This story isn’t exactly new, but it’s worth revisiting in the light of current events.
Nearly two years ago, a couple of professors at Princeton announced that, after studying the relationship between public opinion and political activity at various income levels and the way our government makes laws and takes action, they had concluded that the US was “no longer a democracy.” News reports of their story were quick to say that the researchers’ work showed that America is now an “oligarchy,” but they themselves shied away from that phrase, preferring to call our system “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism.” In an interview, study author Martin Gillens explained that this means that
contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.
Sahil Kapur, who conducted the interview for “Talking Points Memo,” asked several other questions that are worth quoting:
When did things start to become this way?
It’s possible that in earlier eras, that we don’t have data for, that things were better. But in the time period that we do have data for, there’s certainly no such evidence. Over time responsiveness to elites has grown.
Another question was
Which party, Democrat or Republican, caters to the interests of the rich more? Does your research find them to be equal or is one more responsive than the other?
We didn’t look at that in this paper. Other work I’ve done suggest it depends. There are a set of economic issues on which the Democratic party is more consistently supportive of the needs of the poor and middle class. But it’s by no means a strong relationship. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.
The third question worth noting was
What are the three or four most crucial factors that have made the United States this way?
Very good question. I’d say two crucial factors. One central factor is the role of money in our political system, and the overwhelming role that affluent individuals and organized interests play, in campaign finance and in lobbying. And the second thing is the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens. Part of that would be the decline of unions in the country which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or 40 years. And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a worker’s party.
Those are the three points I’m going to address–how long has this been going on, whether our current political system is capable of ending its addiction to big money, and how we got this way. I think it’s significant that interviewer Kapur did not ask the question, “how can we end this situation?” I’m not sure how to end it either, but I’m willing to talk about it.
First, has America ever not been an oligarchy, or dominated by its economic elite, or, to use another word, a plutocracy?
I think we have always been an oligarchy painting itself as a democracy. While the founders of this country stated in our Declaration of Independence that “All men are created equal,” the men (and I use the term quite intentionally) who wrote the Constitution, and their fellows who framed our first state and national laws, made it clear that not only were they being quite specific when they said “all men are created equal,” they actually meant all property-owning white men, who constituted about 16% of the population–the wealthiest sixteen percent. Even so, enough of those potential voters didn’t vote so that it was not until 1820 that even ten percent of the population voted in national elections. That percentage rose gradually through the 19th century. In the first half of that period, property ownership gradually fell away as a prerequisite for voting, and in the second half of the century, African-Americans joined the voter pool. Participation then dropped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Jim Crow laws discriminated against blacks and the population included more immigrants who were not yet citizens, then climbed again when women were granted the right to vote in 1920.
So, for all our self-promotion as a broadly based democracy, America was a democracy of the elite from the beginning. The government was run for the benefit of the wealthy, and few people thought twice about it. From the 1870’s on, various populists, greenback and free silver advocates, and socialists claimed a small percentage of the vote. One of the champions of this movement was William Jennings Bryan, who, like Bernie Sanders, was so popular that he became a mainstream political figure, running for President twice as a Democrat and serving as President Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State. Another challenger was Eugene Debs, the Socialist, who won nearly a million votes in both the 1912 and 1920 elections, even though, in 1920, he was in prison on sedition charges for opposing World War I. Still, those high water marks represented only a small percentage of the total vote. The two-party system was firmly established. Whatever their differences, Democrats and Republicans share an affinity for capitalism. People provide the votes that put politicians in office, but business provides the money that pays their bills.
Wait a minute… Populist? Socialist? Greenback? Free silver? What is all this about? “Populist” and “Socialist” are words that remain in the political mainstream. Although the populist mantle is regularly claimed by right-wing demagogues, the Populist Party was a hot item on the left wing of American politics around the turn of the 20th century. Its Presidential candidate once carried five states, and it had a sizeable Congressional delegation for a couple of decades. We have them to thank for Rural Free Delivery, which was the universal high-speed internet of its day. Gee, if there were a similar number of serious populists around today, the Post Office might have been tasked with making high-speed internet universally available. Wouldn’t that beat the private, for-profit system that we have instead!? But I digress.
Bernie Sanders has done us the tremendous favor of bringing “Socialism” back into the respectable section of the American political lexicon, but there is still plenty of confusion about what the term means. The New Deal-style social programs that are most often touted, and criticized, as “socialism” are more the icing than the cake. The essence of the Socialist cake is a change in our societal paradigm, a change in which human and biosphere needs have primacy over the needs of money, profits, and the golems that parade around as “corporate persons.” Practically, what this means is that, under socialism, business enterprises and societal organizations are owned and controlled by the people involved in them, rather than by individuals or corporations that collect profit from them, and that their primary purpose is to serve their employees and customers, not to make profit for their owners.
The Greenback and Free Silver movements had the aim of moving the US from gold-backed currency to what is called “fiat currency,” which means currency that is worth something because the government says so. Proponents believed that this would bring greater prosperity to the country’s farmers and factory workers. This idea got a test run during and after the Civil War, but was ultimately repressed by the moneyed classes, both Democratic and Republican, because it devalued their wealth. That’s a very short account of a very complicated topic, but it will have to do for now, since the main thing I’m writing/talking about here is the question of oligarchy in America. Contrary to Professor Gillen’s assertion, it seems to me, this country has always been an oligarchy. Even though the hegemony of the wealthy has often been vigorously challenged, they have always found a way to stay in control.
Now let’s look at this statement from Gillen:
There are a set of economic issues on which the Democratic party is more consistently supportive of the needs of the poor and middle class. But it’s by no means a strong relationship. Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences and interests of the well to do.
That statement came not from a Green Party activist, but from an academic who was assessing the situation as scientifically as he could. The important statement here is the second one: “Both parties have to a large degree embraced a set of policies that reflect the needs, preferences, and interests of the well to do.” That actually explains why the Democrats are “more consistently supportive of the needs of the poor and middle class.” Unlike the Republicans, they figure it’s easier to buy off the poor and middle class than it is to repress them. That’s essentially what Franklin Roosevelt did–he enacted most of the social welfare proposals that the Socialists were pushing, without enacting any of the Socialist proposals that would have instituted any kind of “industrial democracy”–worker or state control of industry. The corporatists grudgingly accepted this at the time, and have used the eighty years since to gradually expand and consolidate their hold on our political system, with the long-range goal of taking back what they had to give up under Roosevelt. Have they forgotten that, if they had not taken FDR’s compromise, there would have been a major upheaval in this country–perhaps merely a political one, with the Socialists actually voted into power, but perhaps a violent one? Perhaps the corporatists’ assessment is that “the people” are now so sedated with television, internet, and other “weapons of mass distraction” and so convinced that what’s good for the uber-rich is good for the rest of us that they will no longer protest the predations of the extremely wealthy. I’d like to believe they’re wrong about that, but the jury, as they say, is still out.
One contemporary manifestation of this is Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of many of Bernie Sanders’ policy proposals as “dead on arrival in Congress.” She’s probably right, but that’s not so much a reflection on the unreasonableness of Sanders’ ideas, most of which are already the law of the land in other first-world countries, so much as it’s a commentary on the degree to which the U.S. government is under the control of the selfishly wealthy.
Getting rich is a very easy addiction. Once you find a way to “make,” as they say, a lot of money, it’s easy to fall into feeling like you can never have enough and never have too much, so you try to get all you can. Some people with wealth do manage to attain some insight, and understand that their good fortune is an invitation to share their success with others in an empowering way–not that there’s a clear line between the selfish and the generous–it’s a continuum, with many imperfect people spread all along it, doing more or less good in the world, with more or less self-congratulation.
In closing, let’s look at the last statement from Gillen that I cited, the question about how it got this way, which may offer us some insights on a way out of our current downspiralling gridlock–although he does not seem to be optimistic about that possibility.
(There are) two crucial factors. One central factor is the role of money in our political system, and the overwhelming role that affluent individuals and organized interests play, in campaign finance and in lobbying. And the second thing is the lack of mass organizations that represent and facilitate the voice of ordinary citizens. Part of that would be the decline of unions in the country which has been quite dramatic over the last 30 or 40 years. And part of it is the lack of a socialist or a worker’s party.
America is a very rich country, but it is also a very expensive country, politically speaking. This helps limit our political choices. In addition to the financial barrier, there are two political hurdles: most states make it difficult for new parties to get on the ballot, and our winner-take-all voting setup shuts out the broader possibilities offered by proportional representation and ranked voting. It costs a lot of money to run for major office. A candidate generally needs corporate support to raise the kind of money it takes to achieve visibility in the American political landscape–and then, as Lyndon Johnson famously said, that politician had better “dance with them what brung him.” To refuse to take corporate money, as the Green Party has done, makes it difficult to be competitive in American politics, although Bernie Sanders has demonstrated that it is possible.
These factors have combined to limit the influence of the Green Party in the United States. We have never even come close to electing anyone to national office. On the few occasions when a Green candidate has been elected to a state legislature, s/he has faced intense pressure to join the Democrats, or been redistricted out of office by partisan redistricting committees. Green Parties have been much more successful in smaller countries with parliamentary/proportional representation systems, countries that generally also have strong labor unions and socialist political parties as well. I’m going to be brutally honest here: it seems to me that to be a member of the Green Party, as I am, in this country is to acknowledge one’s powerlessness to effect real change through conventional channels, and to engage in a form of political theater instead.
This gets into interesting territory. “Admitting we are powerless over our addiction” is the first of the “twelve steps,” the healing journey out of compulsive behavior. Does it matter whether our compulsive behavior involves looking for our salvation in toxic substances or in toxic politics? I think it might not. Our country’s politics have certainly become “unmanageable,” to quote from Bill Wilson’s original words. Does this mean that “only turning our lives over to a higher power” and “making a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” will start us, and our country, on the road to recovery? And, practically speaking, what does “turning our lives over to a higher power” mean politically?
I don’t know, and in a way, my opinion doesn’t matter. Only the individual decisions of millions of people, and what aggregates as those millions put their decisions into effect, matters. There are too many variables in the near-term future to even try to predict anything. Will “the will of the people” continue to be shaped by corporate interests, or will enough people break free of corporate influence to make a difference? Will Sanders succeed in snatching the Democratic nomination from Clinton? What role will Jill Stein and the Greens play in either a Sanders or a Clinton scenario? Who will the Republican nominee be? Will there be a groundswell of Greens and Sanders supporters running successfully for Senate, House, and state government positions? What as-yet unknown circumstances will affect our situation? It’s not just the fate of the country, but the fate of the planet, that hangs in the balance. (I know, I say that every month!) The only advice I can give is to keep your principles clear in your own mind and practice having a relaxed and humorous approach to life. The times are just going to get more and more interesting.
music: Greg Brown, “America Will Eat You”