Democratic America is Dead. Say Hello, Oligarchy.

Dollar FlagMany years ago a friend of mine, a long-haul truck driver, was in a terrible accident. He almost died, and when he recovered it was with severe, permanent physical and neurological damage. A year or so after he came home from the hospital his wife told me that she was living with a stranger, whose dark moods, frequent eruptions of anger — even his manner of thinking and speaking — were foreign to her. She still loved him, she supposed, although more and more it seemed to her that she loved the man he had been, not the man he became after the accident. She wondered about her duty to the man he had become.

Many of us feel that way about our country. We loved it once, without reservation. But that was before the accident.

The accident was the long slow coup d’etat finessed by the very rich, who gradually discerned how to gain control of our government and by using its powers on their behalf, make themselves obscenely rich. They did it by injecting unimaginable sums of cash into politics until nothing but money mattered in politics. The price of admission to any serious political contest today is north of a million dollars. Earnest people with good ideas, integrity and no money need not apply.

The patient lingered for a long time. There are those who convince themselves even now that it is theoretically possible for votes to beat dollars, given the right issue and the right organizers on the right side. It’s a fantasy.

If scientific confirmation of that point of view is required, we now have it. Researchers at Princeton and Northwestern Universities analyzed 1,800 policy initiatives undertaken by government between 1981 and 2002. They compared what was done by government with what was wanted from government — by average Americans (at the 50th percentile of income) by rich Americans (above the 90th percentile) and by big business.

Their report, out last week, concludes:“the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”  

We knew that, of course. But it has been confirmed. The rich have been calling the shots for 30 years, with the result that they are getting richer faster while the middle and lower classes are falling off a cliff.

Further confirmation of that comes from the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose dense treatise, Capital in the 21st Century, has become an improbable, runaway best-seller around the world. Piketty’s 15 years of research and 685 pages of explanation prove that the rich are getting richer, faster, and none of the gains are trickling down to us peasants.

Since the Great Recession ended (What? You didn’t get the memo?) 95% of all increases in income have gone to the top one per cent of income earners. The other 99% have seen a 12% drop in their earnings.

The mantra of the super rich for half a century has been, “just let us do what we do best, get rich and richer, don’t interfere, don’t regulate and for God’s sake don’t prosecute, and you will benefit because our wealth will trickle down as we create jobs and spend money.” It has always been a scam. They create jobs in Chinese prisons and give their cash to hedge funds, who then run around the world blowing up economic bubbles. Wealth, it turns out, flows uphill.

What the Princeton study and the Piketty book make clear is that the America of our youth, the democratic republic that we loved so much, is no more. It has died to us just as my friend the truck driver died as a result of his accident. Just as that gentle, sweet man was replaced by an ogre, so America has become an imperial oligarchy bestriding its own people and much of the world.

So, as my friend’s wife asked, how do we stay married?

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8 Responses to Democratic America is Dead. Say Hello, Oligarchy.

  1. Denis Frith says:

    This article provides insight into the intangible money games being by the elite.But that is only one side of what is happening. The tangible reality is that the ecological systems that underpin the operation of civilization is irreversibly declining. The rich know their money will not buy them immortality. However, society at large have still to understand that the operation of technological civilization is an unsustainable process.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      In my view, what the elite are doing with money cannot be described either as “games” or “intangible.” They have locked down the political — and thus the governmental — processes of this country to the degree that it does not matter what society at large understands. That would only matter if this were still a democracy.

  2. SomeoneInAsia says:

    I look forward to the day when people will look at modern economic theory the same way we look at Aztec mythology.

    Sorry to learn of what happened to your friend, by the way.

  3. Michael says:

    Tom: I agree with the findings of the research and the corresponding overarching theme, but not the inevitable conclusion. Yes our government has been basically hijacked by lobbyists and other moneyed interests. And yes money is the grease that lubricates the political machine. But if carried to its logical conclusion then the rich guy (Mitt Romney) would occupy the White House. He does not. To state the obvious, we have undoubtedly entered into a dangerous era of haves and have nots, but one thing is for sure, the pendulum swings both ways over time. Perhaps it is naive on my part, but dispute all the frustration and incredulity about how the “system” works (or not), I believe at the end of the day a great many people will demand better from our leaders and our system. Maybe its just that I don’t want to lose–or can’t afford (no pun intended) to lose–that kernel of optimism I feel about America. Like many of us I have thirty-some year old kids and I have a nagging feeling that they may be smarter and more savvy than we were at there age. I hope so. And at some point I hope they will make their voices heard. I know there will always be a broad spectrum of disparity between the classes, but I hope we can restore at least the possibility that people can attain their goals and dreams through a system that is not completely rigged. My view is that the glass is have full… but then again, that’s just my view. Thank you for the concise write up of where we are. It is sobering to be sure. I just hope it is a place we don’t stay too long.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      But wait. Obama was the rich guy in that campaign. According to Politico, he raised $1.123 billion to Romney’s $1.019 billion. A distinction without a difference? You bet it is. Obama’s bread is buttered on the same side, by the same people, as Romney’s was. Why else has Obama not advocated single-payer health insurance; not proposed any semblance of an effective counter to climate change; not stopped the outrageous and unjustifiable subsidies to Big Oil and Big Agriculture? It’s not just that the money controls who wins races; they control who runs. And anybody whose job requires him to beg for and get a billion dollars will find, early on, that he must sell his soul to do it. (Remember that Al Gore, he who electrified with An Inconvenient Truth, barely mentioned climate change while serving as vice president and running for president. Why was that? He didn’t know about it then?)

      I don’t want to squelch hope unnecessarily — I have kids too — but the only people who can fix this political mess by reforming campaign finance are the hogs currently at the trough, and they like it just fine the way it is.

      • Michael says:

        Tom: all valid points. Since change is the only constant, though, it will either get worse or better. It surely won’t stay the same. Of course, time will tell. I’m hoping (not betting) it will be the latter. Thanks for always taking the time to use your way with words to capture where we are in the human life cycle.

  4. Sarah Purol says:

    You understand. Sucks doesn’t it?

  5. Auntiegrav says:

    Thanks for the article.
    Two thoughts: On your friend’s wife: the way you stay married is to fulfill your commitment of support. Marriage isn’t an issue of the luck of the draw: it’s a contract to do what you can to make it work. If the husband is better off without you (on government assistance in a home, without your dependency), then a divorce or separation might be in order. Otherwise, every relationship in the world of living things is a quid-pro-quo contract of obligations…which leads us to the current state of rich and government.
    The rich get richer because the poor buy their stuff and work for them. If you want Change, keep it in your pocket and stop working for Them.
    We live in not just an oligarchy, but a Consumerocracy: our real votes are cast every day at the cash registers, counted by the corporations and passed on to lawmakers with a bouquet of cash for the next campaign.

    It probably IS too late to do any major damage to it because the food Americans eat makes them stupid and lazy, so how will they ever find out what is being done to them by the car salesmen (“news” media)?

    People do stuff. They have reasons for doing stuff: in that order. When you take away their nutrition, they don’t even bother with reasons.

    The rich get richer from the people who buy their stuff and work for them, and they should be obligated to return the favor. Unfortunately, all of the laws that favor money flowing uphill also favor violence flowing downhill.
    It will end when Americans once again figure out what a guillotine is for: reintroducing real risk into the economics of the oligarchy: a.k.a. “That old-tyme religion”.