The real problem of Clarence Thomas

I’ve got a piece up at Politico this morning, setting out what I think the real Clarence Thomas scandal is, why corruption may not be the best way to think about it, and what the proper approach of the Left should be to the problem of Clarence Thomas:

As a description of the problem of Clarence Thomas, however, corruption too has its limits. Morally, corruption rotates on the same axis as sincerity — forever testing the purity or impurity, the tainted genealogy, of someone’s beliefs. But money hasn’t paved the way to Thomas’ positions. On the contrary, Thomas’ positions have paved the way for money. A close look at his jurisprudence makes clear that Thomas is openly, proudly committed to helping people like Crow use their wealth to exercise power. That’s not just the problem of Clarence Thomas. It’s the problem of the court and contemporary America….

Money “is a kind of poetry,” wrote Wallace Stevens. Thomas agrees. More than an aid to speech or speech in the metaphorical sense, money is speech. Not only do our donations to campaigns and candidates “generate essential political speech,” Thomas writes in a 2000 dissent, but we also “speak through contributions” to those campaigns and candidates. He’s not wrong. When my wife and I gave money to the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we were doing more than aiding their candidacies. We were voicing our political values and advocating our policy preferences, just as we did when we showed up at their rallies and canvassed for them, door to door…

If money is speech, the implication for democracy is clear. There can be no democracy in the political sphere unless there is equality in the economic sphere. That is the real lesson of Clarence Thomas.

You can read the whole piece here, at Politico. And then, if you haven’t yet bought The Enigma of Clarence Thomas, which forms the basis for the piece, buy the book!

Update: I spoke with Forbes Magazine about the Clarence Thomas story. The interviewer is Diane Brady, who wrote one of the best books on Thomas, actually a group biography of Thomas and his Black classmates at Holy Cross. It was a delight to talk with her.


  1. Dene Karaus April 18, 2023 at 11:18 am | #

    Your final conclusion in the Politico article is brilliant! Democracy depends on economic equality.

  2. Thomas Shapiro April 18, 2023 at 12:21 pm | #

    Christianity holds that all of humanity is both “fallen” and “redeemable”. In modern English we ,individually, have the agency to choose good or evil when when presented with the need to choose from a binary moral choice.
    Based on the evidence, there can be no quarrel that evil and good people exist and that the good may be corrupted and people consumed with vice and the destructive self-serving passions such as for revenge can reform themselves.
    That said, it is equally clear that Justice Thomas is no such person. At his Senate appointment hearing, Anita Hill illuminated his base character. Thomas, rather than withdraw his nomination, projected his corrupt character onto Hill in particular, and the Senate and the white race generally.
    His consuming passion for revenge has motivated his SCOTUS career every day and every decision since. His seduction by a wealthy white oligarch and Republican party mega-donor has little to do with dirty money. Rather it proves that his consuming passion for revenge on his liberal “enemies” that consumes Justice Thomas, afflicts four other conservative justices as well. The conservative SCOTUS majority’s campaign finance and abortion decisions that overturned settled law are but two recent examples of the power of revenge in understanding human evil.

  3. Jon Saxton April 18, 2023 at 1:14 pm | #

    “If money is speech, the implication for democracy is clear. There can be no democracy in the political sphere unless there is equality in the economic sphere. That is the real lesson of Clarence Thomas.“

    There seem to me to be some pretty strange implications of what you say here.

    Essentially, what Clarence Thomas and you are saying is that there can be no democracy in the political sphere in a democratic Republic without equality in the economic sphere. What this means, essentially, is that there has been and can be no democracy in our democratic Republic — because we have never been and never will have equality in the economic sphere.

    Seems to me that this is exactly the strongest argument to think much more deeply about the role of money as speech essential to political democracy.

    If money is an expression of speech, that doesn’t mean it can’t and shouldn’t be regulated. Money is a currency that derives its value not intrinsically, but because we assign value AND OUR VALUES to it. Money can speak to a politician (for instance) being bribed. Money can speak to people being contracted to kill someone. Money can be used to silence porn stars who might derail your presidential bid. You get my drift.

    If our so-called democratic Republic hasn’t, and likely never will, achieve(d) economic equality, then prioritizing the pursuit of economic equality is a pro-democracy fools errand. How can we get to economic equality if we can’t get to the political equality needed to get there? Asking politely to redistribute wealth or to equalize access to wealth creation doesn’t seem likely to get us there.

    I think Clarence Thomas understands this very well. The reason he’s a money as Constitutionally privileged political speech is because he doesn’t believe in the viability or even the idea of democracy, and is working to build the type of plutocracy that only very large contributions can buy.

    The only way out of this Plutocratic worm hole is to look at the role of money. If money is the primary currency of politics, then, in the name of promoting democracy, we need to work much harder to invest this currency not just with high value, but with with our values.

    Thomas’s very undemocratic and simplistic idea that freedom of speech can and should be monetized is just another example of the way modern autocrats are using the cover of formalistic democratic ideas and processes to undermine the substance of democracy.

    • John Maclean April 19, 2023 at 12:21 pm | #

      Hi Jon. This is what Corey earlier might have meant when he used the term “Black nationalism” in the interview. From reading C. Vann Woodward’s old book “The Strange Career of Jim Crow” I got the sense that the struggle for integration was for an expansion of equality, and in frustration you can tilt the other way. Apparently it was always people like this billionaire Crow who were supporters of this kind of nationalism, even older back to Africa schemes had similar figures. When I read Woodward I recall thinking of some democrats as “White nationalist”, because their idea seems to be throw the flawed overboard, and make a deal yourself. This might be crude, but I do remember thinking it. I need to reread Woodward’s final chapter to see if my recollection is correct.

      • LFC April 23, 2023 at 1:50 am | #

        I’ve recently been reading Woodward’s book for the first time. Very worth reading.

        • John Maclean April 24, 2023 at 5:26 pm | #

          I haven’t read all of “Strange Career” in a while. Just took a quick look at the final chapter. Found an old copy of “Mary Chestnut’s Civil War” at a used book shop recently. This is a diary from the war that Woodward edited. There is also a biography of the life of Tom Watson that I’d like to get around one day.

  4. DAVID COLLEDGE April 18, 2023 at 1:52 pm | #

    “money doesn’t talk, it swears”

  5. Benjamin David Steele April 18, 2023 at 2:51 pm | #

    I might agree that it’s the wrong question to ask: “Had Thomas sold his votes on the court to the highest bidder?” But because it’s taking a too narrow perspective, as you also suggest — in that “Money buys a lifetime of conversation between men of power. In that fraternity of words and wealth, stories are swapped, trust is gained, respect is earned, ideas are shared and preferences become policy.” Obviously, there is buying and selling that is happening, whether or not it could be directly and absolutely proven to influence any given vote. To deny that it shapes voting behavior, of course, would be absurd. “Morally, corruption rotates on the same axis as sincerity — forever testing the purity or impurity, the tainted genealogy, of someone’s beliefs. But money hasn’t paved the way to Thomas’ positions. On the contrary, Thomas’ positions have paved the way for money.” This is surely true, but I don’t know if it’s an either/or scenario. It’s probably more of a mutual reinforcement, a corruption that is so enmeshed it can’t be separated. Is it actually bribery or, instead, something akin to it? Maybe it’s a difference that makes no difference. One way or another, it’s corruption and everyone knows that.

    Would Thomas have had those positions in the first place if he hadn’t long ago sold his soul for money to gain position of power within a crony and corporatist system that could guarantee the money would keep flowing, as long as his positions stayed in line with his generous donors? The quid pro quo is implicit and general. No one has to say a word. As such, “That’s not just the problem of Clarence Thomas. It’s the problem of the court and contemporary America.” And that brings us to your damning conclusion with liberationist promise: “If money is speech, the implication for democracy is clear. There can be no democracy in the political sphere unless there is equality in the economic sphere.” I love that reframing you did. That is precisely the takeaway point. Despite all of the deceptive rhetoric, there occasionally is a kind of forthright honesty on the reactionary right and so there can be power to sometimes taking them at their word. As you say, in a society like this, it’s simply a fact that money is speech and speech is power. What is typically ignored is the radical potential of this insight. Following from it is a demand to democratize the economy as well, which is what was originally meant by all of the early modern talk of a free market as part of a free society, that all people would be made free by it, free in lived reality and not only in abstract theory.

    It was particularly compelling to quote from Noah Webster at the end, a once influential figure who is mostly forgotten today. What that example reminds me of is how you were recently making Anti-Federalist arguments in the video dialogue you posted the other day. But I noted in a comment there that you hadn’t mentioned Anti-Federalism by name. In this case, Webster was a Federalist and yet the style of argument you quoted is more along the lines of Anti-Federalism. It reminds me of the Federalist John Dickinson making the Purse and Sword argument, which was aligned with Anti-Federalist concerns about centralized and concentrated power. The reason Federalists were so often mixed in their views is because many of them were confused in their loyalty divided between federalism and nationalism, that is between decentralized democracy and centralized oligarchy. Whereas Anti-Federalists were actually the most consistently principled in their defense of actual federalism (i.e., autonomous union), as originally articulated in the Articles of Confederation that Dickinson drafted and then Anti-Federalists revised.

    Anyway, it’s interesting to read the words of Webster in his having advocated such a free society of progressive egalitarianism, what is typically more often associated with the most radical of the Anti-Federalists like the proto-leftist Thomas Paine. That a fairly conservative guy like Webster could support such economic egalitarianism, in defense of freedom, emphasizes how much the world has changed. That point is made clear also by Adam Smith, the famous godfather of capitalism, who asserted that with high inequality a free society was not possible; having echoed an old understanding going at least back to Aristotle (interestingly, both Webster and Smith shared other radical positions in support of public education and abolition). Even to keep this in the English tradition, it was an established critique that economic inequality, specifically as concentrated wealth, was corrupting and plain morally wrong, even a defiance of divine justice. What conservatives particularly miss is how this was grounded within Christianity itself, specifically as literacy spread and believers could read about Jesus’ egalitarianism for themselves: On earth as it is in heaven.

    This was the mainspring of protest and revolt for many centuries prior to the American Revolution, from the 14th century English Peasants Revolt to the 17th century English Civil War. Yet the reactionary right, in pushing historical revisionism, treats this native-born conviction in fairness and equality as a foreign ideological threat that is being imposed upon Anglo-American society. Historical education has been whitewashed of how radical much of classical liberalism once was, along with its link to Real or Radical Whiggism and the Country Party, all of it having fed into later revolutionary ideology. I’m always impressed, for example, of how so much of the religious dissenter tradition from the English Civil War has strong elements of proto-liberalism, proto-socialism, and proto-Marxism. And the English Peasants’ Revolt was already clearly understood as class war based on class identity. It’s too bad Americans aren’t taught the most fascinating aspects of history that would ground the present in a larger context of meaning. Your article offers some of that much needed context.

    • John Maclean April 19, 2023 at 11:49 am | #

      Hi Benjamin. I’m reading the biography “Thaddeus Stevens” by Bruce Levine right now. Stevens was born in Vermont and ends up in Pennsylvania as part of the old Whig party. This party gets torn apart under the stress of the Nebraska/Kansas happenings and he finds a temporary home in the Know Nothing party; then he becomes part of the Republican party leading up to the Civil War. He was a pro-development politician who saw slavery as in the way, and was early in his support of universal emancipation. This, along with other policies, can be seen as an expansion of equality, no?

      • Benjamin David Steele April 20, 2023 at 9:01 am | #

        My knowledge of Thaddeus Stevens is superficial. But from my understanding, the American Whigs had no direct ideological link to the British Whigs. There are many other interesting figures to point to. Recently, I learned of an early faction of the Democrats, the Locofocos. They were quite radically democratic in all senses, and they had proto-left-libertarian tendencies — so, very much Country Party, as inheritors of Anti-Federalism. They definitely opposed the Tammany Hall Democrats but also the Jacksonian Democrats. Two of the main leaders were William Leggett and Levi D. Slamm.

        I’m not sure how it might fit into Whig history, British or American. But there are other fascinating individuals like Henry George. And I’ve long had curiosity about Robert Owens and his sons. He was the father of British socialism and came to the United States. He started a commune in Indiana and his sons became involved in politics, abolition, and education. The commune was near Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home and, later on, Lincoln became friends with the family. The Owens promoted national museums and land grant colleges. Both George and Owens were Lincoln Republicans, although George later on became a Democrat.

        • John Maclean April 21, 2023 at 10:26 am | #

          Year ago I read George’s book “Progress and Poverty”. I’ve never read a biography of his life though. There are aspects of the Stevens biography that you might like.

  6. jonnybutter April 18, 2023 at 5:31 pm | #

    A wonderful piece. Hard and compact. Difficult to deny CR’s conclusion about the imperative of more broadly shared economic power. I think the actual left is already pretty sold on economic democracy, but that can’t be said of the whole left-of-center cohort. Let’s hope the center is moving. It does seem to be.

    I prefer a push to radically reform the SC, and its most grievous mistakes corrected; a post civil war spirit w/maybe fewer/no amendments but more radical court reform, both in terms of precedent and the jurisdiction and rules of the court. VRA, Buckley, Citizens United. Dobbs of course – all out. Why may only Republicans break with case law? The US has a lot of fires to put out, so it’s tough to prioritize, but SCOTUS is a flaming sore (something you don’t want near your scotus for sure). Biden had a commission which produced some good ideas (cough Moyn). So do what Moyn said – even just some of it.

    What’s that Hakim? Joe? Barely hanging onto the Senate? Try not sucking. Try not over promising and underdelivering for a change. Not to be corny, but try *leading*. Money has little to do with, and cannot fix, what’s wrong with the Living Fossil edition of the Democratic Party. The DNC could raise a trillion more and would still suck.

    Other problems:

    – Ordinary people’s ability to fund campaigns actually illustrates that big money is not as hard to get as it used to be, if you are popular. It’s scandalously cheap to buy US politicians, so, also cheap to fund them if they are popular. Overturn Buckley – which was a big mistake – and strictly regulate campaigns, including campaign speech. BTW, there is no reason for it to be expensive to put ads on tv. Time limit campaigns (voters would love you for that). They do this stuff in other countries and there’s no good reason – other than Buckley – not to do it in the US. Don’t regulate other speech, including other political speech – but campaigns themselves could be tightly regulated, and inexpensive.

    – The main problem with the idea that money is speech is that money *isn’t* speech. But other than that, it’s the presence of so very much money – gratuitous money. VC-like money. E.g. spending millions on campaigns for *Wisconsin Supreme Court*. It’s a flood of money and I think it’s inherently corrupting. Campaigns become a large business rather than civic exercise. Furthermore, in the current system, a=b, but b≠a: money is speech but speech is not money. It doesn’t make theoretical sense.

    Economic democracy – yes, essential. But how to get moving in that direction? First, decide. But then attack and tame the wretched Supreme Court. It has to be done anyway!

    “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” is a classic, btw. It’s a little bomb of a book. A snapshot, as it were, showing the present United States as it really is.


    • Benjamin David Steele April 20, 2023 at 9:13 am | #

      “I think the actual left is already pretty sold on economic democracy, but that can’t be said of the whole left-of-center cohort. Let’s hope the center is moving. It does seem to be.”

      Well, the center of the American supermajority has long been economically to the left of the Democratic leadership and DNC elite. The challenge isn’t to convince enough people about economic democracy, as that has already been accomplished. If the center moves any further left, we’ll be shifting into a radicalizing populist moment that could threaten mass protest movements, riots, revolts, and maybe more.

      “The main problem with the idea that money is speech is that money *isn’t* speech.”

      I’d disagree. Money, or rather wealth in all its forms, is speech; both supporting and expressing speech. It is a direct proxy for power and resources, rights and privileges, access and opportunity. It’s simply impossible to separate speech from all of that. That is because speech is far more than merely talking, like a prisoner mumbling to himself in his cell, but being heard and being able to have effective influence, that is to say actual communication.

      “Economic democracy – yes, essential. But how to get moving in that direction? First, decide. But then attack and tame the wretched Supreme Court. It has to be done anyway!”

      As I keep harping on lately, this all goes back to the Anti-Federalists. Among so much else, they warned about the Supreme Court. One of their specific fears was that the Supreme Court would seize power for itself by interpreting the Constitution. Once that happened, it was yet another erosion of democratic self-governance. The Articles of Confederation, the more Anti-Federalist constitution, was determined by the state governments whose leadership was more directly under control of the local citizenry.

      • jonnybutter April 20, 2023 at 1:23 pm | #

        (Since this blog is being moderated, and I’ve been annoying enough already, I will stop after this.)

        Speech is no more money than Time is money. Communication, one to many or many to one, is not inherently expensive anymore. It used to be, but the problem is shifting I think. Cost was a big gatekeeper, but now ze moguls want to just overtly gatekeep – as it were, artificially.

        However, we know that this question I’ve been beating to death is not the point of the book, the talks, or this Politico piece. His main argument is not just convincing, but devastatingly so. If the shoes fit, wear them.

        One last: It’s ironic that a bulwark of conservatism in the Democratic Party now – whot saved Biden, arguably – is an older, more conservative cohort/machine of Black officials, esp in the South. Clyburn and people in his orbit, and penumbra, have hardly replaced the Dixiecrats in terms of power, but they are somehow continuous with them (maybe only in the medium of irony itself); they – many Black Democrats, esp. in the South – resemble Thomas much more than they do liberals of old, from either party. Obviously there are a lot of non-Black conservative Democrats too! But the former are a *key* group. (Isn’t SC going first in the next Dem primary, w/Georgia soon after?) It is brilliant about “Enigma”, among other things, that it sees Thomas as a central rather than marginal figure in our moment.

        Thanks for the stimulation! Cheers to all

        • Benjamin David Steele April 22, 2023 at 3:06 pm | #

          I spent part of my youth in South Carolina. And so I know how it’s not only a conservative culture but in many ways downright authoritarian, overtly built on class hierarchy and class war. By that, I mean ‘authoritarian’ in the strict sense used in social science, not as a mere dismissive slur. In the way Bob Altemeyer defines it, all authoritarianism is right-wing. Yet not all of the right-wing is limited to the Republican Party.

          The DNC shifting their balance of power to the most conservative of states, at a time when the public has long been going far left, is the most cynical expressions of social dominance orientation, specifically SDO-E (inegalitarianism) of the SDO7 subscale. SDOs, especially Double Highs, have long been understood as among the worst of far right leaders who manipulate authoritarians. But DNC elites aren’t shy about getting into this power game.

  7. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 19, 2023 at 1:03 pm | #

    “For liberals of the 1960s and 1970s, when Thomas was coming of age, the most sacred provision of the Constitution was freedom of speech. Like sexual intimacy or gender identity today, words were thought to be an expression of who we are, a disclosure of our deepest sense of self. That’s why liberals sought to surround them with a constitutional fence of rights and protect them from the state.”

    I think this is partially true. A second reason progressives wanted First Amendment protection for words is that they saw words as the path to true democracy, to be paved by the activism of those interests that both expanded democracy for all broadly and benefited from its protections directly: feminists, anti-war activists, left-leaning academics, environmentalists, labor, persons of color, LGBTQ, the activist poor.

    • Benjamin David Steele April 20, 2023 at 9:28 am | #

      There was a practical component to it that was immediately real and undeniable. The political left of the 1960s and 1970s not only were within living memory of McCarthyist censorship and oppression but were in the middle of COINTELPRO that made a mockery of freedom, such as the targeting of the Black Panthers Rainbow Coalition that ended in the government assassination of Fred Hampton. Their speech rights were literally and directly under attack. Many leftists of that era also would’ve remembered Eugene V. Debs having been imprisoned for seditious speech.

      Besides, this emphasis on speech rights was not new. Many Anti-Federalists emphasized and prioritized speech rights as well. After all, they too had experienced censorship, legally and violently. The Federalists at one point sent mobs out to demolish Anti-Federalist printing presses. And of course, there was the Alien and Sedition Acts, under which people were imprisoned for their speech. Suppressing speech has always been a key weapon of authoritarianism. It goes far beyond self-expression in, more importantly, being about public and collective expression, upon which democracy is dependent.

  8. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant April 19, 2023 at 1:11 pm | #

    “– The main problem with the idea that money is speech is that money *isn’t* speech.”


    I have a gift-card for Dunkin’ Donuts.

    I can’t talk when I am wolfing down a jelly doughnut. Indeed, if I try I only succeed in yargle-bargle.

    • jonnybutter April 19, 2023 at 5:41 pm | #


      😉 deliciously gooeyness is also not speech.

      I know what I wrote sounds like doggerel but I am really suspicious when metaphors are literalized. it just seems so misleading – auto-tendentiousness. I suppose there are plenty of metaphors which we have forgotten *are* metaphors, but this seems much more on the surface, more locally misleading. I am fine with amplified speech, so to speak, being called speech. But it is not a law of nature that the marginal cost to society of the amplification tools is high. For a national audience, the problem now is not so much scarcity of amplifiers, but of *focus* – there’s so much information that it’s hard to stand out, whatever your message is. News gathering – esp newspapers – is in trouble, but only as a *business*. There are tons of people willing to do that kind of work for a working class salary. With plutocratic control of our large media goes much of the ‘placement’ power; but more public control might be a handy way to demand focus.

      We need a much flatter income distribution in the US, with much more going to the bottom, really, 80 or 90%. As Corey suggests, this is unduckable if we want democracy. But I think we still need to attack the whole idea of speech as money, because a.) it’s really more of a creature of the court than nature., and b.) esp important since the legal trend is toward money that’s both unlimited and *anonymous* speech. We need a new birth of freedom. Wild ass fed soc conservatives have been catastrophically successful at SCOTUS, which has made them and the court (and judicial review itself, potentially) vulnerable. Kick them when they’re down.

      • Benjamin David Steele April 22, 2023 at 3:13 pm | #

        This is how I see it. All wealth is a symbolic proxy and all inequality is inseparable. Wealth is simply another way of talking about speech, freedom, autonomy, opportunity, resources, power, representation, etc. There is no way to have inequality of wealth, of any kind in any society, without there also being inequality of all the rest. Related to metaphors, it’s always useful to look to etymology. Wealth, commonweal, and well-being are all cognate. In the past, wealth and weal were synonyms.

  9. LFC April 23, 2023 at 2:50 am | #

    The Politico piece seems to me to pose a false choice at the end: either focus on “getting money out of politics” or focus on “economic equality” (or less inequality). The two goals need not be in conflict, however.

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