Only taxes can save American democracy

James O'Keefe's patrons have too much money

Democracy vs. money.
(Image credit: Fintastique / Alamy Stock Photo)

On Monday, the notorious right-wing troll (and convicted criminal) James O'Keefe epically faceplanted while attempting to defend embattled Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. O'Keefe reportedly planted an operative who claimed to Washington Post reporters to have been impregnated by Moore as a teenager, hoping the Post would run with the story so he could embarrass them — and thereby discredit the multiple credible allegations from women detailing sexual harassment at Moore's hands when they were teenagers. Instead, the Post reporters smelled a rat and turned the tables on him, uncovering the operative's relationship with O'Keefe and making him look exactly like the amoral defender of an alleged sex abuser that he in fact is.

Yet it is all but certain that O'Keefe's hamfisted dirty tricks shop (called Project Veritas) is going to survive, continue to target sundry left-leaning institutions with political sabotage, and continue to be fantastically lucrative for him personally. It's just one particularly stark demonstration of the corrosive effect ultra-concentrated wealth has on our democratic institutions. It's time to resort to the simplest and most effective way of reducing that power: taking the money.

After all, O'Keefe did have one big success, with a series of secretly recorded videos of community activist group ACORN that were so misleadingly edited and presented as to amount to straight-up lies, but which destroyed the group anyway. His past funders include Peter Thiel (who also secretly bankrolled a series of lawsuits to destroy a publication he disliked), the Trump Foundation, and Donors Trust, a funnel for reactionary wealthy people to hide their contributions to various right-wing causes.

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O'Keefe's backers don't seem to care that his record after the ACORN hit job has been nearly unbroken failure — like when he failed to lure a CNN correspondent onto a boat where he could sexually harass her, or when an attempted sting was discovered and stopped through a restraining order, or when filmmaker Josh Fox made his own recording of an attempted sting and revealed O'Keefe's duplicitous tactics. And that's aside from the actual crime, when he was caught breaking into then-Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) office, and ended up pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of entering federal property on false pretenses.

Merely the slight promise of future disruption of lefty people and institutions is enough to keep the money flowing: According to tax filings, O'Keefe made $240,000 in 2016.

But O'Keefe is only an unusually pestilential part of the right-wing political money machine. There is a vast complex of think tanks, publications, nonprofits, and academic departments whose main purpose is lobbying, advertising, and producing arguments for further enrichment of the ultra-wealthy — with harassment and destruction of any even vaguely left-wing institution as a secondary objective.

And those, in turn, are only a small part of the broader galaxy of money in politics. Right now Republicans in Congress, on the frankly admitted orders of their big donor handlers, are attempting to jam through a tax "reform" bill that would line the pockets of the idle rich to an obscene degree — paid for by strip-mining higher education and the working class.

Democrats are, of course, not remotely immune from the distorting effects of money in politics. Though they are sure to vote against the Republican tax bill in lockstep, some are also attempting to pass a bill deregulating payday lenders, just for starters.

And yet, instead of addressing the corrosive effects of money in politics, in the recent past legal limitations on political spending have been steadily loosened. With the Citizens United ruling, the conservative Supreme Court majority opened the floodgates to vast spending on political campaigns, amounting in many cases to open bribery of candidates. With their McDonnell v. United States ruling (which rescued the former governor of Virginia, Republican Bob McDonnell, from a corruption conviction), they effectively legalized bribery of elected officials by setting an impossibly high burden of proof for corruption.

No doubt to the dismay of Republican justices, the first politician to escape from a corruption prosecution under the McDonnell precedent was Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.). Perhaps in the future they can outline a more narrowly tailored bribery standard where it's only legal if Republicans do it.

At any rate, that's the basic formula. Reactionary money puts reactionary politicians in power, where they cut taxes, deregulate industry, smash unions, rig elections through district-boundary cheating and disenfranching minorities, and install reactionary judges who dream up goofy arguments to tear up any legal restrictions on political spending — thus creating even greater concentrations of wealth and income. In comparison to this tsunami of money, the actual preferences of the American citizenry fade to an ever-shrinking whisper.

But there is one tried-and-true method to break the influence of money over our democratic institutions: take the money. Jack up the top marginal tax rate on income over $1 million to 100 percent (and similarly on estate wealth over $4 million), close the carried interest loophole and the hundreds of corporate tax giveaways, and increase the capital gains tax to 50 percent. Then just for good measure, break up monopolist corporations and kneecap parasitic finance with deliberately burdensome regulations.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said: "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both." Due to the reactionary hacks currently installed on the Supreme Court (one of whose seats was stolen outright), we may not be able to meaningfully restrict the use of that money. But we can still take it away.

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