Welcome Back To the Smoked-Filled Back Rooms

It’s an iconic image: A group of tough-talking, cigar-smoking politicians wearing cheap suits and drinking whiskey gather in the backroom of some convention center somewhere in America.

They trade bribes, offer each other favors, and calculate the odds, and then, after hours of debate punctuated by the occasional cigar puff, they pick their candidate.

This is more or less how people were nominated for president for most of the modern era here in the United States. It wasn’t the people who picked the candidates; it was the party bosses, who were more concerned with keeping their machines running than representing the will of the people.

This system, while great for the political insiders, was terrible for the country, and it only really began to change in the 1960s, when both the Republican and Democratic parties opened up their primary system so that everyday voters would have a bigger say in choosing who they wanted to run for president.

The new system wasn’t perfect - establishment candidates still had the edge - but it was a step forward from the days when corrupt pols called all the shots behind closed doors. It at least had the potential to allow an outsider run, and Barack Obama probably never would have been nominated for president in 2008 without it.

But ever since the Supreme Court opened up the floodgates with its 2010 Citizens United decision, we’ve moved back to the old system.

Nobody wants to admit it, but our political process is rapidly going back to the days when cigar-smoking insiders handpicked the nominees, except this time it’s not corrupt political bosses choosing who they want to run for president, it’s billionaires like the Koch Brothers.

As The New York Times pointed out over the weekend, “fewer than four hundred families are responsible for almost half the money raised in the 2016 presidential campaign, a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era.”

Another report, this one from the Associated Press, found that just “60 donations of a million dollars or more accounted for about a third of the more than $380 million brought in so far for the 2016 presidential election.”

There’s a word for this kind of political system where wealth, power, and influence are concentrated in the hands of such a few number of people: oligarchy.

Former President Jimmy Carter talked about that on a recent episode of my radio show.

While everyday voters still technically choose the candidates these days, the boatload of money that’s flooded into our political system in the wake of Citizens United has changed the game. The only candidates who actually stay in the race are the candidates who have billionaires behind them.

This is why, for example, in 2012 Newt Gingrich was able to campaign well past his past due date. With Sheldon Adelson backing him, he never had to worry about running out of money like a traditional second place candidate would have had to.

It’s also why over the weekend, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker and a few of the other Republican frontrunners went to the Koch brothers’ annual summer seminar at a fancy resort out in California - they know that the single most important factor in determining their success as candidate is whether their Super PAC gets that big fat check from Charles and David Koch.

So voters still have a choice, but those choices are shaped and ultimately determined by who the billionaires want to run for president.

It’s a sham democracy, and when it comes down to it, it’s really no different than the days when corrupt party bosses sat in backrooms haggling over candidates like they were cattle.

Replace Super PACs with party machines and the system is pretty much the same, the corruption just happens to be out in the open this time. People, not party insiders or billionaire plutocrats, should pick our presidents.

So go to MoveToAmend.org now to help money out of politics once and for all.


charell's picture
charell 7 years 33 weeks ago

I doubt that Hillary and Debbie smoke cigars but...
Isn't the chair of the DNC supposed to be neutral until the Democratic candidate is chosen? Was Howard Dean as partisan as Debbie Wasserman Schultz toward a particular candidate in the last presidential election?

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 33 weeks ago

Without Howard Dean Democrats would not have won in 2006 and 2008. The 50 state strategy was essential and, if he was partial it probably would've been for somebody from the "democratic wing" of the party. Today that would be his fellow Vermonter, Bernie - not the money candidate.

Mark J. Saulys's picture
Mark J. Saulys 7 years 33 weeks ago

I don't know why anybody thinks "Hillary is moving to the left." her rhetoric is what's moving to the left. She and her husband have always said anything to get elected (and don't say she's different from her husband because they always touted and promoted themselves as a husband and wife team) and not at all shy about campaigning as lefties but, once elected, ignored the people and served the moneyed interests.

Hillary was for the Iraq war - now is against it; was against same-sex marriage, now is for it; has flipped on NAFTA, immigration, Cuba, criminal sentencing, etc.. She probably has more flip flops in her career than any other politician in U.S. history. Why does anybody think we should believe anything she says, now or ever?

She's just a political careerist and opportunist with her fimger in the wind.

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 33 weeks ago

Flip floppers are my favorite kind of statesmen. They adapt their policies to new scientific discoveries.

DAnneMarc's picture
DAnneMarc 7 years 33 weeks ago

Mark J Saulys and chucke8 ~ I agree with Mark on this one. There are no 'new scientific discoveries' concerning any of the flip flops Mark mentioned. The only variable factor involved is public opinion. Get real!

cccccttttt 7 years 33 weeks ago

There is a way to attack the power of big money that is often dismissed.

Change the rules for the number of days and which hours that political

ads can run on TV.

1. It is done effectively in Europe

2. It is a 1000 times more doable than a constituional change.

3. It would find support on both the left and the right who grow weary

of 18 months of attack ads.

With that medium firmly confined to civilized limits, let the big money

spend their excess on all the chikcen dinners and bill boards they choose.

Well, guess they will buy a few more judges.


Elioflight's picture
Elioflight 7 years 33 weeks ago

Well, as the "trumpet" said on the debates last night, businesspeople give donations and expect something in return--that's bribery--hello, K-RATS on SCOTUS.

We must first get money out of politics BEFORE anything can be done to restore democracy and afford the dignity of a living wage, healthcare, free/public education, protection from business, and a safe place to rear a family to each American, as is their right. The government was created to PROTECT the HUMAN BEINGS from the harm caused by private-sector greed and corruption.

Elioflight's picture
Elioflight 7 years 33 weeks ago

Well, Mr chuckle8, I prefer those who ADAPT and act on to new information to those who sink their heads in the sand and stay put only to be eaten by the jackel they refuse to see. The survivors move on into the future while the staid drown in their own ignorance.

Why is that you can be an expert on your job but a scientist cannot?

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 33 weeks ago

cccccttttt, we have rules?

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 33 weeks ago

cccccttttt -- Why do you think SCOTUS would look more favorably on your rules than the ones they already threw out?

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 33 weeks ago

DAnneMarc -- I agree with you. I was just pointing out that flip-flopping has some small possibility of being the right thing to do.

Also, Thom often mentions congress is composed of our representatives. Thom also says the word leader is no where in the constitution. Based on that interpretation, shouldn't a politician put his finger in the wind to see which direction it is blowing? It seems far better than putting your palm out to get a stack of money.

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 7 years 32 weeks ago

I hear that if Walker becomes President, he has agreed to provide White House office space for Charles and David Koch. Might as well just inaugurate the Kochs and let little boy Walker run errands for them.

Joe Phillips LCSW's picture
Joe Phillips LCSW 7 years 32 weeks ago

The BLM group that heckled Bernie could have just been a group that was so angry that they would heckle any politician, and Bernie was the only one giving speeches. But he did not deserve that. At first I suspected Hillary. We can't test that until she dares to give a speech so we can see if they heckle her. If she did that then Bernie needs to take the gloves off. Bill Clinton sold out A Americans. He killed welfare and signed the hard sentencing law. Bernie should say that if he has to.

Uncle Geo's picture
Uncle Geo 7 years 32 weeks ago

In all American political parties, endorsements are decided by the people who get elected as delegates at local caucuses or party conventions. Get elected a delegate (no campaign money necessary) and you get to vote on the party's endorsee and it's the endorsees who end up on the ballot.

Delegates can have influence far outside of their numbers. The truth of this is most recently proved in the takeover by the Tea Partiers of Republican conventions in many states where they then endorsed their chosen candidates. Establishment Republicans tried to stop them, but it's not that easy to do away with a party's rules and constitution.

How difficult is it to become a delegate? Not too difficult: in most places you pretty much just have to show up. But only a small fraction of 1% bother to be active in a political party and fewer still bother to become delegates. In fact, in some precincts no delegate was chosen because no one ran. In the end, an astonishingly small number of people decide endorsements. You could be one if you wanted to.

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 32 weeks ago

That's been exactly my experience, Uncle Geo. I'm hoping to directly invite every Democrat in my precinct to the next caucus, so this introvert can step down as chair (and sole member) of the precinct committee. Participation is so low that a state house district is reduced to behaving like a precinct used to.

Uncle Geo's picture
Uncle Geo 7 years 32 weeks ago

In your precinct, mathboy, I'm guessing maybe you get 20 or so regular volunteers at election time to go out and canvass or phone bank. Simply doubling that amount can make a difference in the many elections decided by a few percentage points. And yet you wonder if anyone will walk in the door of your caucus at all, let alone volunteer to take over your leadership position (in some of our precincts no one shows up; at all!). By the number of righteously indignant commenters on countless boards and social media you'd think people'd be flocking to caucuses or party conventions to actually have a hand in changing things. But no. Guess it's just easier to sit home and bitch at the people who do.

I led a congressional district and one thing I learned is that people who will tell you what you and/or the party are doing wrong are a freakin' dime a dozen. People who get off their butts and actually do something are rare and valuable as diamonds. Sorry, but if someone's not ready to step up and help solve the problems they're bitchin' about, then I am too busy doing five people's worth of work to really give a rat's keester what they think. And the excuses are just that: as if I don't have to work or drive my kids somewhere or clean the litter box -whatever. If people cared as much as it seems they do from the online bloviating, they'd make time.

Good for you (for everyone) for doing your part, mathboy!

And maybe Tom, whom we all love, might get a local activist on from time to time to reinforce how important it is for listeners to do more than just listen.

Thom's Blog Is On the Move

Hello All

Thom's blog in this space and moving to a new home.

Please follow us across to hartmannreport.com - this will be the only place going forward to read Thom's blog posts and articles.

From Unequal Protection, 2nd Edition:
"If you wonder why and when giant corporations got the power to reign supreme over us, here’s the story."
Jim Hightower, national radio commentator and author of Swim Against the Current
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Thom Hartmann is a creative thinker and committed small-d democrat. He has dealt with a wide range of topics throughout his life, and this book provides an excellent cross section. The Thom Hartmann Reader will make people both angry and motivated to act."
Dean Baker, economist and author of Plunder and Blunder, False Profits, and Taking Economics Seriously
From Screwed:
"I think many of us recognize that for all but the wealthiest, life in America is getting increasingly hard. Screwed explores why, showing how this is no accidental process, but rather the product of conscious political choices, choices we can change with enough courage and commitment. Like all of Thom’s great work, it helps show us the way forward."
Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While