We’ve seen the future, and its name is Rex.
The New York Times recently profiled Rex Sinquefield, a money-management millionaire who, with little fanfare, has become Missouri’s top political donor. As the Times’s Nicholas Confessore notes in his must-read piece, Sinquefield may well be the most influential private citizen in the state. Not for the power of his ideas, or the strength of his organizing, but because his money won’t shut up.
Like many in the 1 percent, Sinquefield’s top priority is slashing his income taxes (he also fights teacher tenure and police oversight). Missouri is one of four states with no limits—you read that right—on donations for state races. Sinquefield has taken full advantage of the opportunity, spending more than $20 million on Missouri campaigns over the past four years. This year, he’s submitted twenty-two separate ballot referendums to tax sales rather than income.
It was just a matter of time before Sinquefield, in his zeal for his favored policy, would shell out for a more favorable process as well. Sinquefield didn’t like the ballot summary that Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan wrote for one of his referenda to abolish income taxes. So since primary season, Sinquefield’s been spending big on Shane Schoeller, who’s now the GOP nominee in the open seat race to replace Carnahan. As you may have guessed, Schoeller supports dumping the income tax. He’s also proposed creating a bipartisan committee of appointees that could chuck and replace the secretary of state’s ballot summaries if supporters take issue with them.
Whether or not you agree with him, it’s clear that Sinquefield is well on his way to reshaping Missouri’s legislature, its tax code, and its political process in his own image—all by virtue of his wealth alone. As Confessore writes, if the groups that backed Citizens United get their way, and Congress or the Court ends federal contribution caps, “The no-limits giving that has let him do it might soon be coming to a campaign near you.”
Already, the current election offers a tour de force of big money politics. If anyone still believes that our current system rewards a focus on small donors, a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice offers a rude awakening. Through the end of September, in the country’s twenty-five closest House races, Republicans raised only 18.3 percent of their funds from donations of less than 200 dollars; Democrats, just 12.5 percent. And that GOP figure is skewed by Allen West’s re-election race, which apparently inspired an upsurge of right-wing small donor giving. In the remaining twenty-four top races, small donors brought in just 7.6 percent of the Republicans’ cash.
This month has also brought a wave of much-needed attention to another awful impact of Citizens United: the legalization of political coercion at work. Mike Elk and Mark Ames warned of this trend in a prescient Nation cover story last year about the Koch brothers’ heavy-handed pressure on their employees to vote Republican. As George Zornick and Lee Fang reported for us, the trend is epidemic. It’s an affront to human rights, and another way that the Citizens United regime perpetuates itself, rewarding the politicians least likely to help restore our democracy.
Rex Sinquefield offers a stark illustration of the future that awaits us if money is treated as speech, elections as bidding wars, and corporations as people. Fortunately, that’s not the only future available.
By a bipartisan October 18 vote, New Jersey’s legislature became the ninth in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. The Garden State joins states like California, and countless towns and cities, in urging an amendment. The vote was pushed by Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign, in partnership with a slew of local labor, religious, and environmental groups. “We will never have clean air or clean water without clean government,” NJ Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said in a statement. “As long as corporate polluters can use unlimited monies to influence elections and elected officials, the environment will lose.”
He’s right. And fortunately, most Americans are already on the right side of the issue. In a new survey released Thursday by the Corporate Reform Coalition, 81 percent of Americans said that secret spending is bad for democracy; 84 percent agreed that average Americans' voices are drowned out by corporate spending on politics.
Rex Sinquefield is unusually wealthy. But he’s not unique. In every state, there are people with his means and his ambitions, eager to remake the state or the country in service of their ideology and their interests. The future belongs to them—unless we stop them.
For more on how corporate money distorts democracy, check out “The Supersizing of American Politics.”