Casino politics raise the stakes for U.S. elections

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"We are live at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas!" So opened the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 electoral season -- that's right, in a Las Vegas casino.

Five Democrats were given space on the stage at the casino: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. CNN, the network that hosted the debate, had a sixth podium at the ready, hoping that Vice President Joe Biden would jump into the ring in time to give its ratings a boost. He declined.

Democratic candidate Larry Lessig was available to use the extra podium, but he was banned from participating. Lessig is a Harvard professor and public intellectual who is running for president as a Democrat on a single-issue platform: the removal of money from politics. According to his campaign, Lessig raised $1 million in 28 days from close to 10,000 people, earned the support of voters from across the political spectrum, won 1 per cent in the first national poll that his campaign conducted and spoke at the New Hampshire Democratic Party Convention with the other presidential candidates. Yet the Democratic National Committee has consistently ignored his candidacy. Chafee, by comparison, raised just under $28,000 in the first half of 2015.

Bernie Sanders has been the surprise candidate this year, attracting record-breaking crowds at campaign events, raising tens of millions of dollars in small donations and consistently rising in the polls against Clinton. He is a self-described socialist, which CNN's debate moderator, Anderson Cooper, made an issue of from the start: "You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?"

Sanders does not shy from the label: "We're going to win, because, first, we're going to explain what democratic socialism is ... it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 per cent in this country own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent, that it is wrong today, in a rigged economy, that 57 per cent of all new income is going to the top 1 per cent."

Cooper persisted, "You don't consider yourself a capitalist, though?"

Sanders: "Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires."

Of course, Democrats don't have a monopoly on casino politics. Several days before the Democratic debate, Republican candidate Marco Rubio made a pilgrimage to another casino, The Venetian Las Vegas, to meet with its owner, gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson. Republican candidates line up to "kiss the ring" of this billionaire, said by Forbes to be the 18th-richest person in the world. His largesse can make or break a candidacy, and candidates flock to his casino, to compete in what has been dubbed "the Adelson primary." Rubio is said to be leading the pack for Adelson's support. In the 2012 campaign cycle, Adelson spent $100 million to support the Republican cause.

And let's not forget the GOP front-runner, billionaire Donald Trump. He, too, is a casino magnate in his own right, with a rocky career owning and running numerous casinos from Atlantic City to Vegas to a riverboat on the Mississippi, most of which have ended up in bankruptcy over the years. 

Many suspect the slot machines and other gambling options in Vegas are rigged. So, too, have critics long inveighed against the presidential debates. The two major parties formed a private company in 1987, the Commission on Presidential Debates, taking over control of the debates from the independent League of Women Voters. Third parties have virtually no chance of getting on the debate stage in the general election, under rules set by this company. It is run by a Democrat and a Republican: Mike McCurry, former White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. 

Until 2013, Fahrenkopf also ran the American Gaming Association, the gambling lobby. The AGA has just launched an initiative, "Gaming Votes!," to support pro-gambling candidates in key swing states. The AGA doesn't like to take chances, apparently, spreading its donations just about evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

The world is on fire. The climate is changing, threatening irreversible and catastrophic harm. Wars are raging, forcing millions to flee in desperation. Inequality is at an all-time high here at home. The U.S. elections are indeed high stakes, but it shouldn't be just high rollers who determine the outcome. Our democracy, and the planet, deserve much more.

Amy Goodman is the host of Democracy Now!, a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 1,200 stations in North America. She is the co-author of The Silenced Majority, a New York Times bestseller.

Photo: David Stanley/flickr

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