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Trump’s post-conviction windfall shows democracy is increasingly a pay-to-play game

todayJune 10, 2024 14

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Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks after a break during his hush money trial at the Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City, U.S., May 21, 2024. Michael M. Santiago/Pool via REUTERS





By Daniel Drache, York University, Canada and Marc D. Froese, Burman University



In the hours immediately following Donald Trump’s recent hush-money conviction in a Manhattan courtroom, his presidential campaign raked in US$53 million from small donors.

Why are regular people without deep pockets throwing so much money at a convicted felon? In the United States today, as in many other countries with a populism problem, money is both the cause and consequence of broken political systems.

Modern democracy has a money problem everywhere. As democracy becomes a pay-to-play game, trust in the system breaks down and political tribalism becomes the only way to win. We throw money at our candidates because cold cash is the only form of speech that makes a difference.

But even in places where democracy has not yet fallen off a cliff, all-powerful billionaires, broken political parties and angry voters are moving into destructive alignment. As pessimism and anger pile up across the globe, we must brace for far-reaching consequences.

The billionaires’ playbook

Billionaires from Hyderabad to Houston demand three things from their national governments: low taxes to protect their fortunes, preferential treatment for their businesses and the political influence to decide public policy on issues that matter to all of us.

Gabriel Zucman, a U.S. tax authority, has shown that the very rich pay less tax than the average American worker. Their effective tax rate has fallen from 56 per cent on incomes above a million dollars in the 1960s to just 23 per cent in 2018.

As governmental checks on wealth accumulation have gone out the window, the number of ultra-rich has doubled. There are now about 2,700 billionaires in the world. And the share of money they control has grown from under $1 trillion in 2000 to more than $14 trillion today.

In India, for example, inequality today is worse than it was under British colonial rule.

Politicians have welcomed this big money into party politics. Carlos Slim, Mexico’s richest man with a net worth of $102 billion, has built a close working relationship with centre-left President López Obrador, whose term ends in October following the recent Mexican election.

By cultivating a reputation for social responsibility, Slim and his many companies have access to big development projects that include the Maya tourist train. Tellingly, the five wealthiest Mexicans added $79 billion to their fortunes during Obrador’s presidency.

Control of American public policy

In the United States, billionaires have seized an outsized role in public policy, bankrolling congressional representatives in both parties.

As Trump trails Biden in fundraising, he has asked the oil industry to fund his election campaign to the tune of a billion dollars. In return, he is promising more deregulation, more subsidies and less government support for green energy.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, has created a new role for the super-rich: party benefactor. In 2000, the combined cost of congressional and presidential campaigns was $5.3 billion. Twenty years later, the cost had soared to more than$14 billion

This year’s presidential and congressional elections will set another record. Sen. Bernie Sanders has recently estimated that as of the middle of May, billionaires have already spent $600 million.

Follow the money

In the previous century, wealthy people bought libraries and monuments. Today they rewire national cultures with the symbols and narratives of the authoritarian right.

In France, Vincent Bolloré, whose net worth is $10 billion, invested in Cnews, the Gallic version of Fox News. Similarly, Philippe de Villiers, who’s not yet a billionaire, has built a theme park, Puy du Fou, that celebrates a triumphalist narrative of France as a Christian civilization. The goal is to shift national culture rightward, where deferential citizens bow to wealth and authority.

But the rise of authoritarianism is about more than just funding the preferences of billionaires. A recent research paper published by Harvard Business School shows austerity creates the voter anger that populist parties thrive on. Italian researchers found that depriving small communities of public services increases the support for charismatic leaders.

Amplifying rage pays off

Many hoped information technology would make us freer and smarter as citizens. Post-war political theorists believed mass communication would improve democratic deliberation.

But that’s not what happened. Speech in the public square has been privatized, fragmented by social media conglomerates and sold by hedge funds as an investment asset.

The internet is now a fractured system of competing media platforms and “alternative facts.” Parties shout across the tumult of constant cultural warfare. They now use the only effective way they know to get our attention: amplifying rage and contempt.

Throughout the 20th century, liberal democracy was a functional model of politics in which parties largely managed competing interests, neutralized class conflict and brokered compromise. Extremism was unwelcome in the most successful big-tent parties because it turned off voters. But in modern politics, extremism is no longer a liability. In fact, it has become indispensable to cut through the bedlam of our media environment.

Without the resources of the billionaire class, however, populist politicians are just soap-box shouters. Their grasp of modern social media may be powerful, but they can’t go anywhere without big money to grease the wheels of democracy.

Are there glimmers of hope?

Populists ousted

In the U.S., voters rejected Trump in 2020, though he could return to power in November. In Poland, voters tossed out the populists. In the United Kingdom, voters are expected to decisively defeat the Conservatives in the July 4 election

Likewise, Israel’s Netanyahu may also be torn apart by his own war machine.

But in the Netherlands, where the politician dubbed “Europe’s most dangerous man” recently won big, the far right has made a deal with centrist parties to form the most right-wing government in northern Europe.

As democracy and authoritarian populism square off, it’s difficult to predict how the pull of money and political dysfunction will mobilize angry voters.The Conversation

Daniel Drache, Professor emeritus, Department of Politics, York University, Canada and Marc D. Froese, Professor of Political Science and Founding Director, International Studies Program, Burman University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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