#Occupy History 1768: Of Overgrown Dukes, Knights, and Super-PACs

by Frances A. Chiu

“The power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

If James Murray was concerned with the burdens shouldered by the 99% of his day, he was no less so by the electioneering process—particularly since it was heavily rigged by the 1%. Back in the eighteenth century, the local presiding aristo would make his rounds during election season, urging eligible voters in his county to support his candidate. Indeed, it was standard practice for him and his candidate of choice to go the whole hog, figuratively and literally, throwing great feasts with plenty of booze. If the attendee was lucky, he might put on his wig–before discovering that it had been  “truly oiled with the juice of the grape, and bedaubed with the surcharge of some overloaded appetite.”  And if not, he might suffer a few broken bones or worse. In fact, these affairs could rival any modern day frat house hazing for it was hardly unusual for the local militia to be called in: which is partly why the reformist call for annual elections simply never took off. Take a look at this rendering of an “Election Entertainment” (1755)  from Hogarth:

(original site: http://www.giantratofsumatra.com/2011/04/)

Although Murray was by no means the first to criticize this phenomenon, he was probably the first to address it before a sizeable audience. Civil disorder was only part of a larger problem: namely, the disproportionate influence enjoyed by monied bigwigs, whether they be “dull dukes” or “heavy-headed knights.” It should be plain to see that  “When a man, to whom Providence hath given a liberal share of worldly possessions, and who is able, by the weight of his interest, to weigh down the fourth part of a country, employs that interest contrary to the principles of honesty and virtue,” he is nothing less than “a curse to the nation.” (These are Murray’s italics.)

Now granted, the electorate back then comprised a meager 3-5% of the nation (e.g., those with at least 40 shillings worth of land residing in a town that actually sent MP’s to Parliament), but what good is an election when voters face potential repercussions from their local aristo during a period when ballots were still openly cast? (Hence, the call for secret ballots in the 19th century.) As Murray argues, the entire purpose of an election is defeated when dependents feel “overawed in their voting” by their social superiors, self-important men accustomed to “treat[ing] their dependents like asses, and threaten[ing] them out of their liberty and virtue at once, by the weight of their interest.” It is a sheer travesty when “there is no man free….but men of large and extensive fortunes” and “the power of choosing a man to represent a town or country in parliament is lodged in the hands of a few monopolizers of privileges, who, by the weight of their purses, and the power of their interest, can turn the rest as they have a mind.”

But even as Murray excoriates these elites, he doesn’t let ordinary Britons off the hook. Too many of them are easily enticed by prospects of free food,  announcing  unwittingly to the world that they “are asses, ready and willing to take on any burden.”  Indeed, It is easy capitulation that allows the rich and powerful to manipulate them further, for

what opinion must these gentlemen have of such drunken societies who will do so much for a few days of riot and gluttony, as to sell their liberties, but that they are asses that want to be watered? Can that nation be accounted free, that can be so easily enslaved by drunkenness and bribery? Liberty is but a name, when it can be so easily subdued by such mean gratifications. When men are slaves to their lusts, they will never be free. Men that do so easily sell their souls will not value their country.

At the same time, if some are suckered in by free refreshments,  others are far too prone to obey their social betters  in the misguided belief that, well, they must know better:

The meanness of the greatest number of freeholders in Britain is conspicuous in their stooping down to take on every burden that any overgrown duke or knight pleases to impose upon them. When once it is known what side of the question “his Grace” is on, the inferior freeholders ask no more, but generally say, Amen. They do not consider the qualifications and merit of the candidate, whether he is a wise man or fool, or a tool of the state: if he is such a great man’s friend, that is sufficient.

In the end, of course, this servility could only backfire on poor, unthinking John Bull, dazzled by the jewels and fancy gold-laced duds donned by Lord So-and-so. Little does John guess that “A gentleman may safely sink his estate by procuring an election” enroute to buying “another ten times better than that which he had before.” Such candidates resemble those “other traders, who, when they fail, very often make a profitable composition at other people’s expense, and grow richer than ever they were before.” They are men “who have laid out so much money upon an election, will endeavour to make you pay for it, by joining with some venal ministry in taxing you, for the benefit of a rich preferment.” Yes, that’s correct: you’ve screwed yourself by voting for a man—like so many others before him–who will again vote against your best interests in Parliament when he sides with his rich patrons and buddies.  As Tom Paine would observe a few decades later, the landed elites in the legislature were pretty sly at shifting the burden of taxes to commoners–and even onto the poor.

It’s hard not to smile condescendingly today as if anyone would be blind enough not to see through Lord 1%’s ploy. We pride ourselves on living in a real, honest-to-goodness democracy where each citizen has one vote. Not to mention that our 21st Jill and Joe Blows are smarter and much better informed in the age of the internet….right?

Hmmmm.  The fact is, little has changed since then. For the better part of our own history, the rich have long enjoyed disproportionate influence by making large contributions to their candidates of choice, under certain limits, of course. But with the 2010 rulings on Citizens United v. FEC and SpeechNow.org v. FEC , these limits have been eradicated, allowing the wealthy to exercise even more influence by means of the super-PAC, a supersized pac, if you will; as Rick Hasen notes in his blog (Jan 18, 2012), what was once of illegality or dubious legality in regard to independent contributions is now “of fully blessed legality.”  This brings us back to 18th century Britain, where there were no limits either.

So who are some of our “overgrown dukes and knights?” On one hand, we have the bewigged (or betoupe-d?) “You’re-fired” Donald openly endorsing Mitt “I-like-being-able-to-fire-people Romney. But there are some slightly less visible, hovering dimly in the background. Of course, by now, we’ve heard of the Koch brothers:  founders of the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation, organizers of the various Tea Party outfits (Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, etc.), and supporters of union-bashing Scott Walker.  We may also have heard of Foster Friess, backer of Santorum (i.e., “Red, White, and Blue” super-PAC);  union-busting Sheldon Adelson, backer of Gingrich (“Winning our Future”). Then there’s the super-PAC, “Restore our Future,” organized by a few of Romney’s aides,  whose donors include former Bain colleagues and John Paulson, the hedge-funder who famously earned billions betting against the housing market. Even Obama, who criticized the Supreme Court for their decision in 2010, is now (reluctantly?) relying on Priorities USA Action super-PAC. (See also http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/superpacs.php?ql3)

Of particular danger to our 99% are the wealthy donors behind the GOP leaning super-PACs. As Blaire Bowie and Adam Lioz have recently observed, they  hold significantly different ideas on the economy. More are concerned about the deficit than unemployment. What is striking, however, is the divergence between their own social ideas and that of their conservative base.  David Koch, for instance, supports gay rights, stem-cell research, and along with his brother, the ACLU.  It is worth pointing out that Friess had no qualms about supporting Alfonse D’Amato even though the latter had only rejected the GOP position on gays.  As such, what squarely unites many if not the vast majority of wealthy donors behind the Republican agenda is opposition to reforms on Wall Street and unions–which in turn helps explain why they also contribute to a hostile media that panders to the views of the Tea Party and their ilk even if they don’t necessarily share their social prejudices.

What were Murray’s solutions to these “monopolizers of privilege” and what key do they hold for us?  Stay tuned.