This is what oligarchy looks like: Why the 1 percent is the real target of the 2016 campaigns

Because campaign finance rules are basically nonexistent, primary contestants for 2016 run an elaborate con game

By Elias Isquith
Published April 15, 2015 5:09PM (EDT)
Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker                      (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)
Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/Rebecca Cook/Sara Stathas)

I’m going to do something right now that I’ve never done before and will probably never do again. I am going to commend a far-right Republican from Texas whose views on economics make Friedrich Hayek look like Franklin Delano Roosevelt; and whose preferences on “social issues” like abortion, marriage equality and LGBT rights make Richard Nixon sound like Dan Savage.

I am going to praise Ted Cruz.

Here’s why: When Cruz let it be known that he was going to run for president, he did it in a relatively low-key and inconspicuous way. He didn’t tease us with week after week of “sources say…” pieces on how he was “considering” a White House bid, or “likely” to make an announcement “soon.” He didn’t launch an exploratory committee or super PAC, as has become de rigueur. He simply declared it through his social media accounts, and gave his campaign’s inaugural speech at Liberty University soon thereafter. He just decided to do it, then he did it, and then it was done.

To be clear, Cruz wasn’t trying to shed his well-earned reputation as a grandstanding prima donna. If anything, he was enhancing it, since no one expected him, of all people, to be so low-key. Moreover, as Ron Elving of NPR has noted, it’s quite likely that Cruz’s decision was also motivated by awareness that he’d never compete with former Gov. Jeb Bush, Gov. Chris Christie or Sen. Marco Rubio when it came to winning the GOP donor class’s favor. So he skipped wasting time by forming “exploratory committee,” and instead grabbed the free media that comes with being the first out of the gate. (He probably knew he’d get his own sugar daddy financier eventually, anyway.)

In a weird way, then, Cruz began his campaign by focusing on the GOP primary voters he’ll need to coalesce around him in order to prevail: the kind of voters who know about Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. That’s not supposed to be unusual, of course; in theory, all the candidates are running to win the voters’ backing. But as we can see in the examples of almost-candidate Mitt Romney, pseudo-candidates Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker, likely-candidate Chris Christie, and official-candidate Marco Rubio, speaking to voters at the start of your presidential run isn’t the no-brainer you’d think. Because in the post-Citizens United era of American politics, it’s donors — not the people — who really matter.

I’ve said it once before, but it bears repeating: now that the Supreme Court has all but annihilated the regulation of campaign finance, U.S. politics — which was already quite plutocratic — is starting to operate according to the logic of an oligarchy, not a democratic republic. Candidates of both parties have to spend an obscene amount of their time raising money for the next election; and the number of Americans who make up that bipartisan donor class is, relatively speaking in a nation of more than 300 million, vanishingly small. As you’d expect, one of the consequences is that, unless you’re a member of the 1 percent, most politicians don’t care what you think.

So rather than jockeying over which politician is most likely to make good on their campaign’s promises, candidates in the primaries spend their time trying to persuade donors that they’ve got the best chance of winning the general election. Someone is going to do what you want them to do, the candidates say to their party’s donors, more or less, so here’s the reason that someone should be me! This is why every Republican candidate wants to cut social insurance programs, despite the fact that even Tea Party voters would rather they didn’t — because that’s near the top of the 1 percent’s to-do list. The will of the people still calls the shots; it’s just that “the people” are few and far between.

Once you adjust your framing and view these elections from a different angle, the seemingly inexplicable starts to make more sense. Why, for example, would Chris Christie hope to revive his flatlining presidential campaign by making big promises to slash Medicare and Social Security? Not because that’s the issue GOP primary voters care the most about, I’d argue, but because Jeb Bush, the presumed standard-bearer of the Republican donor class, has failed to convince these moneymen that he can overcome his surname and defeat Hillary Clinton. It’s likely that Christie’s read the same reports of donors giving Rubio a second look; he probably figures that his tough talk about “entitlement reform” may earn him a second appraisal, too.

But the clearest sign that White House campaigns are not about voters (at least during the primary phase) is who most candidates choose to tell the big news first. Not the press, not the voters, not even the men and women who occupy influential positions within the infrastructure of the party. No, more often than not, it’s the would-be donors who get a heads up before anyone else. Guys like Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, who can only hope to win by uniting the fractured Tea Party vote, may be able to rely on one or two billionaires and speak the language the base wants to hear. But for establishment-friendly candidates, it’s donors — not voters — who are the real audience in the early days of the campaign.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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