When Bobby Kennedy went after organized crime in the early 1960s, one of the things he learned was that the Mafia had a series of rituals new members went through to declare their loyalty and promise they'd never turn away from their new benefactors. Once in, they'd be showered with money and protection, but they could never leave and even faced serious problems if they betrayed the syndicate.
Which brings us to the story of Kyrsten Sinema.
For a republican democracy to actually work, average citizens with a passion for making their country better must be able to run for public office without needing wealthy or powerful patrons; this is a concept that dates back to Aristotle's rants on the topic. And Sinema was, in the beginning, just that sort of person. But I'm getting ahead of myself …
After the Nixon and Agnew bribery scandals were fully revealed with a series of congressional investigations leading to Nixon's resignation in 1974, Congress passed and President Gerald Ford signed into law a series of "good government" laws that provided for public funding of elections and strictly limited the role of big money in campaigns.
Just like the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol produced a "select" committee to investigate the anti-democracy crimes of Donald Trump and his cronies, Congress authorized the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities to look into Nixon's abuses and make recommendations.
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The committee's 100-page report documented how Nixon had taken bribes (most notably $400,000 from ITT to squash an antitrust lawsuit); used "dark" money from wealthy friends and corporations to set up astroturf "citizens committees" (an early version of the Tea Party) to make it appear he had widespread support among the American public; and used off-the-books money to both support loyal Republican politicians whose help he needed as well as to pay for "opposition research" surveillance, which included the Watergate break-in of the Democratic National Committee's headquarters.
In response to the report, Congress passed an exhaustive set of new laws and regulations, most significantly creating from scratch the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), outlawing secret donations to politicians while providing for public funding of federal elections to diminish the power of big money. (Jimmy Carter was the only presidential candidate to win using such public funding.)
Over the years since, conservatives on the Supreme Court have repeatedly gutted provisions of the 1974 amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA), most famously in 2010 with their notorious Citizens United decision.
With that stroke, over the loud objections of the four "liberals" on the court, corporations were absolutely deemed as "persons" with full constitutional rights, and billionaires or corporations pouring massive amounts of money into campaign coffers was changed from "bribery and political corruption" to an exercise of the constitutionally-protected "right of free speech."
Into this milieu stepped Kyrsten Sinema, running from a seat in the Arizona state Senate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012 as an out bisexual and political progressive. The campaign quickly turned ugly.
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Following the Citizens United script, the Republican she confronted in that race (Vernon Parker) used corporate and billionaire money to carpet-bomb their district airwaves with ads calling her "a radical left-wing activist promoting hatred toward our country, our allies, and our families" and warning people that she "engaged in pagan rituals."
The district was heavily Democratic (Obama handily won it that year) but the race was close enough that it took six full days for the AP to call it for Sinema. And that, apparently, was when she decided that if you can only barely beat them, you'd damn well better join them.
Sinema quickly joined other Democrats who'd followed the Citizens United path to the flashing neon lights of big money, joining the so-called Problem Solvers caucus that owes its existence in part to the Wall Street-funded front group No Labels.
Quietly and without fanfare, she began voting with Republicans and the corporate- and billionaire-owned Democrats, supporting efforts to deregulate big banks, "reform" Social Security and Medicare, and make it harder for government to protect regular investors — or even buyers of used cars to avoid being ripped off.
Sinema voted with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 77 percent of the time in her first term; in return, political networks run by right-wing billionaires and the Chamber showered her with support. In her first re-election race, in 2014, she was one of only five Democrats endorsed by the notoriously right-wing Chamber.
She'd proved herself as a "made woman," just like the old mafiosi documented by RFK in the 1960s, willing to do whatever it takes, compromise whatever principles she espoused, to get into and stay in the good graces of the large and well-funded right-wing syndicates unleashed by Citizens United.
So it should surprise precisely nobody that Sinema is parroting the Chamber's and the billionaire network's line that President Biden's Build Back Better plan is too generous in helping and protecting average Americans and too punitive in taxing the morbidly rich. After all, once you're in, you leave at your own considerable peril, even when 70 percent of your state's voters want the bill to pass.
And this is a genuine crisis for America because if Biden is frustrated in his attempt to pass his Build Back Better legislation (which is overwhelmingly supported by Americans across the political spectrum) — all because business groups, giant corporations and right-wing billionaires are asserting ownership over their two "made" senators — there's a very good chance that today's cynicism and political violence is just a preview of the rest of the decade.
But this isn't as much a story about Sinema as it is about today's larger political dysfunction for which she's become, along with Joe Manchin, a poster child.
Increasingly, because of the Supreme Court's betrayal of American values, it's become impossible for people like the younger Sinema to rise from social worker to the U.S. Senate without big money behind them. Our media is absolutely unwilling to call this what even Andrew Jackson would have labeled it: political corruption. But that's what it is and it's eating away at our republic like a metastasized cancer.
A guest on Brian Stelter's CNN program this past weekend pointed out that there are today more autocracies in the world than democracies and, generally, democracies are on the decline. This corruption of everyday politics by the rich and powerful is how democracies begin the shift to autocracy or oligarchy, as I document in gruesome detail in "The Hidden History of American Oligarchy: Reclaiming Our Democracy from the Ruling Class."
While the naked corruption of Sinema and Manchin is a source of outrage for Democrats across America, what's far more important is that it reveals how deep the rot of money in American politics has gone, thanks entirely to a corrupted Supreme Court.
In Justice Stevens' dissent in Citizens United, he pointed out that corporations in their modern form didn't even exist when the Constitution was written in 1787 and got its first 10 amendments in 1791, including the first, which protects free speech.
"All general business corporation statues appear to date from well after 1800," Stevens pointed out to his conservative colleagues on the court. "The Framers thus took it as a given that corporations could be comprehensively regulated in the service of the public welfare. Unlike our colleagues, they had little trouble distinguishing corporations from human beings, and when they constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans they had in mind.
"The fact that corporations are different from human beings might seem to need no elaboration, except that the majority opinion almost completely elides it…. Unlike natural persons, corporations have 'limited liability' for their owners and managers, 'perpetual life,' separation of ownership and control, 'and favorable treatment of the accumulation of assets….' Unlike voters in U.S. elections, corporations may be foreign controlled."
Noting that corporations "inescapably structure the life of every citizen," Stevens continued: "It might be added that corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."
Even worse than the short-term effect of a corporation's dominating an election or a ballot initiative, Stevens said (as if he had a time machine to look at us now), was the fact that corporations corrupting politics would, inevitably, cause average working Americans — the 95 percent who make less than $100,000 a year — to conclude that their "democracy" is now rigged.
The result, Stevens wrote, is that average people would simply stop participating in politics, stop being informed about politics, and stop voting … or become angry and cynical. Our democracy, he suggested, would be immeasurably damaged and ultimately vulnerable to corporate-supported demagogues and oligarchs. Our constitutional republic, if Citizens United stands, could wither and could die.
"In addition to this immediate drowning out of noncorporate voices," Stevens wrote in 2010, "there may be deleterious effects that follow soon thereafter. Corporate 'domination' of electioneering can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy.
"When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy. A Government captured by corporate interests, they may come to believe, will be neither responsive to their needs nor willing to give their views a fair hearing.
"The predictable result is cynicism and disenchantment: an increased perception that large spenders 'call the tune' and a reduced 'willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.' To the extent that corporations are allowed to exert undue influence in electoral races, the speech of the eventual winners of those races may also be chilled."
As if he were looking at Kyrsten Sinema facing a tough choice about her own political survival leading up to the 2014 election, Stevens added:
"Politicians who fear that a certain corporation can make or break their reelection chances may be cowed into silence about that corporation."
And, again looking into his time machine, the now-deceased Stevens pointed to the frustration of average Americans with Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin.
"On a variety of levels, unregulated corporate electioneering might diminish the ability of citizens to 'hold officials accountable to the people,' and disserve the goal of a public debate that is 'uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.'"
Stevens and his fellow "liberals" on the Court were both prescient and right.
They warned in their dissent that foreign money would corrupt our elections and we saw that in a big way in 2016. There's apparently no way of knowing how much of today's political turmoil — from school board to election commission to hospital and airplane violence — is being orchestrated and amplified by foreign players on social media masquerading as Americans to weaken our country.
They warned that because of the Citizens United decision Americans would become cynical and reactionary; that's happening today. Armed militias are in our streets, people are regularly assaulted for their perceived politics, and right-wing media demagogues make millions (literally) promoting hate and fear.
And, they warned, it could doom our republic, something that's now within our sight.
More from Salon's coverage of the Kyrsten Sinema conundrum: