Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been consistently sounding the alarm about the danger to democracy posed by a few super-wealthy people who are now in a position to buy elections and media coverage. In a speech to the US Senate titled A Threat to American Democracy, he laid out what is happening.
Mr. President, the struggle that we are engaged in now is stopping the billionaire class from cutting Social Security, from cutting Medicare, from cutting Medicaid, and from preventing us from creating the millions of jobs that our economy desperately needs. But at the end of the day, what we are really talking about is whether or not this nation is going to become an oligarchic form of society. And what that means, what an oligarchic form of society is about, and has existed in many countries throughout the world, historically many countries in Latin America although that has recently changed—is you have a nation in which both the economics and politics of the nation are controlled by a handful of billionaire families. Very, very wealthy. And it doesn’t matter what party is in power because the real power, economically and politically, rests with a billionaire class.
And, Mr. President, it seems to me very clearly that unless we act boldly to reverse that trend, we are seeing this country moving in exactly that direction. And one of the reasons for that is that as a result of the disastrous Citizens United supreme court ruling which regards corporations as people and allows the superwealthy to spend as much as they want on elections, the billionaire party which is obviously aligned with the republicans, is now, in fact, the major political force in this country. It’s not the Republican party per se, it is not the Democratic party per se. It is the billionaire party led by people like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. And they are the dominant political force in this country because they can spend unbelievable sums of money on elections, they can spend as much money as they need setting up think tanks and all kinds of organizations which will support their extreme right-wing point of view.
Mr. President, in the last election for president, Barack Obama’s campaign spent I believe a little over a billion dollars, Mitt Romney somewhere around there, maybe a little bit less, about a billion dollars. Koch bureaus’ wealth—brothers’ wealth increased by $12 billion in one year. Is there any reason to doubt that in the future this one family will be able to spend more money on a campaign than the presidential candidates themselves receiving donations from hundreds of thousands of people? And that is where we are today.
Do we want to have a political system where a handful of billionaires can sit around the room and say okay, put $100 million into that state, let’s put $50 million into that state, where a handful of billionaires will determine who gets elected president, who gets elected senator, who gets elected governor, and have members of congress go crawling up to these billionaires, what do you need Mr. Billionaire, how do I get the hundreds of millions of dollars you can give me? Is that really what American democracy is supposed to be about?
No, it is not what democracy should be about but it is what it has become.
My one quibble with what Sanders is saying is that he seems to be implying that there is a danger of the US becoming an oligarchic form of society. I think we are already there and that what we are heading towards is a society where a single person or a very small cabal buys the presidency of a country that otherwise has the trappings of elections. I don’t think there is a name for that. Yet.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. FEC that struck down the aggregate limits on how much individuals can contribute to campaigns is just another step along this road. The flood of huge amounts of money from a few super-wealthy people into politics just got bigger.
What I find interesting is how the word ‘oligarchy’, which used to be used just by those on the left or as descriptors of systems in other countries, has now gone mainstream, along with the language of the 1%. Now some mainstream politicians, academics, and journalists are using it to describe what is happening in the US too and that is a good thing because we need to call what is happening by its proper name.