Oligarchy Fails as Prevalent International System of Government

Sean Para, Columnist

The recent conflict between Russia and the United States over Ukraine has led to a massive authoritarian crackdown in Russia, where the last independent media outlets and sources of opposition to government policy were silenced. Many Americans decry Russia’s corrupt and oppressive government, run by plutocrats who steal from the Russian people (Putin himself is said to have a fortune hidden in foreign banks) and monopolize political power. China has a similar political system, where power is limited to the upper echelons of the Communist Party, and party leaders and their families amass vast wealth with the tacit consent of the government. These societies are both oligarchies in the truest sense of the word, run by small groups of extremely wealthy and influential people who exert overweening control over national policymaking. However, before we are so critical of the Russian and Chinese political systems, we must recognize that our political system is just as oligarchic.

This may seem like an outrageous statement — America has always represented a shining example of democracy and freedom, so they say. Democracy, however, is not a system of government, but an ideal to strive for. We live in a republic, and we are afforded the rights of Western society such as freedom of press, freedom of assembly and the right to vote. But how much does an American’s vote count? We are given the choice between two parties with different philosophies and bases of support. But we are not afforded the right to choose between radically different candidates — only those who have enough support from vested interests, mostly corporations, to be put on the ballot. An enormous amount of wealth is in the hands of the rich: the top one percent of Americans held 35 percent of the country’s net worth in 2010 and 42.1 percent of its financial wealth, figures that have stayed steady over the past three decades. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the super rich gives them an incredible amount of power through their ability to finance political campaigns and lobby for the issues most important to them.

Our political system has always been oligarchic. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the fallible nature of popular rule and created a republic that would naturally be led by an educated and wealthy elite. Democratic institutions give every citizen a say in the political process, especially since the franchise was opened to everyone, regardless of class, race or gender. However, those at the top of society, although theoretically equal to those at the bottom, are able to direct government attention to their interests. Income grew 275 percent for the top one percent of households between 1979 and 2007, compared to an 18 percent increase in income for the bottom 20 percent of households. These glaring inequalities could be fought by raising the minimum wage, creating laws that prevent top executives from making so much more money than those below them and raising the tax rate to funnel more wealth toward the bottom of society through government programs. Yet none of these policies have been implemented due to the influence the rich have on government policy.

All societies tend toward hierarchy. I have yet to see one political system without an elite of some sort. However, this does not justify the dominance of America’s upper class. Our society does afford us many freedoms; the fact that I have the ability to write this article criticizing our government is a testament to the liberties we enjoy. Serious wealth redistribution is the only way to open up our political system. European social democracies enjoy much less inequality than our own society. If wealth can be distributed more evenly and if the middle class can share in the rising incomes of the wealthy, it will create an opportunity for a more open and dynamic political system. On the other hand, if current trends continue and if the rich continue to monopolize political power, our country will become less democratic, less free and more oligarchic. Let’s take the government back for the people.

Editor’s note: A recent study by Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that the U.S. government may now reasonably be termed an oligarchy, based on a 20year analysis of voter influence on public policy in relation to income.