Sunday, October 3, 2010

Minnesota Catholic Bishops and Buying and Selling of Democracy: Frank Rich on Tea Partiers and Hidden Wealthy Donors

In my comments about the intervention of the Minnesota Catholic bishops into the political life of their state on the eve of the fall elections, I've noted the insistence of Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul that the donor who is funding their anti-gay marriage video campaign wants to keep his/her identity hidden.  As I've noted, the behavior of the Minnesota bishops sets a worrisome precedent whereby wealthy, anonymous political activists can buy and sell our political process, using non-profits (with their tax-exempt screens that do not require them to disclose who donates to them or how they use money) as their fronts for political activism.

In today's New York Times, Frank Rich notes that this buying and selling of American democracy by wealthy donors who refuse to make their faces known is becoming a stronger and stronger feature of our political life.  In particular, we're seeing them inundate the tea party phase of the Republican party with huge amounts of money as the elections near.

Rich writes,

In fact, local chapters of Tea Party Patriots routinely received early training and support from FreedomWorks, the moneyed libertarian outfit run by the former Republican House majority leader and corporate lobbyist Dick Armey. FreedomWorks is itself a spinoff from Citizens for a Sound Economy, a pseudo-grassroots group whose links to the billionaire Koch brothers were traced by Jane Mayer in her blockbuster August exposé in The New Yorker. Last week the same Tea Party Patriots leader who bragged to the National Journal about all those small donations announced a $1 million gift from a man she would identify only as an entrepreneur. The donor’s hidden identity speaks even louder than the size of the check. As long as we don’t know who he is, we won’t know what orders he’s giving either.

Such deep-pocketed mystery benefactors — not O’Donnell, whose reported income for this year and last is $5,800 — are the real indicators of what’s going on under the broad Tea Party rubric. Big money rains down on the “bottom up” Tea Party insurgency through phantom front organizations (Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security) that exploit legal loopholes to keep their sugar daddies’ names secret. Reporters at The Times and The Washington Post, among others, have lately made real strides in explaining how the game works. But we still don’t know the identities of most of those anonymous donors.

From what we do know, it’s clear that some Tea Party groups and candidates like Sharron Angle, Paul and O’Donnell are being financed directly or indirectly not just by the Kochs (who share the No. 5 spot on the new Forbes 400) but by a remarkable coterie of fellow billionaires, led by oil barons like Robert Rowling (Forbes No. 69) and Trevor Rees-Jones (No. 110). Even their largess may be dwarfed by Rupert Murdoch (No. 38) and his News Corporation, whose known cash contributions ($2 million to Republican and Republican-tilting campaign groups) are dwarfed by the avalanche of free promotion they provide Tea Party causes and personalities daily at Fox and The Wall Street Journal. 
As long as we don’t know who he is, we won’t know what orders he’s giving either: that's one of the primary points I have wanted to stress about the unwise, morally dubious choice of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota to accept a donation from a donor whose identity they are shielding, to fund an overtly political action that benefits one political party.  Who is this donor?  What are his/her motives?  Why are Catholic bishops of a particular state allowing him to use the church they lead as a non-profit front for partisan political activity?

What orders is he giving them?

The bishops of the restorationist Catholic church, and the Vatican itself, like to talk loudly and proudly about how the church sets standards that challenge the prevailing culture.  The church is countercultural, we're told over and over; the church must contravene the mores of contemporary culture, not cave in to those mores.

In acting as a non-partisan political front for an unnamed wealthy donor, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota are simply adopting the standards of the political process as it now functions in American life--of the political process as it now functions at its most morally gross.  Rather than setting a standard to which moral people can aspire, the Catholic bishops of Minnesota are simply aping the behavior of some of the least morally admirable folks in our culture--those who intend to buy and sell our democracy without ever showing their faces to us or becoming accountable to the public at large, as they determine our futures.

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