Snorting Koch with Shaun McCutcheon: Climate Change, Obamacare, and Constitutional Reform

Shaun McCutcheon outside the U.S. Supreme Court

Shaun McCutcheon outside the U.S. Supreme Court. [Image credits:]

For America’s many plutocratic sycophants and lickspittles, whether in the media, like Cal Thomas, or in government, like Scott Walker or Paul Ryan, this is an exciting time to serve the masters of our universe. A few short years after allowing America’s corporations to charge through the political thicket like dominant bison fertilizing a harem, the Supreme Court’s oxymoronic, radical conservatives have made the country’s evolution to pure plutocracy almost complete. This month’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC extrapolated from the gold-plated logic of Citizens United, allowing the doctrine that money equals speech to strike down federal1 restrictions on the aggregate amount of money that wealthy individuals may “donate” to congressional candidates, whether those candidates reside in their own electoral districts or not. (While individual limits still stand, it is nice to have another victory to look forward to; besides, the individual limit is largely irrelevant in the super PAC era.) Thus, practices that might appear to naive and innocent people as influence-peddling, graft, or outright corruption have been doused in the holy water of the First Amendment and given the country’s ultimate imprimatur of legitimacy. America’s owners – who have all that money because they are cleverer, more virtuous, more industrious, and, goshdarn it, just plain better than everyone else – may now exert the kind of control they have always deserved over our public affairs, without having to be so terribly inconvenienced. Truly, the flag flies more proudly over every state capitol now that the federal government’s tyrannical restrictions on our freedom have been beaten back by real patriots who understand what America is all about. (For the few who wondered, judicial activism in the defense of liberty is no vice.)

To celebrate this momentous victory for our betters, we thought it might be appropriate to indulge in a little foretaste of what enhanced plutocracy is likely to entail – just to whet everyone’s appetites. The Leesburg Daily Commercial is kind enough to provide us with the perfect guide in the form of the redoubtable Cal Thomas, one of the plutocracy’s most faithful servants (at least, when he isn’t seeking to advance the interests of Israeli Zionism, which may or may not be fully compatible with the interests of America, properly defined). In several recent columns, ranging from climate change through Obamacare to constitutional reform, Thomas has been doing yeoman work for the beneficiaries of McCutcheon. Once our public officials have been disabused of the misconceptions left by years of federal interference in the communication of needs and wants from the people they were supposed to represent, the nation’s future will be free to flow into the bountiful vision Thomas’s tireless essays have always offered. Being able to read Cal Thomas today is like being able to read James Madison when he penned The Vices of the Political System of the United States. Your children and grandchildren will be glad you were alive at a time when the country came to its senses and became all it could be.

An Irrefutable Cooling in the Ideological Climate

For the extractive supermen of Koch Industries, the equation of money with speech could not have come at a better time. Just as 97% of scientists (see also here and here) were ganging up on them to warn that human activities are changing the earth’s climate in unpredictable and dangerous ways, the weight of their combined years of education and research may be swatted away. Thus, Cal Thomas, whose primary professional credential appears to be an advanced degree in plutocratic brown-nosing, dismisses virtually the entire scientific community as hysterical cultists. While his tirades might appear rather overwrought, he surely has a point: since the combined wealth of all these scientists pales in comparison to that of the Koch brothers, to say nothing of the Exxon-Mobil empire, they are clearly far less valuable to society than those who fuel the American Dream. Given that wealth flows inexorably to those who deserve it the most, the Kochs’ views on climate change, as delivered by their syndicated sycophants, are inherently more respectable than those of the scientist-losers.

In any case, we know from recent history that 97% is not the overwhelming majority it might appear to be. In the case of the Crimean referendum, where 97% voted for reunification with Russia, and in which participation rates far exceeded the perenially dismal performance of the Greatest Democracy the World Has Ever Known, the apparent weight of democratic legitimacy was easily blown away by constant accusations of Russian meddling in the Western corporate media. Majority rule, be it democratic or scientific, means nothing. Power and reality in America both belong to those who can afford to buy them. The leaders of both parties understand this, even though the followers of one party do not.

Thus, one aspect of Cal Thomas’s latest incantation of climate-change-denial mantras stands out in stark relief. According to Professor Richard Tol, who accuses the IPCC of being too alarmist,

“Humans are a tough and adaptable species. People live on the equator and in the Arctic, in the desert and in the rainforest. We survived the ice ages with primitive technologies. The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable.”

In other words, the fittest will survive. Millions may die from crop failures, water shortages, and flooding, but the supermen – with their superior resources and opportunities – will live on. And they will always need someone to minister to their souls and reassure them that they did absolutely nothing wrong.

Obamacare: No Smoke Without the Burning of Straw Men

In his campaign against Obamacare, another cause dear to the Koch brothers’ hearts, Cal Thomas seems to have become particularly attached to two key ideas, both of which were taken for a nice little spin this past week. The first of these, taking Thomas into realms of unfathomable hypocrisy, is the charge that faith in government is misplaced:

Why do so many have faith in government when government has a track record of failure and incompetence in the many tasks it undertakes? How can government be expected to miraculously acquire competence when it comes to health care?

This, of course, relies on the oft-stated assumption that Obamacare represents a government takeover of one sixth of the economy, and leads on to his second favorite idea, an unflattering account of Britain’s National Health Service (NHS), the government-run system to which we are allegedly being taken.

The proposition that government cannot be trusted might come as a surprise to the millions of seniors whose Social Security checks arrive in their bank accounts exactly when they’re supposed to every month of the year. And the contention that government can’t play a valuable role in the provision of healthcare services ought to be equally surprising to the same seniors who are being kept alive well beyond their years of economic productivity thanks to Medicare and the VA, to say nothing of all the little pills developed on the backs of federal research spending at the NIH. These points are easily ignored by Republican voters in The Villages, living as they are in their own alternate reality. But they are never ignored by the owners of America.

Wealth and DemocracyAs Kevin Phillips explained, with his usual, excruciating detail, in Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, the federal government has always been the goose that laid the golden egg. A more accessible analogy was provided toward the end of the James Bond movie, A View to A Kill, in which a senior Russian, when asked whether he was disappointed that Silicon Valley had not been destroyed by the villain, replied with a wry smile that Soviet technology would be lost without it. And so it is for the fortunes of the American rich, as we have discussed before. For the vast military-surveillance-industrial complex, suckling on the teets of a sprawling, swollen empire; for the agribusiness sector, fertilized by Food Stamps, protection of GMOs, and aggressive trade deals; for the oil, gas, mining, and ranching industries, subsidized by access to public lands; for Wal-Mart, fed by innumerable local tax breaks and transfer payments to poor consumers and underpaid employees; and for the banks bailed out by tailor-made legislation and multi-trillion dollar Federal Reserve packages, faith in government is not misplaced but invaluable. These actors are not just concerned with the government’s potential power to take their wealth; they are obsessed with its ability to make them even more.

Typically, then, the propagandists of plutocracy, like Cal Thomas and local, second-rate imitators like Russ Sloan, are careful to target their attacks on government programs squarely against those which benefit individuals and almost never against those which benefit corporations and their owners. And so it has been quite surprising for Thomas to make a few offhand remarks in recent weeks that the government’s ability to fight wars – generally taken to be a bedrock function of the public sector even for Republicans – has itself become an example of the incompetence of government. Apparently, we haven’t been winning enough of them. The fact that we reduced an entire country in the Middle East to a medieval shambles from which it may never recover, at the cost of a million Iraqi lives, is not sufficient to demonstrate competence in the destruction department. It is not clear whether Thomas expects the United States to turn the entire planet into a protectorate where Islamic “terrorists” wouldn’t even dream of spitting on the sidewalk, as in the nation he admires so much, Singapore. But what is crystal clear is the spectacular hypocrisy of a man who professes to oppose government-run healthcare on the grounds that it kills people.

Ignoring, like so many before him, the indisputable fact that private, for-profit insurance companies have been rationing healthcare for decades in this country, Thomas complains about Obamacare on the basis that it is forcing doctors to make decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis:

When government pressures health care providers to accept a utilitarian view of human life, it is a short step to government deciding whose life is worth living and whose is not.

When the dollar becomes almighty, the Almighty who creates life takes a back seat.

Apart from the problem that Cal Thomas fails to explain why the government cannot use the same methodology as the private sector (haven’t Republicans been telling us for years that we should run the government more like a business?), or to explain the parallel problem that the dollar-worshipping private sector may be inherently ungodly, he overlooks the soul-crushing reality that the U.S. government has been deciding who should live and who should die for a lot longer than the Koch brothers have been counting their money. The failure of the U.S. in Iraq is not – amazingly for a so-called Christian conservative – the moral failure of destroying so many people’s lives and hopes, but simply a failure to win. Thomas does not concern himself with the fact that the Biblical Commandment against killing does not apply solely to Americans who are likely to vote but to all people. Ironically, Thomas’s argument against Obamacare might actually be stronger if he did make that connection, and portrayed the federal government – with ample reason – as a great destroyer of life all over the world. But conservatives are unable to make that argument, as they do not care about the foreign killing.

Of course, if conservatives really did care about the quality of human life, they would look at other countries in which healthcare is delivered far more effectively than in the United States. Thomas’s constant choice of the U.K. as a warning against the dangers of “socialized medicine” is misleading not just because Obamacare is not socialized medicine and was intended by its creators to prevent its arrival, not to usher it in. It is misleading because there are so many other examples of successful public health systems to which we could be comparing ourselves if we were allowed to, two of which – Cuba and Canada – are within our own hemisphere. If we are going to debate the merits and demerits of “socialized medicine,” why are we cherry-picking horror stories from a miserable, depressed economy that gave too much power to its financial sector and paid dearly for it? Why can’t we look at the best aspects of many other systems and combine them in a creative way? The answer is obvious: the people must not be allowed to see how much better things could be. In this respect, Thomas’s selection bias is not just misleading but also profoundly offensive, for it deliberately devalues the impetus within the U.K. that brought about the NHS in the first place; namely, the sense of shared sacrifice after WWII that called for a new social contract. For the owners of America, the social contract is just fine the way it is; popular demands for a new dispensation will never be allowed to achieve a critical mass as they did in the Britain of Attlee and Bevin.

The battle over Obamacare, then, is really a proxy in a larger war being waged by the American plutocracy against the people, a war that is intended to secure the indefinite primacy of the plutocracy no matter how high the larger social costs may be. But it also reveals a fault line within the plutocracy, between those who understand that minor concessions to the lower orders must be made periodically (and that such concessions can themselves be extremely profitable), and those who have become so greedy, so arrogant, and so accustomed to having everything on their own terms that they are no longer willing to brook anything resembling a compromise. This fault line roughly corresponds to the division between the two plutocratic factions that monopolize electoral politics; the only remaining question is whether the Republican faction will now be able to shout down the Democratic faction. Either way, the voice of the people themselves is essentially irrelevant.

Owning the Constitution

Stevens Six AmendmentsJust as climate scientists know less about the earth than the Koch brothers and their whores in the corporate press, so, too, does retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens know less about the U.S. Constitution than radio talk show host Mark Levin. This is Cal Thomas’s spectacularly contemptuous verdict of Stevens’s new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution. For our present purposes, we shall confine ourselves to just one part of Stevens’s manifesto: the question of whether the First Amendment prohibits campaign-finance regulations. Cal Thomas addresses the issue as if it is a trivial, obvious matter, and just another case of liberals taking away our freedom:

Honestly, unless you are a big government liberal, how many people think the federal government should have more power than it already exercises over its citizens? […]

He [Stevens] thinks the First Amendment’s free speech clause does not prohibit government from restricting the amount of money spent on political campaigns, contrary to recent majority opinions by the current Supreme Court.

And that’s it. No wondering about whether Madison would turn in his grave at the thought of so much power being concentrated in the hands of so few. No consideration of the possibility that this spells the end of republicanism in the sense that a republic derives its power from the people. No sarcastic comment that the country should now be referred to as the People’s Republic of the United States, with all that implies for the authenticity of popular sovereignty.

We have already discussed how the amendments proposed by Mark Levin represent a profound misunderstanding of the framers’ goals. Even if one wishes to contend – and it is tempting to do so – that Madison was nothing more nor less than an elitist who sought to empower the American aristocracy, and that therefore the modern ascendancy of the elite is quite consistent with the intent of the framers, there is no escaping the fact that the dispute over Hamilton’s financial plan in the 1790s proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Madison’s vision of a broad-based republic was more than just rhetorical. Or, as Justice Brandeis stated the matter quite succinctly,

We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.

Cal Thomas may be fit to lick the boots of the Kochs, but he is not fit to gainsay the life’s work of James Madison or the wisdom of one of our greatest jurists. The freedom he sells to partially educated Americans is being used to transform the United States into a grotesquerie. In this sense, he, and the five members of the current Supreme Court who handed down the majority decision in McCutcheon, are traitors to their country. No amount of money can shield them from the opprobrium that history will levy against their names.


  1. State limits on aggregate contributions are now on very thin ice. Several states have already decided to stop enforcing their limits.


  1. Linda

    I realize this is a bit late writing a year later, but just wanted to thank you for such a splendidly written article. I was trying to research Shaun McCutcheon after hearing him spoken of on Thom Hartmann, and came across your excellent piece. Oddly, I had almost forgotten about Cal Thomas – thank you also for the refresher!

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