Thanks to the Supreme Court's conservative majority, America's efforts in recent decades to regulate the role of money in politics have been shredded. Money is a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution — that's what the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions have decreed, and American democracy just has to cope with the consequences.
Among those consequences is a public square in which the voices of 99.99 percent of Americans are drowned out by the blaring megaphones of a handful of billionaires who get to exercise a singular influence on the content and character of the nation's political conversation.
Some of these billionaires support liberals, but the biggest spenders by far can be found on the Right.
The Koch brothers have received the lion's share of media attention and scrutiny, especially during the past few months, thanks in large part to Democratic efforts to highlight the scope of their spending on behalf of Republicans and against President Obama and his party.
Much of this attention is deserved. Whereas leading liberal donor George Soros spent between $2 million and $3 million during the 2012 election cycle, Charles and David Koch funneled in the same period something in the range of $122 million to Republican candidates and nominally independent (but consistently right-wing) nonprofit groups such as Americans for Prosperity. The Kochs reportedly plan to spend at least as much on the 2014 midterm elections, which will no doubt presage even higher spending in the 2016 presidential race.
The Koch brothers' influence on American politics is enormous. But it would be a mistake for muckrakers to focus on them to the exclusion of other far-right billionaires. Foremost among them is casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose spending rivals that of the Kochs, and whose influence on the Republican Party — and through the GOP, the American political system as a whole — may be even more significant.
Currently ranked as the 11th-richest person on the planet, Adelson reportedly spent roughly $150 million trying to defeat President Obama in 2012. (That includes the $15 million he sank into Newt Gingrich's ill-fated primary campaign during the winter of 2012.)
The issue that Adelson cares about most is Israel — above all ensuring that Republican candidates for high office unconditionally support the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, very much including its drive to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank. If this support includes expressions of skepticism about the prospect for peace talks with the Palestinians and promises of war with Iran to destroy its nuclear program, all the better.
The Kochs, by contrast, tend to follow their libertarian convictions in opposing military interventionism. And yet it's Adelson's über-hawkish position that consistently prevails among leading Republicans.
Witness the abject pandering on display in March, when several prospective GOP presidential candidates traveled to Las Vegas to kiss Adelson's ring. In his public remarks at the Republican Jewish Coalition meeting at Adelson's Las Vegas Venetian hotel and casino, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker noted the Hebrew meaning of his son Matthew's name and claimed that the Walker family displays a menorah along with a Christmas tree in their home during holiday season.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, meanwhile, made the mortifying mistake of (accurately) describing the West Bank as the "occupied territories" — a gaffe that he immediately attempted to walk back "in the strongest terms possible."
By all accounts, the man who received the warmest welcome in the Nevada desert was Jeb Bush, who was invited to a private dinner with the mega-donor in his personal airplane hangar. The special treatment helped launch the nascent Bush campaign's early spring mini-boomlet.
And then there's poor Rand Paul. The junior senator from Kentucky has been frozen out of these early Adelson meetings, no doubt because of his long track record of support for drastic cuts in aid to Israel and strong opposition to war with Iran.
Who could possibly have predicted that Paul's foreign policy views would begin to "evolve" in the days immediately following Adelson's March powwow? I'm sure it had nothing whatsoever to do with Adelson's threat (conveyed via reporting in TIME magazine) "to spend vast sums against Paul if he appears to be well positioned in the Republican primaries."
As long as Sheldon Adelson has a say in the matter, no Republican candidate for president will ever challenge the party's unconditional support for the bellicose policies and territorially expansionist priorities of Likud.
(Adelson also owns several media properties within Israel itself and unabashedly uses them to defend the Netanyahu government against its foreign and domestic critics.)
Which isn't to say that Israel is all that Adelson cares about. On the contrary, the man who made his $35 billion fortune from casinos in Macau and Singapore also just so happens to vociferously oppose internet gambling, which he has described as a "threat to our society" and a "toxin."
Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky, then, that Sen. Lindsay Graham (S.C.) has sponsored a bill that would ban this scourge of 21st-century American life.
Of course it's possible that Graham was persuaded to sponsor the bill by the Las Vegas fundraiser that Adelson and his wife threw for the South Carolina senator last year. Come to think of it, maybe that's why Graham allowed Adelson's lobbyist to write the first draft of the bill. But really, how can we know for certain?
And anyway, maybe rank cronyism is just the cost of doing business in a country that equates money with free speech. Perhaps we should simply acquiesce to the rule of this self-aggrandizing plutocrat who's out to buy himself a permanent position as the puppet master of the Republican Party.
Or not. But that would require an effort that could pass muster with the Roberts court.
Anyone in the mood for a constitutional amendment?