Homegrown Oligarchs

While I do think Il Trumpe et alia’s attempt to gain electoral advantage through collaboration with Russia–through the intermediary of its oligarchs–is a Big Deal, I do understand at an instinctive level why some on the left seem to downplay the problem. It’s not their love of Trump–they despise him as much as the rest of the ‘left’ (construed rather broadly). It’s that they have a hard time figuring out why Russian oligarchs are bad, but U.S. oligarchs aren’t. Even worse, some members of The Resistance like U.S. oligarchs (e.g., the Kochs). I think they’re wrong, but I can understand their perspective. Here’s why (boldface mine):

What did happen is that Amazon, headed by the world’s richest man and armed with $230 billion in revenue last year, spent $1.5 million on an attempt to mold the outcome of the Seattle city council election. The effort wasn’t particularly successful—their candidates failed to win a majority—but the company may have succeeded in toppling some of their loudest opponents, including socialist councilwoman Kshama Sawant, though many ballots that may tip in her favor remain uncounted [it appears Sawant did win].

Regardless of the result, the episode should serve as a reminder of the utterly insane state of campaign finance in America. It is bonkers that a corporation of any national origin, including America, can openly spend money with the intent of manipulating an election to their liking, whether or not it works (and it often does). It is wild that we are even talking about “Amazon-backed candidates” in any setting outside of a bribery hearing.

In the case of Seattle’s elections, Amazon dropped a tiny bit of its vast resources into trying to purchase a council that would prize the company’s interests over the interests of Seattle residents, and to quiet progressive critics who have credibly accused Amazon of worsening the homeless crisis…

It is true that Amazon, or any domestic company, interfering with elections is not the exact same thing as a foreign company or government spending money in American elections. But how different is it in practice? The logic of rejecting foreign influence in our elections—down to the point of banning any foreign national without a green card from buying a t-shirt from a campaign—is to prevent foreign governments from influencing electoral outcomes for their own potential gain. Again: How significant is the difference between a foreign government seeking to shape our government to its liking, and a huge, multinational corporation that happens to be located in the United States trying to do the same? Or, for that matter, a single billionaire?

…A billionaire like Tom Steyer can spend a trifling amount of his net worth, akin to your average American spending a few hundred bucks, to replace actual politicians on stage in the Democratic primary, all while his aides allegedly bribe local officials for endorsements with the promise of campaign contributions—which is all legal, as long as it’s disclosed. An organization like the United States Chamber of Commerce, representing most of the biggest corporations in America, can spend $10 million on elections (or $94 million on lobbying for that matter), in order to ensure the favorable status quo is maintained.

I view stopping foreign oligarchs, who like our homegrown oligarchs both influence and are influenced by their governments’ foreign policies, as the first step in stopping all oligarchs–and stopping foreign governmental influence. But be aware that not all parts of the ‘Resistance’ feel the same way: many of them, for various reasons, like the U.S. oligarchs and some forms of influence.

Campaign influence is one of those cases where binary ‘internet’ thinking falls a bit short (e.g., Matt Taibbi, who really seems to have lost his way on this).

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