"Apres nous, le deluge." Surely the reactionary gang of five on the Supreme Court should have cited Louis XV in their Citizens United decision overturning precedent to open the floodgates to corporate campaign spending. For all the fixation on Tea Partyers, what is most notable about this election is the rising tide of money that is lifting many Republican candidates -- and how it ultimately contradicts the message that GOP contenders are delivering to voters.
Only two months ago, Democratic Party operatives were boasting that the war chests of Democratic incumbents would repel Republican challengers. That was then. In the last quarter, Republican challengers surpassed Democratic incumbents in fundraising.
More important, the campaigns have been aided by an unprecedented wave of independent expenditures -- over $150 million and rising, the vast bulk spent on attack ads against besieged Democrats. Many of these contributions are anonymous, made to nonprofit institutions that don't have to reveal their donors. Karl Rove, infamous as George Bush's political "brain," has essentially displaced the Republican National Committee with his American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS organizations, claiming that they will dispense over $50 million into the elections.
This flood of conservative money isn't an accident. As a clarifying article by Eric Lichtblau in the New York Times detailed, conservatives -- led by Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, the "Darth Vader of campaign finance" -- have systematically sought to dismantle the post-Watergate efforts to limit the impact of money in politics, and to curb secret donations.
They've linked legislative obstruction with litigation, placed conservative zealots on regulatory agencies to block enforcement of the laws, and propagated the ideological distortion that money is speech. Aided by the reactionary majority on the Supreme Court, the conservative drive has effectively shredded much of the financial arms control of the post-Watergate period. As Lichtblau reported, conservatives acknowledge their purpose: the more money in politics, the better the party of the monied class -- the Republicans -- is likely to fare.
The barrage of attack ads, however, comes not simply from the absence of legal restraint, but from the decision of conservative corporate wealth to open fire. Some of this surely is ideological, the financial side of Tea Party revolt against Democrats in power. But much of it isn't about ideology, it's about interest. Faced with the cumulative calamities besetting this nation, President Obama had little choice but to challenge entrenched corporate interests. He sought to cut subsidies to Big Oil and King Coal. He pushed health-care reform to the dismay of the insurance companies. Financial reform, however limited, angered Wall Street's barons. He even had the gall to suggest that private equity billionaires should pay income taxes like the rest of us.
The response, as The Post reported, has been a corporate-financed "frenzy fueled in part by a relatively small number of rich donors -- oil and gas industry chief executives, construction magnates and other tycoons."
That reality mocks the Republican pieties about being born-again conservatives. The money flooding into Republican coffers isn't for small government or balanced budgets. It's for retaining profitable subsidies, rolling back consumer or worker protections, sustaining anti-trust exemptions, reopening the financial casino, thwarting efforts to tax the wealthy. The respected economist Jamie Galbraith described this as the "predator state," where powerful corporate interests profit by creating and defending lavish government benefits. The Tea Party protest has been sparked in part by the widespread sense that government serves the powerful, not the middle class -- that it bailed out Wall Street, not Main Street. But the Republican campaign is bankrolled in no small measure by money from those intent on maintaining their government privileges and subsidies.
This tidal wave of corporate cash -- which could run up a $5 billion price tag on the most expensive midterm election in history -- is, "the dagger directed at the heart of democracy," as Bill Moyers said in a speech at Common Cause's 40th anniversary gala. It is increasingly possible, he added, for "oligarchs and plutocrats to secretly buy our elections and consolidate their hold on the corporate state."
This, in the end, is the current front of a historic struggle. Who governs America -- the powerful few or the many, money or citizens?
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.