Plutocracy, the TPP, and the Millennials’ Next Political Challenge

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By: Sean Wilson

In the past couple years, we’ve made amazing progress in the advancement of gay rights. Many states have and continue to legalize same-sex marriage, DOMA was struck down as unconstitutional, and the President of the United States called for equality for our “gay brothers and sisters” in his second inaugural address. There is no doubt that more work needs to be done, but the tide has certainly turned. This is, in large part, due to the work of our generation. Whether they call us “Millennials” or “Generation Y,” on average, this cohort has radically different views on same-sex marriage than past generations — almost 70% of this age group support it! I believe it is only a matter of time until the right to marry is truly universal in the United States. Surely the efforts of the same-sex marriage activists and the members of our generation who have spearheaded this charge against this structural injustice will be recorded in the history books of the future.

While we must never forget our solidarity with the LGBTQIA community, and the ongoing struggle to achieve equality, I propose that our generation now focuses its attention on a different issue — an issue that I believe to be the greatest challenge of our generation: getting money out of politics.

This means that we, as a people, must press our government to pass campaign finance reform laws, thus putting stricter regulations on how much corporations and wealthy individuals can use money to push for their political interests, and increase the transparency of the money flow between donors and those running for political office.

At first thought it may seem a relatively trivial matter, but getting money out of politics is about much more than equality between the rich and the poor (or what Occupiers would call the 1% and the 99%). There is something much greater at stake.

We must get money out of politics in order to retain whatever democratic integrity is left in our society. If we do not begin a broad movement to lessen money’s role in politics, then our political system will increasingly become beholden to the interests of profit-driven corporations and those who have unimaginable amounts of personal wealth.

To understand how our democracy (society ruled by the people) has increasingly taken on the structure of a plutocracy (society ruled by the rich), we should start by looking at the Supreme Court decisions of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commision and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commision. In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the court’s conservative majority decided to grant corporations the right of freedom of expression, and further equated expression with money. This ruling thus allows corporations to give as much money as they desire to entities called “Super PACs.” These Super PACs, in turn, can give all of this money to specific candidates. Last month’s McCutcheon did effectively the same thing, except granting individual donors the same abilities. It is worth clarifying that corporations and individual persons still cannot give unlimited amounts directly to specific candidates, but are able to use loopholes, such as Super PACs, to do pretty much exactly that. As Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan write in their dissent, the McCutcheon ruling “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign. Taken together with Citizens United… today’s decision eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

We must keep in mind, as informed citizens, that this is not a simple right-left issue. Democrats and Republicans, (and socialists and libertarians,) needn’t jump to opposite sides of the debate. After all, the campaign finance laws that the Court has essentially “eviscerated” were all part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, as one of the chief sponsors of the bill was Republican John McCain. After the McCutcheon ruling, McCain even stated, “I am concerned that today’s ruling may represent the latest step in an effort by a majority of the Court to dismantle entirely the longstanding structure of campaign finance law erected to limit the undue influence of special interests on American politics… I predict that as a result of recent Court decisions, there will be scandals involving corrupt public officials and unlimited, anonymous campaign contributions that will force the system to be reformed once again.” But who will be the force behind the change that is so badly needed if our our politicians are increasingly beholdent to corporate interests? It is our civic duty to act as the catalysts.

Some readers may still be skeptical about the influence of big money interests on our system. Some may think I’m making exaggerated claims. I will provide a simple example to show how this plays out to strengthen my arguments. Let us consider the example of Jim Inhofe, Republican Senator from Oklahoma. As the former chairman and a current ranking member of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Inhofe has repeatedly denied scientific proof of human global climate change, and reportedly has compared the EPA to Gestapo. Can you guess who has been the primary funder of Senator Inhofe since his political career started in 1998?

The Oil and Gas Industry, with a total of $1,587,596. Now I can’t be sure if Inhofe adopts these illogical views because he receives money from this industry, or if he receives money from this industry because he has adopted these illogical views. The chicken-or-the-egg argument is irrelevant, though. The fact is that Inhofe (and people like him) are able to remain in power is, in large part, because of financial support from the oil and gas industry. This industry has an economic interest supporting people like Inhofe, because if his views are translated into legislation, then the industry wins. After all, why would anyone support further taxation or restriction on emissions if climate change is just an elaborate hoax?

As I said before, it is important that we do not frame this as a right-left issue. Although Inhofe is a Republican, we can find similar examples throughout our political system. Nevertheless, many readers who align themselves with the Democratic Party may read this and think to themselves that their party certainly does not represent big-money or corporate interests. After all, many voters likely chose Obama over Romney in the last election due to Romney’s unrelatable CEO steeze. I am afraid, however, that it appears that President Obama is similarly tied up with corporate interests too. I will provide an example that I find to be disturbing and blatantly representative of the trends towards plutocratic governance. Despite the scale of this example’s potential effect, many have never heard of it due it its lack of coverage in the mainstream media.

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What I am talking about is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a “free-trade agreement” under negotiation between the United States and eleven other countries including Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Canada, Singapore, and Chile. Anyone who knows anything about the effects of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) should already be skeptical about free trade agreements in general, but the TPP goes above and beyond even that.

TPP negotiations are being conducted in a very secretive manner. Currently, only trade representatives from the Obama Administration, other participating countries, and over 600 corporations are allowed access to the working documents of the TPP. Some members of Congress have been granted very limited access and the only parts of the TPP that the public has been able to view were those released by WikiLeaks, a whistle-blowing website (in)famous for releasing millions of previously-classified US government documents about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But why the all secrets? Probably because many of the suggested provisions in the agreement that the public does know about serve the interests of transnational corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens. These provisions simply could not be passed in a democratic manner. Also, as we will see, many of these provisions don’t even have anything to do with trade!

For instance, some of the provisions in the TPP chapter that Wikileaks released are near-identical to the failed SOPA and PIPA laws. The reader may remember the huge democratic protests against these laws back in 2012, with websites such as Google and Wikipedia raising helping raise awareness about measures within the laws that would be detrimental to Internet freedom. If the TPP is passed with these similar provisions, the protests against SOPA and PIPA would prove to be futile.

The TPP would also grant corporations the right to sue governments to demand taxpayers compensation for domestic laws that would restrict future profitability, perhaps force states to lower many environmental standards, and even deregulate Wall Street. In essence, it would trump various democratically passed laws without allowing the greater public any input or information. While all of this is eventually subject to Congress’s vote, the Obama Administration is trying to give the TPP “fast track” status, which would only give Congress the ability to approve or disapprove of the agreement, but not allow Congress to amend or filibuster it.

I encourage the reader to look into the TPP more, but would like to conclude this essay by restating my original argument: the greatest challenge of our generation will be getting money out of politics. We cannot frame this as a right-left issue, but as an American issue; we have seen how both of the main parties have become beholden to special interests. We must tackle this challenge in order to retain the democratic legitimacy of our political system. If we do not, then our system will serve only the interests those with money and profit-seeking motives. If we do not act, then we undoubtedly compromise our livelihood, our health, the environment, and ultimately humanity’s future.

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