Friday, May 01, 2015

Corruption In America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box, To Citizens United - Part III

In 1973, Stephen Sondheim wrote the song, Send in the Clowns, for his 1973 musical A Little Night Music, an adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night. According to Wikipedia “It became Sondheim’s most popular song after Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1973 and Judy Collins’ version charted in 1975 and 1977. Subsequently, Sarah Vaughan, Shirley Bassey, Judi Dench, Grace Jones, Barbra Streisand, Zarah Leander, Tiger Lillies, Joyce Castle, Ray Conniff, Glenn Close, Cher, Bryn Terfel, Plácido Domingo and many other artists recorded the song and it has become a jazz standard.”

Wikipedia then elaborates: “In December 2010, Stephen Colbert wrote and performed an ‘extended ending’ to Send in the Clowns to composer Stephen Sondheim when he appeared on Colbert's program, The Colbert Report. ‘Where are the clowns?/I booked them for eight/Oh wait that's them on the phone/Saying they're late/Traffic was bad/The tunnel's a mess/All twelve of them came in one car/They lost my address/You just can't trust clowns/That'swhy they're called clowns.’” When you add to those last two lyric lines the following from the original musical score, you begin to get a picture: “But where are the clowns/Send in the clowns/Don't bother, they're here.

The picture I visualize raises the question, “Is our government in general being run by a bunch of clowns?” While that might seem too harsh a sentiment, according to a major survey released in March, it would seem public opinion might agree. Conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) (the oldest national survey research facility that is not-for-profit and university affiliated), it’s 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) finds Americans’ confidence in all three branches of government is at or near record lows. Here are more specific findings:

“Americans are less confident in the government than ever before and consider it a bigger problem than the economy and unemployment, according to a comprehensive social survey for 2014 and a just-released Gallup poll. Confidence in the government is at an all-time low. Only 11 percent of adult Americans interviewed had high confidence in the executive branch, and a record-high 44 percent said they had “hardly any confidence at all.”

Confidence in the US Supreme Court is at 23 percent, while only five percent are confident in Congress. Both are historical lows since the GSS survey was first conducted in 1972 by the NORC Center for Public Affairs at the University of Chicago.”

The following views based on party affiliation are particularly interesting since they appear to be incongruous. “Only 7 percent of Democrats, 5 percent of independents and 3 percent of Republicans have a great deal of confidence in Congress.” That fewer Republicans than Democrats have confidence in a Republican Congress is puzzling. The only government affiliated organization that is viewed relatively well is the military where, although confidence is dropping, it remains above 50 percent. What places this survey in a particularly troubling perspective, it states the survey has a 43 year history since it was started, and goes back to 1972.”

It is all too obvious that with a stunningly low five percent public opinion, the clown-like antics of Congress are considered disgraceful. The result is that the 23 percent rating of the Supreme Court looks pretty good by comparison, yet viewing that figure in isolation must raise some issues. Influencing a large measure of the population’s 77% rather dim view of the Court is probably due to the public’s perception of the clown-like Supreme Court’s action in the Citizens United case.

It seems logical to assume that as we get closer to the 2016 election, there will be increased public recognition that the influence of the monstrous infusion of money from large donors and corporations (resulting from Citizens United) not only could, but will corrupt the democratic process. We are already seeing that in the ensuing nomination proceedings where media interest and emphasis seem to be concentrated on how much money is being raised rather then the candidates’ views on the issues.

The extraordinary amounts of so called contributions (that I and others perceive as bribes), have not only distorted, but have dismantled the concept of “one person, one vote.” You might recall, that was once considered as not only critical to the continuing value of political equality, it is mandated in the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The influence of large donors in recent elections challenges this most basic value. Looking back to the 2012 election validates this assumption. Demos, a public policy organization developed the following statistics:
  • The top 32 Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200.
  • Nearly 60% of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93% of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011% of the U.S. population.
  • It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelson’s $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.
  • Super PACs accounted for more than 60% of outside spending reported to the FEC.
  • So did these super wealthy Super Pac donors get value for their outsized donations? In the 2012 election cycle, 83.9% of House candidates and 66.7% of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won their elections. Winning House candidates outraised major opponents by 108%, winning Senate candidates by 35%.
Demos then elaborates, “In Citizens United and other cases, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court equated giving unlimited money to using your political voice. Based on the influence that contributions had on the 2012 election, the Supreme Court was right, money does talk. Applying the court's logic, the 32 largest Super PAC donors now have voices 117,000 times larger than ordinary Americans.

That distorting influence of big donors changes what issues are discussed in elections and whose concerns matter. Democracy works not just when politicians can be put on trial but when representatives feel most accountable to their voters, not to the wealthiest donors.”

The question then becomes which is more critical to the preservation of an unpolluted, untarnished, incorruptible, apolitical democratic process, the average individual voter, or the huge money donors (including corporations), who provide huge amounts of funds that influence elections and legislation. One source, referring to the five justices who upheld the Citizen’s United opinion (thereby in essence enabling the latter group), created the epitaph “clowns in gowns.”

But despite the somnolence normally associated with the Supremes (as I call them), and the gravity of many of the cases they choose to adjudicate, on some occasions a lighter environment prevails. This is validated by the court stenographers who indicate when justices crack a joke by simply writing “[laughter]” into the transcript. So, are the Justices (at least some of them) comedians or clowns…or both?

Prior to 2004, the names of the Justices who caused the laughter were not revealed. However, now that identities are established in the transcripts, a sort of game has been initiated to determine the funniest justice. For example John Roberts got a laugh when a light bulb in the court blew out, leading the Chief Justice to once quip: “We're even more in the dark now than before.” [laughter].

Not satisfied with examining just the transcripts, after listening to the arguments from the entire 2011-2012 term, more than 80 hours of tape, a team of researchers found that the judges were significantly funnier than the official transcript implied. The study counted “343 instances of humor,” compared to 213 in the official transcript.

So which justice won the coveted honor of being the funniest––in essence winning the title of Court Jester. Antonin Scalia, handily won the prize by a large margin over the others. However, the study’s results led the authors to call Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “A truly talented individual, aside from a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg could have had a career in stand-up comedy.” The unfunniest justice has to be Justice Clarence Thomas, who has uttered only one comment during court arguments in all of his 24 years on the bench. Apparently he sits in a state of perpetual morbidity.

While justices may be as humorous as clowns, they themselves may be clowns in a pejorative sense. As a result, I maintain the five justices who voted in favor of opening the floodgates for yet untold amounts of individual and corporate money deserve the designation as “Clowns of Constitutional Corruption.” (the Koch brothers have already committed $889 million towards the next election).

I feel I’m justified in what might be considered political incorrectness by the backing of the general public. Polls surveying the Citizens United ruling since the date of it’s implementation in January of 2010 until the present, reveal that from 70% to 80% view that decision as absolutely wrong.

But of those five Justice Clowns, based on an unprecedentedly bizarre statement which one deserves the title of Super Clown? Take Justice Anthony Kennedy…please!––as Henny Youngman would say. Kennedy was the justice who wrote the Citizens United opinion and made this clownish statement: “We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” What??? Like Superman, Super Clown must come from a parallel universe or a different planet. Synonyms for the word clownish are, absurd; ludicrous; preposterous; ridiculous. Take your pick, they all apply.

Remember the lyrics mentioned at the beginning of this piece, “But where are the clowns/Send in the clowns/Don’t bother, they're here.” Well said, Mr. Sondheim.


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