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Are billionaires dictating American political debate?

September 25, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
Much of the record campaign money pouring into this midterm election cycle comes from a relatively small number of donors. Darrell West, author of "Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust," joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the enormous political influence of the wealthiest Americans, as well as why money can’t buy every election.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: How has big money come to dominate politics? And who is writing the checks? It can be hard to tell.

For instance, The New York Times discovered a glitch in the website run by the tax-exempt wing of the Republican Governors Association that revealed the names of prominent corporate donors. Large political contributions are perfectly legal, and both parties solicit them. But corporate donors’ identities are usually kept secret.

In this book conversation, Jeffrey Brown looks at a group of very rich donors who’s names are already well-known.

JEFFREY BROWN: The numbers keep growing and the dollars keep flowing. This midterm election has already seen more spending by outside interest groups than any in history, some $230 million and counting, more, in fact, than any election, other than the last one for the presidency in 2012.

Under campaign finance laws, much of this funding is not required to be disclosed, but a lot of it comes from a relatively small number of the very wealthiest Americans.

Darrell West, the director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, writes of their influence on politics in his new book, “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust.”
And welcome to you.

DARRELL WEST, Brookings Institution: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The argument first is that billionaires and their money are big players in politics, right? How big and how much influence?


The Koch brothers are estimated to be spending $125 million just on this election year, much of it focused on those key Senate races, but then liberal and moderate billionaires also are amping up their resources. Michael Bloomberg has put $50 million into fighting the NRA and gun violence. Tom Steyer is very concerned about climate change. He’s spending $50 million of his own money.

So, 2014 is shaping up as the battle of the billionaires.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write and you document that today we’re seeing people, these people, pioneer new activist models. What exactly does that mean? How do they use — how are they using their money in new ways?

DARRELL WEST: Well, the old model was just buying ads and trying the influence the election.

And we’re certainly seeing a lot of that, especially in those close Senate races. But we’re also seeing a lot of issue advocacy, not just at the national level, but billionaires are contesting state referenda all across the country. They’re forming nonprofit organizations and having them try and influence the process. And much of that influence takes place in secret.

And then a number of them have foundations who are very politically active. So we’re seeing a much greater increase in types of tactics that are being used this year.

JEFFREY BROWN: One pushback would be, yes, there’s a lot of money, but we see an Eric Cantor lose, right, in a primary to a fellow who nobody ever heard of and didn’t have much money. Money doesn’t buy every race, in that kind of sense.

DARRELL WEST: That’s absolutely true.

And billionaires have a mix of successes and failures in terms of their political activities. You know, Bloomberg, Mark Zuckerberg and Rupert Murdoch have been trying to push immigration reform. They have gotten nowhere on this. Bloomberg is trying to get Congress to adapt some measures in terms of fighting gun violence. That has not been successful.

But we’re seeing billionaires really spend a lot of money to try and influence public discourse. In many cases, they’re setting the terms of the debate. And certainly at the state level, where you often have one-sided types of campaigns, they have been very successful in a number of areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another question that I had looking at this was, hasn’t it arguably been worse in the past? I was thinking, just this summer, I was reading a book about the American West in the early 20th century, where the timber industry, you know, had so much control over what was happening, the oil, wealthy oil magnates of the time, power in politics through their money.

DARRELL WEST: Well, this is certainly not the first time wealthy interests have been influential. When you think about the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the other barons of 100 years ago, they were very influential and in some cases dictated public policy.

But, after Watergate, we made a serious effort to clean up the political process. There were caps on spending. People had to disclose the sources of their contributions, but over the last 30 years, there have been gaping loopholes in these rules.

And so now we have essentially returned to the pre-Watergate era of big money and great secrecy. And this is also taking place at a time when the news media are much weaker. And so the oversight organizations are having a difficult time keeping track of all the money.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write there are, of course, the ideological splits that you were just referring to earlier.

But you also find, interestingly, a lot of places where it looks as though the super wealthy as a group are sort of coherent — cohere and have different views than the majority of many Americans.

DARRELL WEST: We certainly have liberal billionaires, conservative billionaires and even libertarian ones.

But the one issue that united a lot of these people was their opposition to raising taxes on the wealthy. Obama in 2012 actually had a rough time getting liberal billionaires to support him, in part because some of these people didn’t like his rhetoric on raising taxes on the wealthy. So there are sometimes class interests that trump ideology.

JEFFREY BROWN: The classic idea of the American dream is that Americans believe that we can all become billionaires, and, therefore, do not envy the very rich.

Do you see enough movement, public attitude in what’s going on that there might — that that might change, that there might in fact be an anger and a desire to do something?

DARRELL WEST: There certainly is a lot of anger among the general public, but the public can’t decide whether they should be angry at big government or big money and corporations and the billionaires who are behind them.

And so that division diffuses the public anger. It’s kind of divide and conquer. And so we often end up with public policies that don’t promote opportunity in terms of education. I’m particularly sensitive to this because I grew up in a small town in Ohio, was raised on a dairy farm.

But through education, I had a lot of opportunities. I want to make sure the next generation has the same type of opportunity that I had.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you want to see happen with campaign spending laws? What do you think needs to be done?

DARRELL WEST: Well, the biggest thing is, we really need to improve the transparency of the process.

I don’t really have that big of a problem with all the money that’s coming into the political process. It’s the secrecy that is most toxic. And so we need to improve campaign disclosure. In the digital era, we should have daily disclosure of campaign contributions, instead of the quarterly numbers that we see today. There are technology solutions that can improve the level of information that’s available to the average voter.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We’re going to continue this discussion online.

For now, the book is “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust.”

Darrell West, thank you very much.

DARRELL WEST: Thank you.