A once taboo word goes mainstream

I have long used the word oligarchy to describe America because I think it accurately captures the reality of the current state of politics where a small coterie of wealthy individuals and families control the country and make all the major decisions on economic and military issues. The so-called people’s elected representatives are merely the people in front of the curtain, there to entertain us and distract us from the fact that we really have no say except on a limited set of social issues that the oligarchy does not really care that much about as long as the stability they need to maintain their own lifestyles is maintained.

While many would agree with some of those premises, actually using the word oligarchy used to be the preserve of leftists, and establishment types used to shy away from the word. But no more. I see the word being used more and more as the nakedness of class oppression in the US becomes manifest. The latest to do so is former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart in an article titled Dare we call it an oligarchy?.

If the presidency were to pass back and forth between two or three families in any Latin American nation we would call it an oligarchy.

The lobbying/campaign finance/access matrix has corrupted American politics, divided our nation, and is well down the road to creating a system of political oligarchy.

We have created what came to be known in late 17th and 18th century England as a division between the Court and the Country. The Court is composed of networks of political office holders and insiders, their lobbying and finance contacts, the policy centers which they inhabit between administrations, the offices they rotate in and out of, and a deep sense of shared entitlement, power, preference, and prerogative. The Country is all the rest of us.

I have a colleague in the economics department, a fairly liberal person, who once expressed her disdain for an article on economics I sent her because the author used the word oligarchy and to her this meant that he was beyond the pale of respectable discourse. And she was correct, at least for now, at least when it came to academia.. When Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University published their analysis that showed that elites dominated politics in the US and everyone else had little or no say, they used the term “elite economic interests” instead of oligarchy.

But that did not stop the media from replacing that euphemism with the more pithy label. Here’s an article from the Washington Times about the research of Gilens and Page.

America is no longer a democracy — never mind the democratic republic envisioned by Founding Fathers.

Rather, it has taken a turn down elitist lane and become a country led by a small dominant class comprised of powerful members who exert total control over the general population — an oligarchy, said a new study jointly conducted by Princeton and Northwestern universities.

One finding in the study: The U.S. government now represents the rich and powerful, not the average citizen, United Press International reported.

Even the solidly establishment BBC used the word to describe the study’s conclusions, under the title Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy.

John Cassidy in the New Yorker also wrote about the study under the title Is America an Oligarchy? and ponders on the suitability of that word. He concludes:

There can be no doubt that economic élites have a disproportionate influence in Washington, or that their views and interests distort policy in ways that don’t necessarily benefit the majority: the politicians all know this, and we know it, too. The only debate is about how far this process has gone, and whether we should refer to it as oligarchy or as something else.

Gerry Myers writes that it is not clear how to describe the country, that while it seems to be a mix of an oligarchy, plutocracy, and a theocracy, one thing it definitely is not is a democracy.

John Steinbeck said that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” But when the conditions are right, there is the possibility of some kind of Gestalt switch occurring where people suddenly realize the truth of their condition. When mainstream media outlets and establishment types start using the word oligarchy without disdain to describe the US, then one senses a change in the zeitgeist. This is what the oligarchy lives in fear of and what they are trying to prevent at all costs.


  1. says

    The first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one.

    Oligarchies, like any other illegitimate form of government, can only exist if there is a hierarchy willing to support, protect and perpetuate it. The US’s oligarchy heavily depends on the judicial system, both for writing criminal “laws” and for enforcing them. If that structure of people wake up and turn on the powerful, the whole system will collapse. The French Revolution is a prime example of that, the defenders of the crown becoming its enemies.

    The US’s judges and cops are the backbone of the corrupt system. If they ever woke up and stopped doing things for their own benefit (careerism, power tripping, sociopathic enjoyment of violence, etc.), if they all at once refused to enforce corrupt, biased and racist laws, the oligarchy would have no choice but to turn the US into a military dictatorship. The same applies there: the generals and admirals might be willing to act in their own interests, but if the average starving soldiers collectively put down their weapons en masse and refuse to fire on their own people as did the Soviet soldiers in 1991, the oligarchy would fall quickly. Or better yet, if we saw them turn those weapons on their own leaders….

    The only reason the US’s oligarchy will continue to exist is the rank and file seeing a selfish benefit in perpetuating it. As soon as that disappears, collapse is inevitable.

  2. nrdo says

    The US is obviously an oligarchy, to a significant degree, but my impression from history is that this may simply be how all large-scale, wealthy states develop. From Victorian England to Imperial China, there is always a cadre of wealthy people who decide major political and economic questions.

    I’d also argue that it’s not always necessary or inevitable that class warfare becomes literal warfare. I suspect that there is a level of disproportionate wealth and power that is human societies will tolerate, and revolutions only occur when the elites’ interests diverge too much from the collective interests of the society.

  3. wannabe says

    When FDR actually started to deal with the protracted disaster of the Great Depression, the monied interests called him “a traitor to his class.”

    A second FDR is entirely too much to hope for.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    I’d also argue that it’s not always necessary or inevitable that class warfare becomes literal warfare. I suspect that there is a level of disproportionate wealth and power that is human societies will tolerate, and revolutions only occur when the elites’ interests diverge too much from the collective interests of the society.

    I’m not sure if it’s the proportion of wealth and power that can take a society over the tipping point, or what the bottom level is.

    Historically, poor people have put up with some pretty enormous wealth discrepancies without kicking up too much of a fuss. They even seem to get a certain amount of vicarious pleasure from watching their emperors or pharaohs or movie stars or royal families living their luxurious lives.

    The riots start when people start to feel their actual lives are threatened — historically, often from hunger. But the oligarchy here should be very afraid of the Baltimore riots, because these are people who feel their own survival and that of their families is at stake. If that were to spread to the general population, the power structure might be in actual danger. Basic empathy should make white people realize what it must feel like when the police are seen as the enemy; the middle class also has the example of the NSA to remind us that, as far as the security apparatus are concerned, we none of us have any rights.

  5. moarscienceplz says

    That’s a pretty ironic quote from The Washington Times. It’s still controlled by “Reverend” Moon’s cronies, AFAIK.

  6. Mano Singham says


    When the question is about whether countries are democracies or republics or representative democracies constitutional democracies or etc. they are about technical differences. In a ‘pure’ democracy, there is direct decision-making by the people. But in practice, there are checks on pure direct majority ruling, either by electing people to do the actual decision making or by having a constitution that provides checks.

    In broader discussions about whether the US is a democracy or an oligarchy, those technical differences are ignored and the question is whether the people have almost any say at all (irrespective of which of the above systems is in place) or whether power is controlled by a few.

  7. Mano Singham says


    Foiled by autocorrect again! Thanks for pointing it out. I have corrected it.

  8. bmiller says

    I would agree with nrdo. I think also that oligarchy is really what many of the “founding fathers” cerainly envisioned, as they were largely from the property owning elite or at least the professional class.

    Those hoping for a revolution forget that revolutions quickly develop their own elites. As bad as the Czar was, Russian politics quickly developed a Stalin.

    I would also caution that the “left” is as authoritarian in many cases as the right. I would still perhaps rather be ruled by a businessman than a doctrinaire leftist intellectual.

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