John F. Kennedy essentially bought his way into politics. His father, the wealthy Joseph Kennedy, picked out a nice congressional seat in Massachusetts and basically paid the occupant of the position to step down and run instead for the Boston mayoralty. JFK’s father then tried to pay off the Democratic frontrunner to drop out of the race, and when that didn’t work, persuaded William Randolph Hearst not to run any of the candidate’s ads or pictures in Hearst-owned newspapers. Joe Kennedy even paid a janitor named Joseph Russo to run in the race in order to dilute support for another leading candidate named Joseph Russo. Recognizing the importance of PR, the Kennedy family contributed $600,000 – an enormous sum in 1946 – for a children’s hospital in the district where JFK was running for office.
It would be reassuring if this interpenetration of wealth and politics were simply part of the old style of American politics where deals were brokered in Tammany Hall back rooms and dead men voted in Chicago. But money is still king in U.S. politics. In the 2010 elections, the most expensive in history, winning a congressional seat cost about $1.4 million, and each Senate seat set the winners back by $9.8 million. In 2008, Barack Obama broke fundraising records in his presidential bid when he took in $750 million, and he’s on track to break the record again in 2012.
Sometimes candidates rely on their rich fathers. But if not born to wealth, they quickly mature into 1 percenters. Nearly half of the members of Congress are millionaires. While the median net worth of all Americans dropped by 8 percent from 2004 to 2010, the net worth of our elected representatives climbed over the same period by 15 percent. It’s still the best Congress that money can buy, and it’s only going to get worse, thanks to the Supreme Court and its 5-4 Citizens United decision. The wealthy can now spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the 2012 elections.
Money has full-spectrum dominance of U.S. politics, from the “street money” that party machines hand out at the community level for get-out-the-vote campaigns to the immense contributions from a financial sector that has already chosen Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate. Then there’s the perfectly legal “revolving door” by which retiring politicians leverage their invaluable political connections to amass great wealth in the private sector. The stock reason for retirement – “I want to spend more time with my family” – should really be “I want to spend more time with my financial advisor.”
We don’t call any of this corruption. We reserve that term for dolts like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, who recently received a 16-year sentence for trying to sell a Senate seat, or former Prince George’s County executive Jack Johnson, who is getting a seven-year sentence for taking as much as $1 million in bribes. These abuses are the exception, rather than the rule, or so we would prefer to believe. But that’s only because we write the rules to permit the rich to run our democracy.
Corruption, after all, is what happens in other countries, particularly those that rank below the United States (at number 24) in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Index. One of those countries is Russia, which registers at a dismal 143rd place in the index, tied with Nigeria.
Russians recently went to the polls to elect a new parliament (Duma). United Russia, the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, saw a major slip in support in the December 3 elections, though it will still remain the largest parliamentary faction. Even this poor showing, Russian observers allege, was inflated by fraud.
“The Russian election-observer Golos identified 5,300 allegations of electoral violations,” writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Dimitar Indzhov in Russians United against United Russia. “International observers also judged the elections fraudulent. Concerned citizens took 18 videos of people stuffing ballot boxes with votes for United Russia and uploaded them onto YouTube. These are pretty stark images of unfairness. But Russian people have put up with United Russia for some time, despite its autocratic tendencies.”
This time, however, Russians did not simply grumble into their vodka. They poured into the streets on December 10 and then again on December 24, despite freezing temperatures in Moscow.
The explicit protest has been around voting irregularities. But the complaints run deep and implicate the role that money plays in Russian politics. After all, United Russia is in bed with the most profitable and powerful industries in Russia – oil, gas, timber. “Under President Vladimir Putin’s watch, the Russian state has turned into something like Russia Inc., with top Kremlin staffers and senior ministers sitting on the boards of various state-owned corporations and taking an active interest in their progress and profits,” Dmitri Trenin wrote several years ago in Washington Quarterly.
The most obvious example is Gazprom, the largest Russian company and the largest extractor of natural gas in the world. It is a state within a state, administering a series of towns along its pipeline from Siberia westward. It runs a TV station, maintains 26 cultural centers, and promotes its operations with this catchy music video (with the chorus “Let’s drink to you, let’s drink to us, let’s drink to all the Russian gas”). Dmitry Medvedev served as the head of the board of directors at Gazprom when he was first vice prime minister, relinquishing the job only when he became president. The company has received the lowest rating from Transparency International.
Russia’s heavy reliance on energy exports and the widening gap between its rich and poor demonstrate that, thanks to Gazprom, the country is suffering from the “resource curse.” Instead of using the revenues from its natural gas exports to diversify its economy and raise the living standards of all, the Russian leadership has merely consolidated its power and its support among the wealthy. Corruption has settled upon the land like a toxic cloud. Russia has become Nigeria with nukes.
“At its core,” writes David Remnick in The New Yorker, “Putin’s Russia is not a democracy, sovereign or otherwise. Rather, power for power’s sake and the accumulation of vast wealth in the hands of various ‘clans’ and friends of the Kremlin are at the center of things. Very few owners of the mansions outside Moscow were able to buy those properties, and hold onto them, without close connections, and complete fealty, to the regime.”
The collapse of the Soviet Union produced a Gilded Age of tycoons and their political supporters. Such a Gilded Age might have given way, through the influence of Russian trust-busters and civil society watchdogs, to a political economy that was corrupt in the more conventional U.S. sense of everyday influence peddling. But when Putin took over in 2000, he further consolidated state power and punished any dissenting tycoons. U.S. corruption is legitimated by the market; Russian corruption is legitimated by the state.
The backlash happening today in Moscow is a combination of the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street. Anarchists stand side-by-side with great-power nationalists; libertarians and old-style communists protest in rough unison. There is tremendous resentment toward the small group of people – politicians and tycoons – that has profited from both privatization and nationalization. What will emerge from this confrontation between Putin and the people is hard to forecast. But it will certainly be nationalist in orientation, for that seems to be the strongest unifying force in Russia today. In a recent poll, 59 percent of Russians approved of the ominous slogan “Russia for Russians.” As Alexei Navalny, the most prominent blogger-critic of Putin, explains of this sentiment, “We have a huge number of migrants whose behavior and cultural code is way out of joint with the cultural codes of those living here, the Russians.”
Millions of people have thronged the streets of cities all over the world this last year to protest the influence of money on power – the corruption in Mubarak’s Egypt and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, the malign effects of Wall Street and other financial institutions, the power elite in Russia. It is truly galling when the wealthy and powerful steal elections, whether JFK in 1946 or Vladimir Putin in 2011. Democracy must not be yet another method by which the rich stay rich. In the United States as in Russia, democracy must serve the people, particularly those not already helped by the market or the state.
What the Republicans Want
The first caucus of the 2012 political season takes place today in Iowa. Foreign policy hasn’t been a major issue in the elections so far, largely because the Obama administration has effectively taken it off the table. Still, a number of Republican candidates have tried to run to the right of Obama on national security issues, for instance advocating a tougher line on Iran or spending more on the Pentagon.
Given that the Obama administration has already staked out a center-right position on foreign policy, the Republicans really have to scramble to flank him. On the issue of Israel, for instance, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich spent part of last month’s debate in Des Moines trying to prove that they are the bosom buddies of Bibi (Netanyahu). “The underlying GOP argument, tailored to the whims of right-wing evangelical voters, is that Obama has been insufficiently supportive of Israel,” writes FPIF contributor Peter Certo in Fumbling Foreign Policy. “But this is absurd. Not only has his administration maintained U.S. military aid to Israel to the tune of $3 billion per year, it has also spent considerable diplomatic capital to quash popular UN resolutions recognizing a Palestinian state and condemning Israel’s illegal settlement policy in the West Bank — favors to Israel that fly in the face of longstanding U.S. policy.”
Several Republican candidates have also tried to revive the outlawed practice of waterboarding. “To be sure, these pro-waterboarding statements can be explained in part as political posturing,” writes FPIF contributor Robert Pallitto in The Return of Waterboarding? “Tough-sounding rhetoric gets votes – especially among audiences who cheer for the death penalty, as some spectators did during a recent Republican primary debate. Moreover, Republican presidential hopefuls use every opportunity to differentiate themselves from the Obama administration. But since the United States has used waterboarding in the recent past, the discussion is anything but academic.”
Dealing with Syria
The protests continue in Syria, particularly during the current monitoring mission by the Arab League, and so have the deaths. As more and more people poured into the streets of Syrian cities at the end of 2011, the two leading opposition forces signed an accord that rejected foreign intervention.
The Gulf Cooperation Council met late last month, and Syria was on the agenda. In his annotation of the GCC’s final statement, FPIF contributor Ahmed Souaiaia writes that it “referred to the Syrian situation as an issue that the Arab League must address. But it also connected Syria to Iran when it called on outsiders to stop interfering in the affairs of Arab states. The Gulf States rulers are clearly interested in breaking the Syria-Iran connection to make up for losing influence over Iraq to Iran.”
The United States has also been trying to curb Iran’s influence throughout the region, including Pakistan. “Pakistan has been visibly increasing its economic cooperation with Iran, mainly in the energy sector,” writes FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian in The Fading U.S.-Pakistan Alliance. “The proposed IPI pipeline, which passes through Pakistan, could immensely strengthen Iran’s position in Asian gas and energy markets. This would further deepen Tehran’s influence in Central and South Asia, while ameliorating the impact of sanctions on the country’s increasingly beleaguered economy. Despite vehement U.S. opposition, Pakistan has decided to push through, and even hasten, the construction of its portion of the IPI pipeline, which is expected to come online by 2014.”
Food and Finance
The World Trade Organization, in negotiations late last month, was unable to push forward global trade talks because of differences over agriculture.
“Efforts by Egypt and the EU to include some discussion of food security, particularly assurances that emergency purchases by the World Food Program would not be affected by export bans, were dropped just days before the talks,” writes FPIF contributor Karen Hansen-Kuhn in Food Security and the WTO. “Olivier de Schutter called for measures to reorient WTO rules to remove constraints to the right to food, including the establishment of a protocol to monitor the impact of trade on food prices and a general waiver to exempt food security-related measures from the WTO disciplines without penalty. WTO Secretary Pascal Lamy dismissed his proposals, calling instead for deeper reliance on volatile and unpredictable global markets.”
Europe, meanwhile, continues to struggle with its own financial crisis. The major player in all this is Germany, reports FPIF columnist Walden Bello, who participated in a recent congress of the Social Democratic party there. “With the recent agreement by most EU countries to move toward tighter coordination of fiscal policies, the prime mover of which was Germany, Germans and other Europeans alike feel that a new era of German primacy has begun,” he writes in Germany’s Social Democrats and the European Crisis. “Not only is Germany the strongest economy in Europe; it is also now writing the rules of economic governance.”
A Mural, a Poem, an Award
The mural is immense: eight feet high and a projected length of 400 feet. It features 200 quotations about immigration in America and reproductions of works by Joseph Demarais. The mural is the work of Vietnamese-American artist Huong, who shook up Washington, DC not long ago with her works on war and peace and on the Gulf spill.
Immigration is an even more personal issue for her. “Huong, of course, knows something about immigration,” writes FPIF contributor Peter Certo in Shedding Light on Immigration. “As Saigon fell in 1975, she escaped in one of the last lifeboats out of the country, clutching her infant son and one remaining shoe. In a tradition befitting Emma Lazarus’ ode to the tired, poor, and huddled masses on the Statue of Liberty, Huong arrived on America’s shores penniless and traumatized. Yet somehow she found a way to make ends meet and bloom into a self-actualized artist and activist.”
Also in our Fiesta section on arts and foreign policy, FPIF contributor and poet Kyi May Kaung offers a poem In the Garden by the Lake about the recent meeting between Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Here is an excerpt:
The private dinner is on American soil
Did they cue each other
that they’d both wear cream or off-white
or white? For hope and change. How many years is it
since Suu had a sit down western-style
Finally, to round out the year, FPIF columnist and blogger Conn Hallinan gives out his 2011 “Are You Serious?” awards. Top honors go to the Pentagon.
“The U.S. Air Force was forced to ‘stand down’ its fleet of 160+ F-22s—at $150 million apiece, the single most expensive fighter in the world—when pilots began experiencing ‘hypoxia-like symptoms’ from a lack of oxygen,” Hallinan writes in his award-giving article. “But the company got right on it, according to Lockheed Martin vice president Jeff Babione, who said he was ‘proud to be a part’ of the team that got the radar-evading aircraft back into the air—for five weeks. When pilots continued to have problems, the F-22 fleet was grounded again. According to the Air Force, no one can figure out why oxygen is not getting to the pilots, but that pilots ‘would undergo physiological tests.’ To see if the pilots can go without air?”