5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
It's ironic that one of the biggest changes in U.S. political system came during the
tenure of the President Obama, who had sworn to defeat and push back against the use and
influence of big money in our political campaigns. For me, that shows the power of the
U.S. Supreme Court to radically change our political system, and to make it responsive to
The Citizens United decision and the rise of super PACs has increased the need for more
and bigger checks from donors. And, the need for that huge stream of money goes on
through a long election cycle: through primaries, and through the general election, too.
In some sense, we already knew this. We knew that there were huge amounts of money in our
political system, both in campaign finance and in the lobbying that goes on during
Congress's work to create and vote on legislation. Vogel's value is to give us a readable
and entertaining account of the inside of this process and also, depressingly, to show us
just how huge those sums are and how much influence they enable a small slice of the U.S.
public to have and how corrupt the U.S. political system has become.
It's not a pleasant picture.
This new system and all the money in it has eroded the power of the official political
parties. And, this is one part of "Big money" that I do not understand very well. Vogel
claims that because of the organization of the super PACs, (1) the function of our
political parties has been privatized and (2) that now we have "shadow parties" composed
of organizations of super PACs and the political operatives and consultants that create
and manage them. This privatization of political parties and organizations is especially
true of the Tea Party, which several groups, the Koch brothers in particular, tried to
fund and to capture for their own purposes. This is a topic that I'd love to hear
discussed in a college level political science class or seminar.
One consequence of the erosion of the power of the major political parties in the U.S.
(both the Republican and the Democratic parties) is that leaders in Congress, both in the
Senate and in the House of Representatives, have lost much of their power to control their
members. And, that results in a dysfunctional Congress that refuses or that cannot act to
pass legislation and solve problems.
Vogel reports in detail on the new industry and the teams of consultants and operative
that has grown to create and promote and manage this flood of cash. But, even he cannot
see inside many of these organizations, because of the lack of reporting requirements.
Perhaps 'that' is why he calls them "shadow political parties", because they operate in
the dark, because they are opaque to us, and because they are the dark matter of our
The details that Vogel reports give a picture of the segments of this industry: (1) the
fund raising and organizing that pumps super rich donors for money; (2) the operational
side, e.g. the spending of these huge amounts of money, especially during and on political
campaigns; and (3) the gate-keepers for the rich, i.e. those who screen the candidates in
an attempt to ensure that the money given to or spent on a particular candidate will
produce the results that the donor wants to achieve.
The candidates are very aware that they are being screened. They know that they are being
auditioned for their future performance. And, they are intensely conscious that if they
do not act accordingly while campaigning and when in office, that they will fore go
important sources of funds.
The outrageous thing is that, since the dominant and most successful strategy is to go
after only the super rich, our political system is becoming skewed so as to represent only
a very narrow segment of our population.
The success rate that big money and super PACs have in getting their candidates elected is
not 100 per cent, which is not surprising, since we now have a system in which the rich
compete against the rich. But, *some* well-funded candidate is going to win, and that
winning candidate knows who paid to get him into office. That elected official knows that
s/he "must dance with the one who brought them". And, remember that much of this huge
pool of money is spent after the campaign: it is used to lobby officials after they get
into office. Either way, the influence in politics is predominantly that of the super
rich, because that's where the money is.
We have to remember that there are those who believe that we should have a right to spend
unlimited amounts of money to influence politics. Perhaps they are aware of the
consequences; perhaps they are not. And, some of them justify, or at least rationalize it
by claiming that it'd be alright if we had full disclosure. I question whether disclosure
would have much effect, since many of the donors are proud of their support. But, you'd
have to get that disclosure requirement written into law and enforced, which seems like an
One thing that Vogel's book exposes for us is one of the significant consequences that the
concentration of wealth in the U.S. is having. In effect, it shows the flaw in the
argument that it's good for the rich to get richer, as long as everyone's lot is improved
at the same time. If the rich get *much* richer than everyone else, then, as Vogel shows,
they get much more political power. And, it cannot be good for our country to have a
class of super rich who have much more political influence than everyone else. That's not
democracy; that's plutocracy.
A cautionary note -- The organization of the institutions that collect the donor's money,
that pass along the money, and that spend that money (e.g on campaigning ads), is
extremely complex. That means that there are very smart people behind it. One
implication of that, among others, is that counter-acting this movement, dealing with it,
limiting it, whatever will be extremely difficult. For a Congress that cannot agree to
anything except voting for President Obama or voting against him, that seems like an
unlikely thing to ask for.
There is, in "Big money", a sizable amount of reporting on the libertarian, lower-taxes,
smaller government people and their attempt to produce the kind of government (or lack of
government?) that they want. But, Vogel is balanced. He spends plenty of time on the
left wing, as well, both on the liberal, more progressive big donors and those who are in
the more business friendly segment of the left. And, by the way, there is also on the
right, a segment that pushes more for a government that is favorable to business more than
for less government.
However, Vogel at one point admits (or claims) that if an individual or a company or an
industry, for that matter, wants more from the U.S. government, then the fiscally prudent
thing to do is to spend their money on lobbying after the election rather than on the
election campaign. Vogel as much as admits that writing huge checks in support of a
candidate's election campaign is as much about ego as it is about getting some kind of
desired election results. It's also about perks and wanting to be stroked.
Vogel's book is a very good attempt to provide detailed and well-organized view of one of
the most important problems in U.S. politics, specifically the influence of money in our
political system and the degree to which the money is provided by a narrow class of super
rich. Vogel spends less time on analyzing the results of that influence. But, he does do
an important service in providing the description and details from which that analysis
A down-side to Vogel's writing is that he makes more of us aware of the extent to which
politics in the U.S. is an activity done by and for the super rich. It's no wonder that
voter participation and citizen satisfaction with our government is so low. I worry that
the kind of awareness that Vogel leads us to will make that even worse. And, it will not
help that delegates to the political convention will see the perks and attention from the
candidates and their organizations going so much toward the super rich.
Some of the consequences that Vogel mentions: (1) A shift toward privatization, in this
case the privatization of the funding of campaigns and the influence exerted on government
officials. (2) An increasing balkanization and tribalism of voters and the officials they
elect. That fragmentation into smaller and more rigid factions makes it more difficult
for our government, especially the Federal government, to do any meaningful work on the
problems we need solved. (3) "A completely legal hijacking of American democracy by the
ultra-rich" (p. 247): those who can afford to buy our government will more and more be
able do so.
One look toward the future: Vogel suggests that the Clintons, both Bill and Hillary, have
a huge ability to raise large sums of money. So, if you are aghast and sickened by that
amount of money chasing politics now, you are not going to want to watch the 2016
campaign. And, one of *my* worries is that, if so much of that big donor money on the
Democratic/liberal side is vacuumed up into the race for the presidency, what will happen
to all the other races. We are already seeing so many state legislatures and
governorships being captured through big funding on the right. Are we likely to see that
become even more skewed?