In principle, Mexico's 1917 Constitution established
a democratic political system. In practice,
until very recently Mexico was a one-party
state. While the ruling party employed intimidation
and electoral fraud when necessary, mainly
it kept control through patronage, cronyism
and corruption. All powerful interest groups,
including the media, were effectively part
of the party's political machine.
Such systems aren't unknown here - think of
Richard J. Daley's Chicago. But can it happen
to the United States as a whole? A forthcoming
article in The Washington Monthly shows that
the foundations for one-party rule are being
laid right now.
In "Welcome to the Machine," Nicholas Confessore
draws together stories usually reported in
isolation - from the drive to privatize Medicare,
to the pro-tax-cut fliers General Motors and
Verizon recently included with the dividend
checks mailed to shareholders, to the pro-war
rallies organized by Clear Channel radio stations.
As he points out, these are symptoms of the
emergence of an unprecedented national political
machine, one that is well on track to establishing
one-party rule in America.
Mr. Confessore starts by describing the weekly
meetings in which Senator Rick Santorum vets
the hiring decisions of major lobbyists. These
meetings are the culmination of Grover Norquist's
"K Street Project," which places Republican
activists in high-level corporate and industry
lobbyist jobs - and excludes Democrats. According
to yesterday's Washington Post, a Republican
National Committee official recently boasted
that "33 of 36 top-level Washington positions
he is monitoring went to Republicans."
course, interest groups want to curry favor
with the party that controls Congress and
the White House; but as The Washington Post
explains, Mr. Santorum's colleagues have also
used "intimidation and private threats" to
bully lobbyists who try to maintain good relations
with both parties. "If you want to play in
our revolution," Tom DeLay, the House majority
leader, once declared, "you have to live by
Lobbying jobs are a major source of patronage
- a reward for the loyal. More important,
however, many lobbyists now owe their primary
loyalty to the party, rather than to the industries
they represent. So corporate cash, once split
more or less evenly between the parties, increasingly
flows in only one direction.
And corporations themselves are also increasingly
part of the party machine. They are rewarded
with policies that increase their profits:
deregulation, privatization of government
services, elimination of environmental rules.
In return, like G.M. and Verizon, they use
their influence to support the ruling party's
a result, campaign finance is only the tip
of the iceberg. Next year, George W. Bush
will spend two or three times as much money
as his opponent; but he will also benefit
hugely from the indirect support that corporate
interests - very much including media companies
- will provide for his political message.
Naturally, Republican politicians deny the
existence of their burgeoning machine. "It
never ceases to amaze me that people are so
cynical they want to tie money to issues,
money to bills, money to amendments," says
Mr. DeLay. And Ari Fleischer says that "I
think that the amount of money that candidates
raise in our democracy is a reflection of
the amount of support they have around the
country." Enough said.
Confessore suggests that we may be heading
for a replay of the McKinley era, in which
the nation was governed by and for big business.
I think he's actually understating his case:
like Mr. DeLay, Republican leaders often talk
of "revolution," and we should take them at
isn't the ongoing transformation of U.S. politics
- which may well put an end to serious two-party
competition - getting more attention? Most
pundits, to the extent they acknowledge that
anything is happening, downplay its importance.
For example, last year an article in Business
Week titled "The GOP's Wacky War on Dem Lobbyists"
dismissed the K Street Project as "silly -
and downright futile." In fact, the project
is well on the way to achieving its goals.
Whatever the reason, there's a strange disconnect
between most political commentary and the
reality of the 2004 election. As in 2000,
pundits focus mainly on images - John Kerry's
furrowed brow, Mr. Bush in a flight suit -
or on supposed personality traits. But it's
the nexus of money and patronage that may
well make the election a foregone conclusion.
on Tuesday, June 27, 2003 by the New
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