America is already an oligarchy

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.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    ‘Oligarchy’ doesn’t quite do the trick. ‘Kleptocracy’ is more accurate.

  2. colnago80 says

    Not to keep beating a dead horse but the Nader voters in Florida and New Hampshire who concluded that Al Gore didn’t measure up to their exacting standards are responsible for Dubya being in the White House and the elevation of Roberts and Alito to the SCOTUS. Roberts and Alito provided the votes for this latest travesty by the court.

  3. doublereed says

    Well in 2000 I also blame the level of voter apathy. It’s one of the reasons I really hate it when people say “the two parties are the same” or “there’s really just one party.” That kind of utter cynicism led to people not really caring whether it was Gore or Bush in office. In stark contrast, people actually liked Obama.

  4. colnago80 says

    Re doublereed @ #5

    It will be interesting to see what will happen in 2016 if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, running against, say, Jeb Bush. How many liberal voters will take the position that there is no difference between the two and that therefore they can vote for a third party.

    By the way, I don’t criticize Nader voters in deeply red states like Texas and Utah or deeply blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts. I think iit would be alright to boycott Hillary in those states as she won’t carry Texas or Utah anyway and will carry Maryland and Massachusetts regardless. It’s in purple states like Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Virginia where it’s irresponsible.

  5. says

    America never was anything but an oligarchy! I mean, seriously – it was a bunch of wealthy and powerful people who led a successful tax revolt against a colonial power, then set themselves up so that the people they ruled over (or outright owned!) actually wound up paying more taxes, while they cut themselves a big fat discount and came up with a clever power-sharing arrangement designed to prevent them from literally lording it over eachother because they knew that was the kind of people they were! And it lasted, um, less than 2 generations before it had to be reset with a hugely bloody civil war that resulted in a transition to a corporate/banking oligarchy instead of a militarist one. That corporate/banking oligarchy has used the military power of the state to expand and open markets, then control them, worldwide.

  6. doublereed says

    It wasn’t just a tax revolt. The Americans were against taxation without representation. I don’t know why it’s so fashionable to leave that second part out. And 1770s – 1860s is at least 3 generations.

    Buuuut I probably shouldn’t indulge considering Marcus went full conspiracy nut with that last post. It must have taken all his effort not to mention the Rothchilds.

  7. colnago80 says

    Re doublereed @ #9

    What do you mean the Rothchilds? It was the Masons allied with the Illuminati.

  8. doublereed says

    @10 colnago

    Bah you’re just another that’s been taken in by the Reptilian Elite. Wake up sheeple!

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