“My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right.” -Betsy DeVos, 1997 op-ed
Betsy DeVos, a woman with zero experience in education management or federal employment, who doesn’t appear to believe the Department of Education should even exist, has been confirmed as Secretary of Education for these United States.
DeVos’s confirmation process was widely panned and full of gaffes and doofey hilarity but the highlight was this silly statement that guns should possibly be allowed in schools because people might need to shoot bears.
The thing about this statement was not just that she made it, anyone can say dumb things in a high-pressure situation like a congressional hearing, it’s that she was so confident that what she was saying was a kind of “gotcha”. Note the way she enunciates “grizzlies” at 34 seconds into the clip. She’s sure she’s landed a zinger. After all, a city slicker like Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy could never understand the threat of the natural world to schoolchildren. That this threat is purely imagined never seemed to phase DeVos and, in truth, why should it have? She had this all sewed up from the start despite two Republicans breaking rank and voting against DeVos’s confirmation, Sens. Lisa Murkowski, of Alaska, and Susan Collins, of Maine.
I could be wrong, but I suspect Senator Murkowski might know a bit more about the grizzly threat to education than now Secretary DeVos.
But in this new age of absolutely in-your-face cronyism, it doesn’t matter that you think bears routinely attack schools like the Scottish hordes in Braveheart setting upon the English or, perhaps more appropriately, the Muslim hordes of Khartoum descending upon the colonial British. No, what matters is that Betsy DeVos’s family has been investing in the possibility of this confirmation (any confirmation) for years with cold hard cash and with Trump in the White House they were finally able to call in the favor. How much money? Oh my, lots.
According to DeVos’s own testimony, it is possible her wealthy family (her father-in-law founded Amway, yes, that Amway) has donated 200 million dollars to Republican candidates over the years. She claimed this during her confirmation hearing in an exchange with Senator Sanders of Maine.
Sanders: “Mrs. DeVos, there is a growing fear, I think, in this country that we are moving toward what some would call an oligarchic form of society, where a small number of very, very wealthy billionaires control, to a significant degree, our economic and political life. Would you be so kind as to tell us how much your family has contributed to the Republican Party over the years?”
DeVos: “Senator, first of all thank you for that question. I again was pleased to meet you in your office last week. I wish I could give you that number. I don’t know.”
Sanders: “I have heard the number was $200 million. Does that sound in the ballpark?”
DeVos: “Collectively? Between my entire family?”
Sanders: “Yeah, over the years.”
DeVos: “That’s possible”
Sanders: “Okay. My question is, and I don’t mean to be rude. Do you think, if you were not a multi-billionaire, if your family has not made hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to the Republican Party, that you would be sitting here today?”
DeVos: “Senator, as a matter of fact, I do think that there would be that possibility. I’ve worked very hard on behalf of parents and children for the last almost 30 years to be a voice for students and to empower parents to make decisions on behalf of their children, primarily low-income children.”
Unfortunately, I fear all this will matter little to the Republicans who voted for President Trump and who were disgusted with Hillary Clinton’s alleged pay-to-play scheme operating out of the Clinton Global Fund. After all, we are also in the age of unapologetic “it’s okay if we do it”-isms where there is no right or wrong, only what you have the power to get away with. In such a world there is no room for shame or competence. It’s all about muscle. The DeVos family has muscle in spades and has been pouring cash into the coffers of Republican candidates for decades. Opensecrets has the rundown on each donation spread over sixty-nine pages.
But of course, the United States’ political system works this way. Rich people are free to give lots of money and a family is free to spread their donations across multiple family members. So, how did the DeVos family’s donations affect Betsy DeVos’s nomination and confirmation as Secretary of Education? Simple, her family gave $927,600 to the Republicans in charge of confirming her.
Betsy DeVos’s confirmation is essentially a vanity publishing enterprise. She has no qualifications and her experience in education consists of essentially lobbying against the fact that it’s available publicly and freely at all. She is and has ever been a vocal proponent of taking public money and putting it into privately owned charter schools, a fantastic way to begin bringing GOP education policy in line with their health care policy, a world of choices that tens of millions can’t afford.
But beyond her policies and beliefs about education, which I find disagreeable, it is the money and clear pay to play that is the most wretched aspect of this entire affair. If the wealthy can simply buy cabinet positions and Congress persons are ultimately beholden to them for an up or down vote then we have entered the most dangerous stage of transition from democracy to oligarchy, the stage where our “betters” no longer have to even pretend they care about having an ethical democracy.