Economic Power Drives Political Power
Betsy DeVos is the latest example, but pay-to-play politics is not new.
Betsy DeVos never went to a public school. She never sent her kids to a public school. She never taught in a school, and she is by no means a policy wonk. To the contrary, she is unfamiliar with basic education policy, including the general roles of federal and state government in education.
All signs point to DeVos knowing very little about education, other than her pet cause of diverting tax dollars to religious schools and the pockets of entrepreneurs. And yet, on February 7th, Betsy DeVos became the United States Secretary of Education.
If this seems bizarre, you’re half right. It sounds unreasonable, illogical, and unthinkable, and this was quickly recognized by the American public. The truth is, though, that our current situation is not far from the norm. Betsy DeVos and the rest of Donald Trump’s cabinet are an acceleration of — not a departure from — what Bernie Sanders has continuously referred to as “establishment politics.”
At her confirmation, Bernie Sanders asked Betsy DeVos, “Do you think if you were not a multi-billionaire — if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party — that you’d be sitting here today?” DeVos smirked and hesitated, but responded that yes, it is plausible, since she has “worked on behalf of parents and children” over the past many years.
Of course, the real answer is no. Betsy DeVos would not be considered for education secretary if she had not contributed all that money. “Working with children” is something that millions of people have devoted their lives toward, so why does it make her good enough?
It’s a small club, and you’re not in it
If you study the rhetoric of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, you will find that he made few real promises. Even with the policies he proposed, such as universal single-payer healthcare and tuition-free public college, Sanders generally spoke about what we “could” and “should” do — not what he could absolutely guarantee as President of the United States. However, one of the few promises he did make was that he would appoint a new justice to the Supreme Court if, and only if, he or she first vows to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — the 2010 Supreme Court decision that corporations are people (further strengthened by Buckley v. Valeo, which declared that money is speech).
But legalized political corruption didn’t begin with the Citizens United decision or the Trump administration. Citizens United simply made big money even bigger and less of a secret. A now-famous study by researchers at Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The researchers came to this conclusion by studying data from 1981 to 2002 — well before the Trump administration, Citizens United, or even the majority of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Consider the days preceding Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as Education Secretary. Teachers, activists, and concerned citizens around the country flooded the phone lines and email inboxes of members of Congress, urging them not to confirm DeVos. Polls floating around social media and even some mainstream news sites suggested that a large portion of the public was opposed to her as Education Secretary. The Atlantic published an article that the opposition to DeVos has been “unprecedented,” noting that groups typically do not protest around the country in response to the nomination of a single cabinet member. Even two Republican Senators voted “No” on DeVos, (though we should wonder whether this was simply a political calculation by the GOP).
Despite this massive public outcry, and the clear observation that DeVos is not the right person to oversee a national education system, DeVos was nevertheless confirmed as Education Secretary. The real reason she was confirmed is not that she is the “right” person for the job or is objectively qualified to hold the position. It’s because, as the late George Carlin joked, the ones to confirm her are a small club with their own agenda―and you ‘aint in it.
The top one-tenth of one percent
After massive pressure on both the Democrats and Republicans, the Senate was split 50–50 on whether to confirm Betsy DeVos. The tie was broken by Vice President Mike Pence in another “unprecedented” measure.
DeVos’s almost party-line confirmation might lead some to believe that the Democratic Party are “the good guys” and the Republicans are the “bad guys” (and they are, overwhelmingly, guys). But consider that this is more spectacle than substance. Betsy DeVos was largely opposed due to her history of wishing and acting to privatize the public school system, but the history of privatization is not new, and the Democrats are by no means innocent in this respect. On the contrary, the road to privatization was paved by both parties working together.
Appointed under the Obama administration, Secretaries of Education Arne Duncan and John King did not overturn or oppose George W. Bush’s punitive education policy — they expanded it, with support from both sides of the aisle.
What does the Democratic party stand for, if not public education―in word and action? We know the answer to this question. The Princeton study makes it clear, and the US public feels it deep in its soul. The political class does not serve the public. Our politicians serve the powerful — the economically powerful. As Noam Chomsky has said, there is basically one party in the US, the business party, and it has two factions: The Democrats and The Republicans.
Teddy Roosevelt’s anti-trust laws and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were responses to public backlash against an unbalanced political system and unfair society. By the mid-20th century, the top marginal income tax rate was 90% and the share of tax revenue coming from corporations was much higher than it is today. Investment and commercial banking were separated by law, safeguarding the public’s assets from the financial games on Wall Street that would lead to the 2008 Great Recession. But who removed this safeguard? While the drop in tax rates was led by Republicans, it was the Democrats who deregulated the banks.
Can economic power be regulated?
Despite a well-regulated economy in the mid-20th century, financial reforms were eventually undone by a small political elite — themselves backed by economic power. This unfolding of government forces us to ask a question: as long as there is a small group with enormous wealth, how can we stop that wealth from translating into political power? Those who have the power, and want to keep it — and they will want to keep it — will simply rewrite the rules whenever an opportunity presents itself.
Maybe not all of the wealthy and powerful will do this, and maybe it won’t happen at every opportunity. But we can be certain that some of that small group, at least some of the time — and that’s all it takes — will desire to shape the political system to their own benefit, even if it comes at the expense of the public interest.
As long as humans are corruptible, this will be the case. Powerful individuals and organizations will roll back reform after reform and unwind the progress that we, the people, have made.
Consequently, society will come to be ruled by a few rather than the many. We will not have a real democracy.
As part of our political revolution, we must rethink, and act to change, an economic system which allows so much economic power to be concentrated in the hands of a few. We must move towards an economic system that is fundamentally built around human need, and prioritizes people over profit.
We’ll have to think more about what that means. And I think it will involve, as Martin Luther King Jr. called for, an explicit questioning of the capitalist system.
Because if we don’t rethink the structural design of our economy, and find the root cause of our political problems, there will always be another political party to buy. Betsy DeVos will just be one example, among a multitude, who would shape the fate of our nation for a generation — not because she was fit to lead, or because she was granted our explicit consent to govern — but simply because she had money.