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Opinion | Scams and Slippery Slopes

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First, Politico reported that Sinema has received donations from the multilevel marketing industry:

The political action committee associated with Alticor, the parent entity of the health, home and beauty company Amway, gave $2,500 to the Arizona Democrat in late June, as did the PAC for Isagenix, an Arizona-based business that sells nutrition, wellness and personal care products. Nu Skin Enterprises, another personal care and beauty company, gave $2,500 that month, as did USANA Health Sciences, which sells similar products. In April, Richard Raymond Rogers, the executive chair of Mary Kay, a Texas-based cosmetics company, gave $2,500 to Sinema. Herbalife, which also sells nutritional supplements, gave $2,500 in July. All are affiliated with the Direct Selling Association, a trade group that promotes multilevel marketing.

These are not enormous sums of money, but it is notable for a few reasons. As Politico notes, it’s relatively uncommon for some of these companies to get involved in national politics at all. And Sinema has had a friendly relationship with the Direct Sellers Association, which represents 130 multilevel marketing companies, including Amway and Herbalife.

This alliance is unusual for a Democratic senator given her party’s longtime alliance with unions and labor more generally. In multilevel marketing structures, the independent contractors who sell the product are paid commissions from their own sales of the product, but they also can receive income based on the sales or purchases of the sellers they have recruited. Sinema is the one of only three Democratic senators who do not co-sponsor the PRO Act, which would allow the “independent contractors” to unionize, as well as making it harder for companies to classify workers as independent contractors at all.

Second, Dr. Mehmet Oz is reported to be considering running for Senate in Pennsylvania, to fill the seat being vacated by Pat Toomey. Through a very convoluted process of media culture that is possible only in the celebrity-obsessed American culture, Dr. Oz has become one of the most visible and wealthy endorsers of a host of scientifically questionable vitamins, herbal remedies and miracle cures.

These news items brought to mind the way these kinds of businesses — on the border of illegality and not quite respectable — have gone mainstream in America. Donald Trump is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. Among other things, he happened to be the founder and namesake of one of the most blatantly fraudulent for-profit school apparatuses that I have ever seen: Trump University, which National Review called a “de jure” scam.

Donald Trump’s election seems to have opened the door to us not even pretending anymore that these kinds of scams aren’t legitimate parts of our political and economic system, and even pathways to power.

Whenever I talk about multilevel marketing, people often make two suggestions of things to check out. One is a podcast called “The Dream” by Jane Marie. The other is a recent documentary about LuLaRoe, which sells leggings. Both of these tell stories about the mechanisms of multilevel marketers, how they work and why they work.

With the holiday coming up, I’m going to spend some time on your behalf listening to “The Dream” as I travel around by car. And I’m going to watch the LuLaRoe documentary. I have questions about why scamming has become mainstreamed as a legitimate part of national politics, and what it says about culture. We’ll be talking about that soon. I’ll be off next week to celebrate Thanksgiving, and I’ll see you the week after that.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.



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