America, where money is king

I’ve found quite considerable interest in the election here in London and just spoke with an editor who said it is higher than he has ever seen it. Tie this with a recent Pew survey that found that 20 percent of people who followed the election online went to foreign sources. So it’s no surprise that we’re seeing incisive coverage of the election coming from over here. See, for example, Gary Younge’s column in the Guardian arguing that money is still king in our elections and wondering whether the internet can or would unseat that.

We have no idea yet what role the internet will play in next year’s presidential election. First, it is too early in the process. Second, the pace at which the medium is developing means that the campaigning tool of choice probably has not been invented yet. Back in 2003 it took Howard Dean six months to compile an email list of 139,000. But that was before networking sites such as MySpace. In less than two months Barack Obama has gathered more than 310,000 supporters on

What is certain is that the internet will play a vital, possibly decisive, role; and in all likelihood that role will come into conflict with the established kingmakers. Neither trend is new. But the power of money and the modem are both driven by different and, arguably, contradictory forces. At some stage something will have to give. . . .

While these tensions may play out as a battle between left and right, or doves and hawks, they will in essence represent a far more fundamental shift in the relationship of the professional political class with the politically engaged public – a struggle between the popular and the oligarchic, between the bespoke message of the paid consultant and the chaos of freewheeling public opinion. Sadly, it won’t change the centrality of money in American politics – the internet is a crucial fundraising tool. But by enabling thousands of small donors to contribute, it has already proved its potential to provide an alternative funding base. . . .

We should have no illusions about who has the upper hand in this battle between big money and burgeoning activism. At a meeting in New York to support Hillary Clinton last week, organised through, the host told us that since Hillary had the votes of New Yorkers sewn up, all she really needed the town for was money. . . .

It suits the mythology of meritocracy that remains so central to American identity to have young children walking around in T-shirts saying “Future president of America”. But the truth is if your kid really does stand a chance at the top office, he’ll already be wearing more expensive attire. America’s class system is now more rigid than most in Europe, and that sclerosis is given full expression at the highest levels of politics. Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, Chicago mayor Richard Daley and Southern Christian Leadership Conference head Martin Luther King all carry the names and job titles of their fathers. Each year the richest quarter per cent make 80% of all political donations. The last time there was not a Clinton or a Bush on the presidential ticket was 1976. This is not democracy, it is dynasty.

A brick at a time. A brick at a time.

  • Not just America – from this Sunday’s Times

    “OXFORD’S attempts to rid itself of its reputation for giving preference to the “old school tie” have been dented by new figures showing it admitted almost twice as many Old Etonians last year as in 2001 .

    The number of pupils from Eton and other leading independent schools such as Westminster, St Paul’s and Winchester have surged despite efforts by the university to boost its state-school intake. While the overall proportion of state-school pupils has edged up slightly at Oxbridge, elite private institutions have notched up the greatest gains. The main losers have been less prestigious independent schools.”

  • dloye

    Though the surest road to influence and political power may be through family there are always cracks. Newer faces show up at the table, and they don’t always belong to the old families. Bill Clinton certainly didn’t come from any power roots.

    The power of the internet is to democratize some big institutions, the media especially. Perhaps that is why I continue to read your blog, to try and follow the stream as it wends its way. The power of the internet and the American economy as well as our fundamental democratic principles leave me in awe.

  • Tansley

    Gary Younge’s words are accurate for both the UK and US, but don’t go quite far enough: US and UK citizens live in a Oligarchic Plutocracies, or a Plutocratic Oligarchies, whichever you prefer: rule by the wealthy few. Money IS King, and it will invariably carry the day until such time as either a sea change in the value paradigm of the populace, or a political revolution, occurs.

    Democracy WOULD work effectively, for the benefit of all, if we could simply introduce action out of enlightened self-interest to capitalism – which would be roughly equivalent to grafting a conscience onto a shark. Capitalism has been largely devoid of social conscience for quite some time – you only need to watch the evening news to see countless examples of it. The major difference between now and, say the world circa 1400, aside from the technology, is that the seat of authority is really the financial centers, instead of the Vatican or the local castle…

    The internet may well prove the ‘great equalizer’ in political contests, until the monied powers align to purchase and subjugate it (which is already in the works, I understand.) Until then, we may witness some surprising upsets, as well as enhanced ‘waffling’ as candidates log onto their websites and those of their opponents to check the most recent hit counts. IF the general populace will interact sufficiently, it may be able to forestall the efforts of the monied powers to maintain control of the political process. One hopes that those smart enough to look for the telltale signs will also remember to invoke the power of the boycott, to hit the oligarchs where it hurts them the MOST – in the PORTFOLIO—

  • The reality of the situation won’t be addressed until the mythology is dispelled… but that would require a decent educational system. I can’t see the government ever allowing that to happen.


  • Rob

    And this would explain how Kerry won: by outspending Bush, of course. And we know that only rich people can become contenders for president, right? Uh, no.

    Obama: middle class, parents divorced when he was young
    Guliani: poor, father did time in sing sing
    Clinton: poor, alcoholic father
    Reagan: poor, alcoholic father

    I could go on and on. Yes, becoming elected takes money, but you don’t have to be born with it.

    As for America having a rigid “class system”, I have to think he hasn’t actually spent much time here. This is one country where you never know if you might some day end up working for the guy who just served you lunch. At the company I work at now, none of the top guys grew up with money and one is a first-generation immigrant. Rex Tillerson, who runs Exxon, the largest company in the US, grew up middle class in Wichita and started at Exxon as a fresh-out-of-college engineer. Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, the second largest US corporation, grew up poor and was entirely self-made. I wonder how far down the Fortune 500 list you have to go before finding a CEO born rich?

    Gary Younge is an asshat.

  • Tansley

    Granted, Rob…you don’t have to be rich to be a contender for president…nor even to be elected to the presidency…you simply have to be willing to sell-out to the high bidder.

    Show me a candidate who thinks he’s electable without kowtowing to the ‘military/industrial complex’ and I’ll show you one of the next election’s losers…

    America doesn’t need a rigidly defined class-system: the classes are defined by the numbers on the balance sheets. Lack of a unifying center keeps the majority at loose-ends with each other: try organizing a boycott and you’ll have an endless stream of disagreements over WHAT to boycott and WHY. The people with the money know where THEIR priorities are – and how to wield the influence necessary to promote their agendas…and they’re usually in agreement with their peers on how to proceed. ‘Win/Win,’ you know…

    So Tillerson and Walton began with nothing. So what? Where did Walton’s agenda go when his income exceeded six digits? Walton kept his prices down by exploiting foreign labor…cheap products thanks to people willing to live on pennies a day. Impressive…just makes ya feel warm all over, doesn’t it? Tillerson is a new hand at the wheel of one of the biggest and worst oil companies in history – from pollution to price fixing to supression of new technologies. One would hope he might actually rise above his position…but then, there are the shareholders to consider, aren’t there? Don’t hold your breath…

    People who still believe in ‘the American Dream’ are merely testimonials to the success of the system’s propoganda apparatus. Sure, you can start out with nothing, and work your way up to become head of a corporation…the point is what you do once you’re THERE. Walton and Tillerson hold far less interest for me than, say, Buffet and Gates. We could use a few more like THEM…

  • There is no doubt that the internet played a crucial role. Elections in America have interest abroad as the economy affects the world around. The celebrity style of American politics also makes it an interesting watch, as opposed to the UK one, for example. It is normally when people have great discontent with the status quo, that they gain such interest in politics, and in this case Bush’s failings were to the benefit of Obama.

    Crucially, Obama’s election use of the internet is continuing into his office and views of the public still appearing to be voiced.