In the first decade of the 20th century Teddy Roosevelt came to the presidency by the fluke of an assassin’s bullet. His goal as president was to regulate and control, but not destroy big corporations or “malefactors of great wealth” that had a stranglehold on the nation.
As president he worked to break up harmful monopolies, to regulate railroads and the meat packing industry and to protect consumers with the Pure Food and Drug Act. Additionally, he succeeded in protecting our nation’s resources with the creation of national parks and forests, and leveling the playing field between labor and management.
In the second decade of the 21st century, it seems we are in such a time again when the nation needs to be protected from big corporations, with unions and the like now being included in the term “corporation.”
One of the ideas that came out of this early 20th century period was the introduction of voter initiatives and referendums. This was an effort by farmers and labor unions to wrest control of government from the hands of “special privileged corporation interests and the organized liquor traffic.” These “corporate interests” helped to defeat a Washington state initiative and referendum amendment in 1907. It finally passed by a five to two margin of voters in 1912. (iandrinstitute.org)
Ironically, today, the state initiative process seems to be used more by moneyed interests from the conservative side of the political spectrum. This is probably due to the frustration of Republicans not having control in the governor’s office or the Legislature for a long time. Two examples will illustrate the point.
The Eyman initiatives: Tim Eyman has written 19 initiatives and one referendum since 2000 when he began his new occupation as an initiative proponent. He has gotten nine of those 20 passed, all initiatives. Every one of his them has been aimed at reducing the size of state government or cutting taxes and fees – a conservative agenda. His major funding sources include a real estate developer, the Association of Washington Businesses and even an oil company or three, according to a recent Seattle Times article.
The recent liquor Initiative 1183: It passed with a 60 percent favorable vote with the help of $22.7 million from Costco. Those who opposed this initiative were also big businesses; the wine and liquor distributors who feared similar regulation would spread to other states. They, too, spent millions to keep the state in the liquor business. In this case the battle was between two sets of corporate giants. The one who spent the most won the struggle of the titans.
The use of state voter initiatives and the purchase of legislation through campaign contributions to bring about laws favorable to corporations on both the right and the left is part of a larger process going on nationally – the buying of the government by the rich and powerful for the benefit of the rich and powerful.
On the national level powerful financial lobbies have been able to keep Wall Street from being properly regulated by Congress. Prosecutions for criminal behavior have not been initiated by the current Democratic administration, encouraging future financial abuses. This portends another 2008-style financial meltdown.
This trend is often the case with laws passed to help those harmed by one financial disaster or another, as with the farm subsidies passed in the 1930s to help farmers during the Great Depression. Much of that money now goes to agri-business and not the small family farms the law was originally designed to help.
The reason for the change is the increased use of money from wealthy organizations to manipulate the legislative process to their advantage. This battle between the “malefactors of great wealth” goes on, off the radar of most Americans. It is the duty of voters, both liberal and conservative, to wake up to the buying of elections, laws and initiatives.