Video: Commentary: American oligarchs used to quietly bankroll pols. Now they’re becoming them

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On the night of the Iowa caucuses, Nina Turner, the national co-chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign, triggered a kerfuffle when she bluntly called Mike Bloomberg an oligarch. She said Americans who believe in democracy should be ashamed that oligarchs can buy their way into office.

Jason Johnson, an MSNBC commentator, pushed back against Turner with a classic line American oligarchs love to hear. Bloomberg isn’t an oligarch, Johnson declared, “he’s a rich guy.”

An oligarch, Johnson insisted, is “a rich person who got their money off of oil in Russia.”

What Turner got right and Johnson misunderstands is that being an oligarch has nothing to do with how you make your fortune. It doesn’t matter if your money is clean or dirty, or if your political intentions are good or corrupt.

Oligarchs are people whose primary source of political power is wealth. This definition dates back thousands of years.

The presence of oligarchs poses major challenges to democracy, whose legitimacy is based on fundamental principles of equality such as one person, one vote.

Like everyone else, oligarchs get only one vote on Election Day. But unlike ordinary voters, they can each cast wildly unequal money votes that even millions of small donors can barely match.

In the first four months of his campaign, Bloomberg spent $463 million of his own money. That’s $180 million more than all small donations made to all the other Democratic candidates combined.

Oligarchs use their exaggerated wealth power throughout the political system not only to influence elections, but also to dominate key issues between elections as well.

The blending of democracy and oligarchy in the U.S. is the story of political equality and inequality coexisting in the same system. The arrangement is contradictory and inherently unstable.

Writing in 350 B.C., Aristotle asked whether the rich and poor, oligarchy and democracy, could be combined into one political system.

He argued it was possible only if everyone is confused about what sort of system they’re living in. The power of oligarchs and the people had to be balanced so that no one was sure whether they were living in an oligarchy or democracy.

Confusion and uncertainty are necessary for stability in oligarchic democracies.

Those crafting the Constitution knew they were living in a society not only based on slavery, but also on large disparities of wealth and power among the free. And they expected economic inequality to rise, which it has.

They did not want the many to be able to use democracy to threaten the wealthy minority. During the Constitutional Convention, they worried openly about an “excess of democracy” in America. The tricky problem was how to make American democracy oligarch-friendly.

The founders gave freedom and voice to the many, but focused power upward in the Senate, Supreme Court and presidency to safeguard the rich.

American democracy would blend equality with inequality, participation power with wealth power, democracy with oligarchy.

We are hearing a lot now about oligarchy because the balance has been disturbed. The three richest Americans, Sanders wrote in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, have as much wealth as the entire bottom half of the population combined. And oligarchs are in the country’s face politically like never before.

They used to be content to hang back, out of sight, and defend their wealth by quietly funding political campaigns or hiring lobbyists to roam the halls of Congress getting beneficial language inserted into bills, or by blocking threatening legislation.

American oligarchs today are bold, confident and no longer see why they should operate only through ordinary politicians. They think nothing of bankrolling campaigns that no ordinary politician can afford without constantly begging for donations.

American oligarchs even try to justify this new era of wealth power by claiming, with no hint of irony, that the only way to break the grip of big money on American politics is to elect rich candidates who can ignore oligarchs and truly serve ordinary citizens.

Trust the oligarchs to save us from oligarchy! This was Donald Trump’s message to a base suspicious of oligarchs and big corporations, and they bought it.

Oligarchs are unnerved by the progressive candidates and movements that their new visibility and swagger are producing. Figures like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are a direct response to the crisis of legitimacy spreading throughout American politics.

Fifteen years ago virtually none of my Northwestern students thought the U.S. was an oligarchy. Like Johnson, they believed America was just a democracy with rich people. Starting about five years ago, it was almost impossible to find a single student who believed the U.S. was a democracy.

They now view the country as an oligarchy with regard to most things that matter — who runs for office, tax breaks for the rich, austerity for the many, industries free to pollute and a prison society for the poor.



Jeffrey A. Winters is a professor of political science and director of the Equality Development and Globalization Studies Program at Northwestern University.


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