The biggest threat: A Plutocracy – Much has been made lately about the peril of American democracy. The January 6th “coup,” the rise of MAGA, and Russian influence on U.S. elections – all are described as existential threats to democracy itself.
But contemporary discussions about threats to U.S. democracy make a sweeping assumption: that America still is a democracy.
The premise has been suggested – and supported without much effort – that the U.S. is no longer a democracy. Not in the purest sense anyway. Rather, in functional terms, the U.S. has come to be a plutocracy – a “government by the wealthy.”
Back to the Roots of Democracy
In a democracy, “the masses broadly determine their future.” In a democracy, each individual has “one vote” so to speak, meaning that each person has equal say and equal influence over their government. In the most technical terms, U.S. citizens still enjoy one vote per person, sure. But in functional terms, the say or influence a U.S. citizen has over their government equates to their income level.
Here is a simple litmus test to emphasize the point: Whose political will is more determinative? Yours or Mark Zuckerberg’s? Oprah Winfrey’s? Peter Thiel’s? Charles Koch’s?
I won’t speak for you but I know full well that my vote doesn’t quite have the reach of Peter Thiel’s.
And the result, of someone like me not having the political clout comparable to Zuckerberg or Thiel, is that my interests are neglected, while their interests are nourished.
Has America Strayed from Democracy?
“Today, when working class or even middle class Americans have to compete with the affluent elites, they are not competing on a level playing field,” Kishore Mahbubani wrote. “They have to run uphill to score goals. By contrast, the affluent elites run downhill as the playing field is tilted in their favor.”
Journalist Anand Giridharadas addressed the issue in his timely book Winners Take All.
“A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken,” Giridharadas wrote. “When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them.”
He lists several examples, including the fact the income of the top ten percent of Americans has more than doubled since 1980; the top one percent’s income has tripled; the top 0.001 percent has increased 700 percent; meanwhile, the income for the bottom half of Americans, half of the entire country’s populations, has not moved an inch.
“These familiar figures amount to three and a half decades worth of wondrous, head-spinning change with zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans.”
Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz wrote a 2011 Vanity Fair article titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%,” which made a similar assessment, noting that the top one percent of Americans are raking up about a quarter of America’s income every year. With respect to wealth, the top one percent control about 40 percent. Just a quarter century ago, the top one percent raked up “just” 12 percent of the nation’s income and controlled “just” 33 percent of the nation’s wealth.
“Eventually, these inequalities will enable those better situated to exercise a larger influence over the development of legislation,” Mahbubani wrote.
In principle, their outsized political influence is a problem: it violates the basic tenets of democracy. In practice, “their” outsized political influence is used to – above all things – preserve and augment their own personal wealth – which of course comes at the expense of the majority’s wealth and self-interest.
I know I’m speaking generally about the elite and their interests and their political ambitions – but for the most part, the point stands. Jim Walton’s political interests cut against your political interests. And Jim Walton has a significantly higher ability to exert his political interests than you have of exerting your political interests.
That’s not democracy.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.