How Inequality Hurts

A Plutocrat Epiphany: All Votes Need Not Count

America’s billionaires have realized they really don’t have to bother convincing a majority of people to vote their way. They can put their cash instead into campaigns to keep the hard-to-convince from voting.

By Sam Pizzigati

Our two major presidential candidates descended on Ohio last week, and legions of reporters followed closely behind. Those reporters filed tens of thousands of words on what they saw and heard on their quick in-and-out Ohio excursion.

But not one of those reporters filed a word about what may have been the most nationally significant news out of Ohio last week: the release of a new analysis on income inequality from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

This new Cleveland Fed analysis examines both “labor” and “capital” income in America since 1980. Labor income includes everything we make from our jobs: wages and salaries, pensions and health insurance benefits.

Capital income comes from the ownership of assets. Interest, dividends, and the capital gains from buying and selling stocks, bonds, and other forms of property all count as capital income.

Labor income, the Cleveland Fed analysis shows, “has been declining as a share of total income earned in the United States for the past three decades.” The capital share, by stark contrast, has been increasing

In other words, Americans have been making less from work and more from wealth. But only a relative few Americans, the Cleveland Fed observes, have significant quantities of that wealth. The unsurprising result: We have witnessed a significant “spike in inequality” over the past generation.

In a vital democracy, the candidates who seek our votes would be agonizing over this new Cleveland Fed study. How could we possibly have evolved a society, they would orate, where wealth counts more than work? But we don’t live in a vital democracy. We live in a plutocracy, a society where the rich rule.

The policy positions the majority favors, in a truly democratic society, eventually wind their way into law, But not in a plutocracy.

Some Americans dismiss this “plutocracy” label. The rich can’t possibly rule, the argument goes, because the rich often don’t get their way. Look at the Mitt Romney candidacy. Romney clearly has most of America’s wealthy on his side. Yet, according to the polls, he now appears headed to a thumping defeat.

All true enough. The polls certainly are predicting a hard slog for Romney. And the nation’s rich have, by and large, lined up Romney’s way. These Romney rich have mobilized on a grand scale. They’re taking full advantage of the recent court rulings that have essentially thrown out all limits on how much money rich people — and the corporations they run — can spread around at election time.

But these super rich can also read public opinion polls. They’ve known for some time now that the majority of Americans support public policies — most notably, higher taxes on the rich — that the rich themselves deeply oppose.

All the ad campaigns our rich have bankrolled over the years haven’t made much of a dent on this public support for higher taxes on America’s wealthy. In a real democracy, that would be the end of the story. The public policy positions the majority favors, in a truly democratic society, eventually wind their way into law,

But not in a plutocracy. In a society where wealth has concentrated at the top, the awesomely affluent don’t have to gamble on convincing skeptical voters. They can simply keep these skeptical voters, as America’s contemporary super rich have now realized, from voting and having their votes counted.

In 2012 America, we have a phrase for this phenomenon, voter suppression, and no journalist over the past dozen years has done more to shine a light on this suppression than Greg Palast, the BBC reporter who first gained global attention with his coverage of the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election.

To win an election, you either need votes or need to take away the votes of your opponent.

Now Palast has a new book out that chronicles how many of America’s super rich — the Koch brothers, hedge fund titan Paul Singer, Texan corporate raider Harold Simmons, among many others — have been patiently and prodigiously subsidizing campaigns not to “get out the vote,” but to keep it down.

“To win an election, you need votes,” Palast explains in Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How to Steal an Election in 7 Easy Steps. “Or, just as good, you need to take away the votes of your opponent.”

This getting votes to disappear takes money. Notes Palast: “Purging and blocking voters on a grand scale — thousands and millions of registrations and ballots — isn’t checkers. It’s complex and very, very expensive.”

And this purging and blocking is working. In 2008, details Billionaires and Ballot Bandits, no fewer than 488,136 absentee ballots went uncounted, as did 767,023 provisionally cast ballots, and 1,451,116 ballots thrown out as “spoiled.”

Another 2,383,587 would-be voters, Palast points out, “had their registrations rejected,” and 491,952 more already registered voters had their registrations purged from the rolls. Finally, an estimated 320,000 other voters were turned away at the polls by poll workers who found their IDs insufficient.

Palast calls all these Americans the “Missing Six Million.” They come especially from minority voting groups that tend to vote against super-rich priorities.

The long-range answer to voter suppression demands a relentless struggle to keep wealth from concentrating at America’s economic summit.

“Elections aren’t stolen in the vote count,” as former U.S. Commission on Civil Rights chair Mary Francis Berry puts it, “they’re stolen in the no count.”

Santiago Juarez, a voting rights attorney with the League of United Latin American Citizens, places this plutocratic disenfranchisement in the context of the broader trends that the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank has tracked so well.

“You take away people’s health insurance and you take away their right to union pay scale, and you take away their pensions,” notes Juarez. “Taking away their vote is just one more thing.”

Palast has organized a Web site that links to citizen efforts that aim to counter billionaires and their voter suppression. But the long-range answer to voter suppression, he stresses, demands an assault on inequality, a relentless struggle to keep wealth from concentrating at America’s economic summit.

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“You can’t stop billionaires from spending their billions,” his new book reminds us. “The only way to put an end to billionaires buying our elections is to put an end to billionaires.”

Until that end, income from work will continue to stagnate — and income from wealth will continue to soar.

Veteran labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book, The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, will appear this fall.

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