicht

        For those interested on this topic, there was a link to a related story on this site back in October:

        also Yves – I wanted to ask you more about third party politics at the meet and greet last week, but realize there are only so many conversations you can have in one night! So I will be curious to read your views on potential impacts from these voting procedures (and if there is an angle for third parties).

  6. William Neil

    Yves and the three authors: Thank you. A very interesting article that I think grasps the fact that these are indeed not ordinary political times and makes analogies to the strains in democracies in the 1930’s. The rise (too soon to say fall) of Chris Christie and what he stands for is proof of that…

    It just so happens that yesterday, Jan. 13th, a “memo” from the Democratic Strategist arrived in my inbox, written by Andrew Levinson. Now the Democratic Strategist’s are a poll and “hard data” bunch of folks who like to pose as the “left realists” of the Centrist wing of the party – I fully acknowledge the contradictions of that formulation, but that’s the way they strike me. Now this was a “warning” memo to the rising populist wave inside the Democratic Party (I actually think this is a wave arising outside the party but it certainly has the old Centrists considering picking up a board to ride it a bit…but I don’t want to get carried away…) that 2016 will not be as easy as 2012, that the Republican Right will not make the mistakes Romney did, and that even though the Democratic populists will be able – can today claim – very, very good poll numbers for the individual planks of a populist economic platform – this will not be sufficient to carry them to victory.

    The Right will expand their strategy used against the Obama healthcare program – the first steps towards socialism – to go after minimum wage efforts, public works for jobs, and so on.

    Levinson maintains that the great “populist” hurdle to winning in 2016 is that government is so tarnished in the eyes of voters that it has become a heavy albatross around the ability to enact the well polling populist economic planks.

    To overcome that, he says that populists – and I have to swallow hard before typing this – Democrats – must include a plank to get big money out of politics…which of course, in light of the work just posted above, the big donor base’s ability to control Democratic content – will be quite a tight rope walking feat.

    That memo is available online at
    I make no endorsement of its contents; the logic is good, until you remember the strains that this will cause among the Dem. centrists and their elite donor base. And then of course there is the direction sketched out by Gar Alperovitz in his book “What Then Must We Do,” which has been mentioned at NC just a couple of months ago, which states that under such circumstances as outlined by Ferguson et all above, the best course is to go build alternative institutions. To be fair to Alperovitz, he does mention multiple simultaneous strategies, but I think his emotional content (which he hides pretty well) as well as his formal logic push him in the direction of finding that any populism the Center-Right Democrats would come up with would be a re-run of the faux populism of 1976, 1992 and 2008. Did President Obama run as a populist against Romney in 2012? Levinson suggests that; really? Everyone, keep your eyes on the Centrist gestures towards something populist, a mood that is building, but which I doubt they can seriously embrace.

  7. Andrea

    This is just a quibble …“In any case, we think it is reasonable to treat contributions over $500 as coming largely from the 1 percent.”

    The ‘in any case’ concerns the cut off point for the 1% which is, as they state, a matter of debate. But 500? A single person who earns 60k a year can easily afford a 500 donation.

    “Our conclusion is that the fabric of American politics may in fact be breaking down, but the basic structure of national power is, if anything, hardening.”

    That is a strong conclusion to draw from the facts presented, but never mind. It is true of course and deserves more exploration.

    In any case, imho, many articles that refer to the 1% (as a staggering example of inequality, as a description of power distribution, as a populist call for outrage, as an argument against ‘capitalism’, and more) is off the mark, and obfuscating somewhat. (Not that I agree with such wealth accumulation.)

    A better number is the 20%, that is the top brass (pols, corporations, finance…) and all their supporters, plus others who benefit from the system as it is: highly paid professionals, security industry, prison industry, other control entities, pharma, media, insurance, arms production, maybe even agriculture, etc. It is this 20% (an off-the-cuff no., some prefer 25%) that keeps the system stable.

    The cadres, the apparatchiks, although they are not called that and occupy prestigious positions, control what is ‘below’ them with pretty much an iron fist, though it presents in a soft glove. “These are the rules”…”The economy is bad right now”.. “Yes your internship is approved” (as your dad is rich and we are forced to take you on), “Yes the subsidy is set to continue”, “No we won’t have to pay reparations”, etc. An oligarchy -say- in which the 1% (defined in terms of money but not power) may have considerable influence – but pointing to them explains, illustrates, serves, little. Which is also why “The 99%” meme is ridiculous.

    1. porge

      Needless to say I agree with you.
      This is a comment I made here last summer.

      August 27, 2013 at 8:47 am
      The “99%” is just a slogan.

      In reality it is more stratified on a power law with a ratio of .1 to .2

      .001 to .002 represent the true owners of the global system who are descendants of old inherited fortunes.

      .01 to .02 are the figure head puppets that everyone THINKS runs things. This includes politicians, CEOs, etc.

      .1 to .2 are the mangers. This is the most important group and they are the enablers of the oppressive hierarchy. This group largely identifies with the class above them and stands to lose a lot if the system fails. These are the people that need to be changed.

      .8 to .9 are the disenfranchised. This group is owned and considered livestock.

      Until the situation is framed in these terms we will get no where. The 10 to 20% enablers are the key and they will fight just as hard as the few above them in the pyramid to keep their position.
      This is the reality that I witness everyday.

  8. dis∫

    There are always a couple of progressive Democrats. Grayson’s one. The Democrats are going to ridicule him and stab him in the back and destroy him the first chance they get. Grayson’s in the Democratic Shit Through a Goose caucus with Feingold, Kucinich and Wellstone’s bone chips.

    There is CALA-style organizing going on that could supplant the party duopoly (the National Labor Federation, for instance) but that depends on the collapse of electoral politics as we know it. The current system of centrally-dictated alternatives and legalized peculation can ward off the popular will with no problem.

    We’ll get nowhere till the Democratic Party is destroyed.

  9. Paul P

    Only way that I can see to oppose Big Money is through large scale grassroots organizing.
    Unions, one would think, would be doing this every day. But, I’ve never seen a union table on the street, never had anyone knock on the door an engage me on issues like cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid while money piles up offshore and untaxed, and never been invited to do civil disobedience at the office of some official who favors the 2% over the rest of us. Oh, a lot of stuff is being done, for sure. “Look at Wisconsin,” they say. But, look at the Koch’s silly winning, campaign that recall is not a Wisconsin thing. What Wisconsin shows is the lack of ongoing organizing being done by unions and the ongoing organizing being done by Big Money. It also shows hope in the untapped power of people to oppose the plutocracy.
    There are a number of union email alert lists, the AFL-CIO, the Working Families Party, for example. There are 12 million organized workers in the country. Only a tiny fraction are tied into these alert lists. These alerts are useful, but they are not being utilized fully to affect the results.
    In “17 Solutions” Ralph Nader proposes Congressional Watch Dog Groups in each congressional district. He’s not just talking about an electoral strategy as the name implies. He’s talking about an educational, political mobilizing strategy. If you want to reform the plutocracy and oppose power, some such effort will have to be done systemically.

    1. Expat

      You make a great point regarding the state of political organization in the US. As a long time environmental activist, I’ve gone door-to-door a thousand times, but guess what? I go to targeted neighbourhoods identified as strategic by professional political consultants (a position that barely existed 30 years ago) and I have never ever been asked to invite my own neighbours over for coffee and an anit-fracking demonstration. If we organized neighbourhoods, especially the suburbs, with block capitans, for example, we might start a movement. But even the labour town I live in today isn’t well organized enough to keep big money anti-environmental developers and privatizers out.

      This phenomenon dreadfully underscores the thesis of the terrifying book, “Bowling Alone,” which spelled out the visible consequences of the narcissistic materialism/libertarianism that has increased in the US generation by generation.

      (Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

  10. smartstrike

    It’s an interesting read. I never heard of of the Third Way; but, as Elizabeth Warren suspects, it’s forensics point to bankers’ malfeasance.

    In retrospect, Ralph Nader was right. The Democratic debauchery following 2008 election was too much to stomach. It became apparent that the party is a neo-liberal institution consisting of greedy corporatist activists. The money backers of this neo-liberal institution are bankers and fascist-socialists made up of Public Unions out to screw taxpayers.

    I think it’s time for the FDR-progressives to go their own way.

  11. LucyLulu

    More so Republicans than Democrats, the practical power and focus in politics has shifted to the state level. While DC is too bogged down in gridlock to move policies forward, businesses and ideologues are finding their solutions in the state legislatures. An executive of an energy firm told a conservative audience that had the industry awaited DC for action, our natural gas would still be in the ground. Civil rights and gender legislation is rewritten and tested at the state level. “Stand your ground” and the prison-industrial complex also were pushed through the states with the help of ALEC. By refusing the Medicaid expansion, states have seriously hampered the affordability of exchange policies, thus adversely affecting the risk pool towards less healthy individuals. (Yet conservative taxpayers in these same states aren’t bothered that their taxes are being used to benefit the residents of OTHER states.)

    Perhaps Democrats have made gains in NYC and Boston, but as pointed out, cities have little power to implement significant policy changes. The Republicans are dominating the scene at the state level. This is where progressives need to focus more effort too, if for no other reason than to counter some of the draconian measures being passed by conservative state legislatures. The states also provide the opportunities to pass truly New Deal type legislation in blue states, e.g. Vermont taking advantage of federal funding from ACA made available to states for alternative models (but decreases over time) to transition to single-payer universal healthcare, Camden, NJ’s public health focus on meeting (real) needs while reducing costs of the 5% who use 50% of care, or experimentation with accountable care organizations.

    1. James Levy

      I’ve always believed that in most cases, the Left is automatically weaker at the State than the Federal level. I believe this because State constitutions and legislative processes are opaque, media coverage of the shenanigans at the statehouse is always poor unless there is a sex scandal, and a few major economic players dominate virtually every state, and can’t be worked around. And, at least in New York where I lived most of my life, politicians can be bought incredibly cheaply by the moneyed interests. If we had waited to overthrow Jim Crow at the State level, blacks still wouldn’t have the vote. So I am not sanguine about the State level. Local and national are better sites for resistance than at the level of the States.

  12. Mel Fish

    “We are now in the sixth year of prolonged austerity….”
    Hard to keep reading after that little nugget

  13. Rodger Malcolm Mitchell

    The main point is not liberal, conservative, big money or populism. The main point is a basic misunderstanding about money, a misunderstanding by both the left-leaning and right-leaning populace.

    This misunderstanding of money involves ignorance of four facts:

    1. The federal government cannot run short of dollars. Our Monetarily Sovereign federal government is not, as Boehner famously lied, “broke.” Even if all federal taxes fell to $0 or rose to $100 trillion, neither event would affect by even $1, the federal government’s unlimited ability to spend.

    2. A growing economy requires a growing supply of money. A large economy has more money than does a smaller economy, therefore for an economy to grow, the money supply must grow.

    3. Federal deficit spending adds money to the economy. A federal deficit is and economic surplus.

    4. Hyper-inflation is not a danger to the American economy. America never has had a hyper-infaltion. The Fed controls the value of the dollar. Mentions of Weimar Republic, Zimbabwe and Argentina are red herrings, that have no application to the U.S. economy.

    Until the public understands these facts of Monetary Sovereignty, both the liberals and the conservatives, the rich and the rest, will be complicit in destroying the economy.

  14. Minor Heretic

    This is the key to understanding our politics. Whichever candidate spends the most money in a congressional primary wins 97% of the time. Most of that money comes from the wealthy people intertwined with corporations. Ergo, any candidate with opinions that would offend the rich has almost no chance.

    It’s time for the progressives to stop being a bed of nails. Any idiot can lie on a bed of nails – your weight is distributed over so many points that no one point sinks in. We all have our personal subjects – energy, finance, the environment, labor, education. Time to give up on these and focus, focus, focus on a constitutional amendment that 1) deems corporations non-persons, and 2) contrasts money and speech, defining money the way it acts in reality, as a vote. Everyone gets the same number of votes. If we can be a bed of one nail we’ll actually penetrate.

    After, AFTER we make corporations silent and powerless, and AFTER we get the big money out of politics, then we can contest all the other subjects with some chance of a populist outcome. It will be the biggest political fight in this country since the Civil War.

  15. Crosley Bendix

    I think that Thomas Ferguson is a great political scientist. However, there is at least problematic assumption that he makes in this piece.

    Secondly, after five years, the Obama administration has simply failed to deliver on the economy. Whoever you blame for this — the Republicans for stonewalling, the timidity and mistakes of the President and his advisers, or sheer Washington gridlock —the plain fact is that even with the modest uptick in the economy, ordinary Americans are really hurting.

    This assumes that the Obama administration wanted to deliver to ordinary Americans. I’m not aware of any solid evidence of that. And describing Obama as “timid” seems to be laughable. He has been absolutely vicious in clamping down on whistleblowers.

  16. F. Beard

    Minimum wages are meaningless without a minimum number of jobs and those are being destroyed via automation or sent away via outsourcing.

    So our choices are:
    1) Become new-luddites and/or new-isolationists
    2) Learn to share the benefits of automation and outsourcing.

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