In the glossary of political terms oligarchy defines being a nation in which the political system is controlled by an élite group of citizens. It could be argued that America was once an oligarchy because it permitted the franchise to just white, male, property holders. All others, the majority, were shut out. Over the years, however, that changed as more citizens were given the right to vote and take part in the political process. Arguably oligarchy was gradually replaced by popular democracy.
Recently I read a headline warning that America is rapidly returning to an oligarchy. Nick Carnes, a professor at Duke University, made the statement that,
“If millionaires in the United States formed their own political party, that party would make up just 3 percent of the country, but it would have a majority in the House of Representatives, a filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court and a man in the White House.
If working-class Americans — people with manual-labor and service-industry jobs — were a political party, that party would have made up more than half of the country since the start of the 20th century, but its legislators (those who last worked in blue-collar jobs before getting into politics) would never have held more than 2 percent of the seats in Congress.”
As the gulf between the rich and the rest of America continues to widen and wealth and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of the so-called “one percent”, popular democracy becomes an ever disappearing reality. We simply stop being a nation that can claim it strives to follow a creed of all are equal and becomes even more of a nation governed by the privileged.
To the average American’s harm we have far too long accepted the idea that the rich and powerful have our best interest at heart. While there are anecdotal examples of this there is little evidence of a meaningful support. To the contrary, a large part of our history is very much the story of the wealthy using their power to further their own, and those of their peers, interest at the expense of the average person.
Even Warren Buffett, who publicly states that the super rich should not be coddled, almost always plays the system to maximize his company’s profits. Just recently he refused to use his considerable shares and power to keep Coca Cola from implementing a new executive pay plan that many, including Buffett, saw as excessive. Critics say his motive was to protect his fellow members of the rich guys club.
Conservatives are quick to shout “class warfare” whenever critics complain about income disparity in America. That’s because they see the wealthy as being benevolent job creators who just love to trickle down their wealth. What is never acknowledged is that there is little real evidence to support any of this. The wealth of the one-percent rarely trickles down. Instead it too often goes straight into overseas tax-free private accounts where it earns them even more wealth that will never end up in a working person’s pocket.
If this be class warfare then let it be. But it is much more, it is a genuine threat to the rights, political power and economic opportunity for those not at the top. It foretells the replacing of democracy with the dictatorship of a small and uniquely powerful group that is becoming increasingly entrenched in the halls of power.
Footnote: W.C. Fields once asked his daughter’s new date what his name was. The boy replied, Ogg Oglesbee. Fields retorted, “Ogg Oglesbee hey, sound like a bubble in a bathtub.” Every time I hear the word oligarchy I think of bubbles in a bathtub.