Monday, February 26, 2024

Politics Las Vegas Style


Politics Las Vegas Style

Peter Schultz


            Sally Denton and Roger Morris, in their excellent book, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, quote the Kefauver committee report’s conclusions about organized crime in Las Vegas and the US, to wit: There is an “alliance of gamblers, gangsters, and government” that used “high sums of cash … to control political action….” In states where gambling was legal, “there is no weapon which can be used to keep gamblers and their money out of politics.” Such alliances eventually would become “the essence of American politics” nationally with “casino conglomerates” dealing with governments “like a sovereign power, able to dictate public policies….” [115] So, gangsters and gamblers, given their wealth, would take over politics in the United States and, perhaps, even beyond them.


            Implicitly this means, according to the Kefauver committee, that gambling, both legal and illegal, threaten to or actually undermine democratic government in the United States. So, alliances of gangsters, gamblers, and politicians should be eliminated or controlled, starting with the end of legalized gambling, which conveys “a cloak of respectability” on these essentially “racketeers.”


            But is gambling and the organized criminal enterprises that arise in its wake the problem? Or is something else going on here?


            Alliances require common or shared goals, necessarily. Allies thus collude to reach their goals, so collusion is endemic to alliances, and we should ask what goal or goals do gangsters, gamblers, and politicians seek. One answer is “respectability,” or as Denton and Morris put it, “new likeness[es] and legitimacy.” It is the desire for respectability that drives gangsters, gamblers, and politicians, that explains their collusive behavior, their alliances.


            As is well-known and as Denton, Morris, and others have pointed out, gangsters began during Prohibition as “bootleggers” or, more generally, as “racketeers.” Then they became gamblers, e.g., as owners of casinos, which is of course how Las Vegas became the Las Vegas as we know it. From there, the gangsters became “investors” in all kinds of legitimate businesses; that is, they became capitalists traveling “the surprisingly short passage from racketeer to capitalist, becoming … Las Vegas’s revered benefactors.” [113] Capitalism, understood as respectability, not gambling or racketeering, corrupts or compromises democratic government and politics in the United States. Capitalism makes available “a cloak of respectability” to gangsters, gamblers, and politicians. The requirements to obtain this cloak are money, the more the better, and a willingness to abide by codes of conduct that are considered the essence of respectability.


            For example, gangsters, because and insofar as they seek respectability, do not, generally speaking, attack or kill law enforcement personnel, judges, politicians, or other “respectables.” Or consider Senator Kefauver who, while wanting to expose organized criminal enterprises in the US, did not, for example, “reveal [Dalitz, a prominent mafioso] for what he really was.” To do so, would have allowed Dalitz to expose Kefauver’s penchant for drink and gambling, thereby undermining his, Kefauver’s, respectability. Thus, “the committee seemed more interested in some retroactive tax evasions than [Dalitz’s] penetration of the legitimate economy.” [113] By “revealing [Dalitz] for what he really was” Kefauver would then have revealed the legitimate economy for what it really was, viz., a construct built on and maintained by the ill-gotten wealth of gangsters, gamblers, racketeers, and compromised politicians.  


            This phenomenon is, as some might say, classic, that is, classic political behavior. The quest for respectability, legitimacy, or power often begins with a less than or barely respectable act, e.g., bootlegging, racketeering, or what is now called “dog whistle politics” centered around verbally assaulting one’s political opponent. If successful, the bootleggers, racketeers, or attack dogs engage in more respectable behavior, e.g., owning casinos, controlling unions, investing “laundered money” in health care, legislating, or exposing the politically corrupt or compromised like communists or terrorists. Eventually, the racketeers, gangsters, or dog whistlers gain entry into the class of respectables, e.g., via a toney address like north Jersey [ala’ Tony Soprano for example] or “higher office” [ala’ Richard Nixon for example], or by owning your own island [ala’ Jeffrey Epstein’s Little St. James]. The Kefauver committee was then not only investigating but also engaging in behavior that had gone on since time in memoriam. It’s called politics.


            But having gained entry to the land of respectability, certain codes of behavior need to be followed to maintain that membership. And this why the politicians and the gangsters collude because each wants to and needs the other to maintain their respectability. The gangster doesn’t openly, proudly, or loudly try to control or manipulate the politician, while the politician doesn’t openly “reveal [the gangster] for what he really is.” Charging someone with tax evasion is legitimate, whereas charging them with penetrating the legitimate economy while “skimming” it to acquire wealth is a different matter altogether. Charging someone with marital infidelity is legitimate, while charging them with involvement in the distribution of illegal narcotics isn’t. Not surprisingly then, the latter charges are defended against by being characterized as the result of “conspiracy theories,” while the former are not. The less legitimate the charges, the greater the likelihood that they will be treated as the result of far-out conspiracy theories. Again, this is or should be called what it is: politics.







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