While the United States purports to be a democratic republic, it is either already an oligarchy or but a few steps away from it. In this context, an oligarchy is a political structure in which power is held largely by a small number of people. While all hierarchical systems have power disparities, the hallmark of an oligarchy is that power is highly concentrated in a few. Russia, which is ruled by Putin and his fellows, is a clear example of an oligarchy.
While oligarchs can be elected democratically, a proper democracy distributes power—the choices of the many are not nullified by the will of the few. Likewise, for a proper republic—while power is concentrated in the representatives, they are to serve the people they represent rather than a few who hold the power. Preventing an oligarchy from emerging from the corpse of a democracy or republic requires preventing the concentration of power. Alternatively, allowing the butterfly of oligarchy to emerge from the caterpillar of democracy requires shifting power from the many to the few. Let us now take a brief look at some broad strategies and tactics to make this happen.
One important step towards the oligarchy is to ensure that limits are removed from the use of money in politics. The United States has hyper-concentrated wealth, which means that the hyper-wealthy are vastly outnumbered by everyone else. If the use of money in politics is strictly limited, then the hyper-wealthy must compete for political influence using the same tools as the non-wealthy, which means they will not always get their way. To the degree that the wealthy are free to use money to influence politics, they gain an advantage over the many and can use this advantage to concentrate political power to match their concentration of money.
A second important step towards the oligarchy is to weaken or eliminate groups that can compete with the potential oligarchs. While the many cannot match the wealthy few in individual spending and influence in a money-based political system, the many can pool their resources and match the few with their collective effort. One obvious example of this collective group is the labor union. As long as these groups are viable, the potential oligarchs cannot enjoy the full concentration of power they desire. As such, making the United States an oligarchy requires crippling or destroying these unions—something being attempted with right to work laws and other legislation. While it might be thought that business tends to oppose unions because of financial reasons, unions also pose a clear political threat to oligarchs. There are, of course, other groups besides the unions that can exert political influence. For example, religious groups have political clout. Because of this, building the oligarchy requires eliminating, weakening or assimilating these groups. One way that has proven effective is shaping Christian groups so that they focus on homosexuality and abortion rather than on social justice issues; this encourages them to hand power to those who claim they will outlaw abortion and oppress homosexuals—people who also tend to favor concentrating power. Racism and sexism are also very useful here as tools for keeping groups from forming seemingly sensible alliances against the potential oligarchs. For example, the people hurting white working-class people the most are not brown or black workers, but the rich white people who make the economic decisions. If all white workers realized this, it would be bad for the rich white people. Once the significant groups are neutralized or assimilated, then the oligarchy can really get going. Of course, there are still the pesky voters—they can still, in theory, resist the oligarchy, which leads to the third step.
While the United States still has elections, allowing honest and fair elections would be an impediment to the oligarchs. After all, the many might vote against what the powerful few want. As such, the influence of certain voters must be reduced. Fortunately, there are already well-crafted tools to make this happen. One is gerrymandering, which allows numerical minorities to foil the will of the majority—an important condition for oligarchy. Another stock tool is voter suppression, something forged throughout United States history (especially the Jim Crow laws). If the right people can be prevented from voting, then the results of elections can be influenced. Combining the two tools and adding a few more into the mix (such as election fraud and having candidates supervise their own elections) can really get the oligarchy moving along.
Lastly, there is the rather important strategy of concentration itself—power must flow from the many to the few. One ongoing method is crafting laws and policies that ensure that money flows upward and concentrates rather than flowing downward. Another method is to hoard opportunities, something that the college admission scandal exposed (now largely forgotten). This is all part of keeping power concentrated—if the poor stood a good chance of gaining at the expense of the powerful, then that would be end of the oligarchy. As such, they must be kept in their place if the oligarchy is to be an enduring reality.
Which members of the oligarchy supported the election of Donald Trump? As far as I can tell, the oligarchy has been doing it’s level best to remove him as president.
We start off with a classic false dichotomy:
While the United States purports to be a democratic republic, it is either already an oligarchy or but a few steps away from it.
This assumes that we have operational definitions of “democratic republic” and “oligarchy” that are disjoint. With enough flexibility of definition, I assert that every country in the world is an oligarchy – except perhaps “socialist” or “communist” countries that are outright tyrannies.
That the US is a democratic republic: if the people vote in 2020 for a slate of representatives at all levels who were committed to removing the influence of money and connections from politics, it would happen. Therefore the people are getting the government they choose. (In theory, this is true of Russia as well; I’m just less sure that even if that vote occurred, it would be enforced.)
That the US is an oligarchy: Policy is dictated largely by a small circle of party elites, union elites and large corporate elites.
These are both true, in my view, and perfectly compatible as long as it is the will of the people to vote for it. At least 45% of US registered voters don’t care either way, and almost none of the rest care enough to want to change it.
One might say that the democratic will of the people is to let the oligarchy get on with the business of governing.
a proper democracy distributes power
Do you specify criteria for how power should be distributed if the democracy is to be “proper”? Is this democracy comprised of True Scotsmen? 🙂
Power inevitably accretes in a Zipf distribution. (See also Pareto Principle, Power Laws, Long Tails) where individuals have preferences and freedom to choose between them. Wealth does too.
I can only partially agree, CT. What people vote for and what they get are not always aligned. This misalignment can least for years and even decades before it is corrected.
I’m sorry, TJB, I’m not seeing it.
Of course politicians can turn around after election and do what they said they wouldn’t, but that’s pretty rare. More commonly, they don’t pursue all the items on their stated agenda, or don’t pursue them very hard, trading off priorities.
I believe the majority of votes cast in any election are for incumbents who are part of their party machine. These are not unknown quantities. Voters know what they are getting, They might express a desire for gun control, or lowering income taxes, or repealing Obamacare, among many other issues before the election, and then fail to get it done. Sure, That’s normal.
But if a large percentage of the voters made some structural change like getting money out of politics, with a pledge to specific measures, a headline item, and single-issue voted that across both parties, it would happen. In no more than 2 years in the USA. (No, technically it might not have a Senate majority, but how many senators would stand in the way of that tidal wave?)
But the vast majority of people don’t. They just don’t care that much. They’re quite happy to delegate the job to the political class.
The political class is the oligarchy in every democracy.
A perfect example of what I am talking about is illegal immigration. There is no question that that vast majority of voters wants it to stop, but because powerful interests in both parties want it to continue no action is ever taken to curb it.
Another example is ethanol in gas. I would be willing to bet that 90% of people want to buy gas with no ethanol in it.
OK, so let’s say most people want to stop illegal immigration, How much do they want it? Do they care more about it than, say, what brand of cereal to get for their kids? No. They’ll make a trip out of their way to get Multicolour Sugar Froops, but they won’t write to their representatives to say this is an important issue. So they don’t really care very much.
Oh sure, a few people want it, and they will be loud, but only very few. People in general don’t care. If they did care, it would happen.
They’ll make a trip out of their way to get Multicolour Sugar Froops, but they won’t write to their representatives to say this is an important issue. So they don’t really care very much.
You don’t see how the efficacy of those two actions are significantly different in their relative context?
Of course, but if efficacy was an essential motivating factor in behaviour, lotteries would collapse. People buy lottery tickets, despite their lack of efficacy on any individual attempt, because they actually want money. Political policies, on the other hand, they can do without.
When enough people actually want political policies enacted, they are effective, NRA members constitute 1%-2% of the electorate, but effectively control the issue for one party. AIPAC has a very large influence in both.
If enough people wanted it, it would happen.
Most people don’t even care enough to read beyond pamphlet level on any given issue, much less know what their rep’s position is.
Yeah, you’re not following me. The effort to (your example) travel to a far store to get your kids a certain brand of cereal has object, observable, verifiable, (hopefully) positive return on investment. Even buying a lottery ticket has a, some would say misguided or delusional, very real possibility of a return on an investment. Writing to one’s congress critter or senator or whatever, especially when one is quite certain that the target is on the other side of the issue from the constituent, has very likely zero return. If you disagree with your representative such that you are a socialist and your rep is a GOP establishment type, or vice-verse, you have a much better chance with that lottery ticket. Assuming the lottery is run honestly. And the potential payoff is much, much greater. Now per your later point here about joining the NRA or a similar organization to lobby on your behalf, yes. And people do that. And I agree most people don’t get much more involved, but they have lives to live. Children to raise. Demanding jobs to work. Some of the most politically clueless people whom I have met were highly educated but narrow in their focus. Especially the most successful ones. Not that I don’t fault them to some degree for that but to say that people need to write their representatives…Have you ever done so? I have on only a few occasions. In all those occasions I disagreed with the previously stated position of the pol. Most recently I got an email reply from (GOP) Senator Rubio about something I sent him so long ago, months in fact, that I had forgotten what it was all about. It was of course a form letter stating why he was right and I (or people like me) was wrong. Not that it’s a big deal but that the conclusion wasn’t foregone but that it took months to respond? And previously I had sent a letter to my Dem House rep and (Dem) Senator Bill Nelson. I’m still getting rah-rah and financial solicitation emails from the Dem party. Presumably nothing I wrote was even analyzed and it was simply assumed that I was a good target for raising money.
Now I agree if enough people do SOMETHING, then SOMETHING will happen. But to my observation of politics and such in my half century or more of life, things only change when the culture changes. Politics is downstream from culture. And the culture will never change so long as people are afraid to speak up in their own communities. I’m not saying one should be “that guy” who drones on and on about politics 24/7 but when sensitive subjects come up, I believe we ALL have a RESPONSIBILITY to express disagreement. THAT is the only way things will really ever change.
I understand the problem of complaining to your representative about an issue when that rep holds an overwhelming majority by nature of the FPTP voting system. But still, if enough people complained, it would get his attention, and if more than enough objected, it would markedly change his position.
I think we’ve crossed two issues here:
1. Is the US still a democracy? I say yes it is, because of the people as a whole really wanted a specific change, it would happen.
2. Does the US have a democratic deficit? Let me introduce you to the phrase, in case you haven’t met. It’s well known in Europe, where it is almost universally accepted that the institutions of the EU are not sufficiently accountable to the electorates. I never thought of applying the concept to the US before.
The final answer cannot be yes or no, but how much? and how can it be remedied? and perhaps … should it be remedied?
No, I don’t think you understand the problem. The problem is a cultural one, not a political one. Yes, we need to support, vote, and contact our representatives. But more importantly is to work to create a culture that values our inalienable rights and freedoms, to teach these things to our children and to those in need. Those in need are generally in that state because they are ignorant, don’t understand, or have been ill-educated by our academic and media institutions (see post below). Take care of the culture and the democracy will shine through. I submit that your “democratic deficit” exists more so in Europe than here because Europe still retains much more of an aristocratic, elitist, credentials-based mentality relative to the US having a much more results-based mentality. I think you can see a very similar difference twixt the UK and the Continent for the most part, yes?
One of the dangers of the elitist/aristocratic mentality persisting through democracy is a tendency, still quite apparent here in the US as well, to try to impose cultural change on to society via the legal system. “Oh, if we just get the right conservatives (or what have you) elected to the right positions, we can change the world”. No. We change the world from the ground up. Eventually changes bubble up into the politic but that is downstream. The problem is the politics virtually exist for the purpose of taking credit for the cultural successes. Christianity is most successful when using this approach as well. Similar religions, I’m sure. I’m just not qualified on this aspect of them to really say.
The great success of Western Civilization, and to some degree many prior successful civilizations as well but this one far outshines those, is attributable to giving people the freedom to succeed while simultaneously, and this is probably more important overall, giving them the freedom to fail. Failure is the greatest teacher there is. Protect your children from failure and they will not grow up to be very resilient. The rest of society is no different.
Anyway, academics whining about oligarchy….nothing new there. Even as they feel quite free to politic on the taxpayers’ dime and dodge their responsibility to foster liberal discussion of ideas as they were supposedly intended to do. So CT, DH, TJ, any thoughts on this…
I’m sorry, WTP, the page doesn’t want me to add another nested reply, so I’ll do it here below.
First I’m going to assume that you do not disagree with my two direct responses to the topic: that ths US is a democracy bevause the people do have the power and that it is an oligarchy because the few are the subset who exercise power. Once again we see the problems of arguing with loose definitions.
So that wraps it up for the topic of the post.
Now, on the issue of why most people do not participate in power, you assert that culture is the dominant factor. As always, I’m conscious that “culture” is also loosely defined, but perhaps we can narrow it to a publicly shared expectation that all citizens have a duty to participate. I’m not sure that the looseness will be a problem.
My question then is when and where was there a culture in what we could call a modern liberal democracy that differed significantly from what we see in the US today. It’s not clear to me that there ever has been one. I identify three possible behaviours that we could measure:
1. Voting turnout
2. Regular feedback to representatives
3. Informed issue voting vs. tick-the-box party loyalty
I think this would pose an interesting subject for a study, but I don’t have the time to search for literature on it at the moment.
On another point, the “democratic deficit” that so many identify in the EU is not about class: it clearly arises from deliberate choices in the construction of EU institutions. When I say deliberate, I do not mean nefarious. EU structures are designed to promote consensus and reduce factionalism, and for the most part they do. It is a necessary side effect of that, that individual accountability and responsibility is blurred. In the US, if you don’t like a government policy, you can put familiar faces to it. Individual reps and senators stand up and vote for and against. Issues groups compile voting records. This has the benefit of transparency, and the downside of personalisation of policy. In the EU, it can be quite difficult to understand who is responsible for anything. I recall a poll showing that most EU citizens didn’t even understand that the EU Commission is the primary governing body, and almost no-one could name any Commissioner., including the President.
The US did develop a similar mechanism at a much lower level, when Congress delegated its power to regulate to the Executive branch (which many believe has dubious constitutional grounds), that prevents most of the detailed decisions of government becomining factionalised, at the expense of accountabiliy.
that the US is a democracy because the people do have the power – True. Agree.
and that it is an oligarchy because the few are the subset who exercise power – Not sure on this part as to which few you refer. To be clear (I think), I have a problem with the idea that because things are not perfect, that there is always some nefarious reason for it. Getting a large group of people to agree on much of anything is hard. Anyone who has organized, or even tried to organize anything more complicated than a 20 person picnic understands this. Governing in a democracy is exponentially much harder. Problems come up that cannot reasonably be communicated back to the constituents in an effective manner. Yet we all pretend like it’s all so easy. And thus the impression takes hold that damn near any democracy is an oligarchy from someone’s perspective. Hence my “Academics whining about oligarchy…”, though perhaps I should have included TJ as well. Not sure.
I’m conscious that “culture” is also loosely defined, but perhaps we can narrow it to a publicly shared expectation that all citizens have a duty to participate.
No. You are still not understanding (or I am failing to communicate effectively) the problem. The culture of all citizens participating (I presume you mean in the electoral and pestering process) is itself part of the problem. This only leads to factional fighting that generally goes nowhere. A government is best that governs least. But in order for it that to work, people have to take on personal responsibility. You can’t pass laws to make people rich, people have to make themselves productive. You can’t pass laws to make people behave honestly and ethically, people individually need to understand the value of these qualities and how these values benefit both themselves and society as a whole. The law can only do so much, and most of that comes after the fact. A culture that respects the individual, that values freedom, that imposes on itself a sense of responsibility can only come from the ground up, it cannot be imposed from the government down.
I agree with you on the EU thing. A complete disaster. I’m reminded of some old 70’s song where someone with a British accent says “it sounded like a good idea at the time…” Pink Floyd, maybe? It was never going to work. In addition to the “democratic deficit”, or perhaps the cause of much of it, too many competing cultures clashing against each other. Per my above point, only within some common cultural framework can culture bubble up to government as a reflection of that culture, a means of keeping the predominant culture in check. The EU has way too many different cultural perspectives to form a serious overarching organization. The best you can hope for is a loose confederation with minimal points of contact. The EU, by trying to lord over the continent, has way too many points of friction with its various economic and cultural elements.
I do see your point about the US Executive vs. Legislative issues but the real problem here is not with those two competing but with Congress allowing the Judicial branch to, for all intents and purposes, create law on its own. And further allowing the lawyers and their ilk further power. The fault for which ultimately comes back to the people and their own lack of personal integrity, partly due to their thinking that they can sue their way to riches. Of course the lawyers have aided and abetted that significantly.
It’s all a big mess but a cultural one, not a political one. People have lost their sense of personal responsibility. Religion abdicated it’s role for numerous reasons and the media and academic clowns, those who lack real jobs and thus real responsibility, have filled that role in the worst possible way. And a culture of weak and absent men is significantly to blame there.