Right-wing mega-donor Sheldon Adelson has just bought the biggest newspaper in Nevada, the Las Vegas Review-Journal — just in time for Nevada’s becoming a key battleground for the presidency and for the important Senate seat being vacated by Harry Reid. It’s not quite like Rupert Murdoch’s ownership of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, but Adelson’s purchase marks another step toward oligarchic control of America – and the relative decline of corporate power.
Future historians will note that the era of corporate power extended for about 40 years, from 1980 to 2016 or 2020. It began in the 1970s with a backlash against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (Medicare, Medicaid, the EPA and OSHA). In 1971, future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell warned corporate leaders that the “American economic system is under broad attack,” and urging them to mobilize. “Business must learn the lesson . . . that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.” He went on: “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
Soon thereafter, corporations descended on Washington. In 1971, only 175 firms had Washington lobbyists; by 1982, almost 2,500 did. Between 1974 and 1980 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce doubled its membership and tripled its budget. In 1972, the National Association of Manufacturers moved its office from New York to Washington, and the Business Roundtable was formed, whose membership was restricted to top corporate CEOs.
The number of corporate Political Action Committees soared from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 in 1980, and their spending on politics grew fivefold. In the early 1970s, businesses spent less on congressional races than did labor unions; by the mid-1970s, the two were at rough parity; by 1980, corporations accounted for three-quarters of PAC spending while unions accounted for less than a quarter. Then came Ronald Reagan’s presidency, corporate control of the Republican Party, and a Republican-dominated Supreme Court and its “Citizens United” decision.
But in the early 21st century, a billionaire class emerged that didn’t want or need to share political power with large corporations. Their agenda was to reduce their taxes, enhance their wealth, and buy up the nation’s major assets. The Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and about three dozen other oligarchs began to wrest power away from the Republican business establishment by funding their own candidates, buying their own media outlets, and even running for office themselves.
The rest is history. Or may be.