Several years ago, before the recession and Citizens United, and before wealth inequality was as pronounced as it is today, the eerily apt satirical newspaper The Onion wrote an article on President Clinton’s plan to introduce several “tiers” of American citizenship, modeled after credit cards.
Just as Visa offers different perks of membership to its platinum and gold cardholders, so could the government to its citizens, based on wealth. Or, to use a happier metaphor, it's like those measuring sticks at amusement parks--the taller kids get more access, as you have to be this high to ride all the rides.
The satire sounds close to our post-Citizens United world. America is now proud to offer its consumer-citizen many different tiers of citizenship, to suit all levels of wealth.
I’ll follow Visa’s familiar, metallurgical lead:
The Basic, TIN tier. All Americans get the most basic citizenship benefits. At this level, one individual American gets the right to one vote. That’s sacred. Well, more or less. Because if new and disproportionately restrictive voter ID laws to solve a non-existent voter fraud problem in several states have their way, even this Tin tier of citizenship is endangered.
At the Tin tier, Joe Citizen gets also gets to have his one individual political voice, under the First Amendment—although since he isn’t Tina Brown, doesn’t own a printing press, or influentially blog, his impact is circumscribed. Oh, and your free speech right is absolutely inviolable—just so long as you don’t use it to criticize your corporate employer or one of your customers on Facebook, or you could be canned, as happened to a Starbucks employee, when he spoofed a customer on YouTube.
The COPPER, BUNDLED, tier. At this level, you’re not wealthy enough to be a “Bundler,” who gathers lots of maximum $5,000 donations from individual citizens to specific candidates, but you might be affluent enough to be one of the bundled. Maybe you get to go have a picture taken with a candidate—or you get to influence local Bundlers. So your citizenship gives you slightly more political influence than your Tin tier comrades.
The BRONZE, BUNDLER tier. You are wealthy and known enough to be a bundler of voters who can “max out” their donation to an individual campaign. In 2008, 532 Bundlers raised $106 million for Obama. Bundling is a way to funnel more money to your candidate, to megaphone your political influence, and to get quid pro quos for your work. It’s not “lobbying,” you see, but something else. The Asian American Legal Defense fund says of a top California bundler, “I’m sure it was mere coincidence that [he] was ultimately tabbed by Obama to serve as ambassador to Japan.”
The SILVER, CORPORATE tier. If you’re a Corporation, you are a person before the law. Politically, since Citizens United, you have the same rights as Joe Citizen—the rights of “free speech” and unrestrained contributions as a form of “speech.” The ruling rejects corporate campaign spending limits. Declares Citizen United, “political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation” [italics added].
Now, some might think that the corporation’s faux-person status in politics is a bit more complicated than a “simply” detail of no consequence.
At the Corporate tier of citizenship, you’re the Incredible Hulk version of a flesh and blood individual Tin tier citizen. You have vastly more horsepower. You’re a super-sized individual on electoral steroids. Labor unions to some extent have this super-sized voice, too, and exist at the Corporate tier, in the post-Citizens United world, but they don’t have the resources of corporate America.
The GOLD, LOBBYIST tier. This tier includes industries, organizations, special interest groups and causes whose voices and needs are represented, and their political influence amplified in magnitudes, by full-time lobbyists on K. St. These lobbyists shape legislative debates and campaign for their particular interests.
According to Opensecrets, an informative and easy to navigate resource to understand how thoroughly lobbyists and cronyism saturate Washington, there are currently 11,461 lobbyists in town.
The most influential lobbies in terms of money spent in 2012 are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($55,320,000); the National Association of Realtors ($16,162,290); General Electric ($11,180,000) and Blue Cross/Blue Shield ($10,781,532).
The biggest sectors in terms of money spent in 2012 are Business (misc) at $269,383,348; Health ($248,937,320); Finance ($239, 572,405); Communications/Electronics (198,965,840); and Energy ($194,840,693).
These lobbyists wrote the guidebook on “how to do Washington, DC on just a hundred million dollars a day.”
The PLATINUM, MEGA-DONOR tier: Finally, you should buy this package of American citizenship if you’re an individual, not a corporation, but you’re a very wealthy one. This puts you at the “Mega-Donor” tier. Maybe you make millions a year, or you’re a millionaire or billionaire member of the Investor Class, like Romney, who can live off of lightly-taxed investment income.
Politico reports today on the “GOP’s Mega-Donors,” and the perks they can expect as Mega-Donor-Level Americans at the Tampa convention. They write, “some of the party’s biggest names…will deliver personalized briefings, pep talks, and fundraising appeals…. Bundlers who have committed to raising $250,000 or more for Mitt Romney’s campaign also get access to a VIP lounge and treated to special performances….It’s a fitting celebration of the new big money politics, where a relatively small group of rich backers are providing more cash, mostly through super PACs and 501(c)4 nonprofits groups, than all grassroots activists combined.”
Jane Mayer’s article in the New Yorker reports that Obama is getting clobbered by Romney in fundraising by these nonprofits and Super PACs.
There you have it, the new, convenient tiered system of American citizenship and political influence.
And The Onion is, once again, proven to be our only unintentionally accurate reality check on a 2012 election that apparently has gone berserk.