Signs You Are Living in a Oligarchy

Social, political, and economic disenfranchisement—check out the signs you are living in an oligarchy.

Signs You Are Living in a Oligarchy
"At the parliament of animals, the rabbits demanded equal rights, and the lions replied, ‘But where are your claws?’”

Liberal Democracies proliferated in the early 20th century and took a stronger hold following WWII. Europe's and the United States' movement towards liberal values was in backlash to the aristocratic and monarchal rule that dominated since the 18th century. While the adoptees of liberal values claimed fairness and equality of opportunity, some slowly degenerated into the same system they once rejected. The ideal of equality of opportunity is an essential ingredient in a liberal democracy because it ensures that merit, and not birthright, gives privilege. The American Dream is an iconic narrative based on meritocracy, and has been woven into the fabric of national identity. This dogma is perpetuated by both the leaders of society and the optimistic masses at the bottom. The blind optimism is what keeps the dream alive—and the current class order in check. Academics are wary of this nearly religious narrative though—work hard, get a little lucky, and become rich. Studies of class mobility, income inequality, and analysis of policy paint a very different picture of the American Dream—it's a myth. The conclusions from varying academics on the subject argues that the United States looks more like a oligarchy than a democracy. Worried that your right to, "life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness," are under threat? See if you agree with the signs you living in a oligarchy.

What is an oligarchy?

It is crucial to first define an oligarchy in order to proceed. An oligarchy is a system of governance that runs and is influenced by a small group of people. This group usually has a similar characteristic or status that binds them all together—wealth, education, religion, military involvement, or familial bonds. The characteristic will usually pose a significant barrier to entry for the average person, further consolidating the power into fewer hands. An oligarchy can occur in any system of governance, from a democracy to a plutocracy. In a democracy, the oligarchs will use their connections and money to influence the election to get candidates or policies to work in their favor. In a monarchy, they will use their money or power as leverage to influence the king. In a plutocracy, a specific type of oligarchy, the rich have overwhelming influence on the government, or govern the people of their country themselves.

Jonathan Rawls wrote one of the most influential defenses of egalitarian liberalism in 1971 with A Theory of Justice. Values that the United States claims but rarely defends, Rawls' principles of justice give the world a lens to evaluate its behavior and policies according to egalitarian values. He brought liberalism into the 21st century by discussing equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society. As Karl Marx predicted in the 19th century and Thomas Piketty argues in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, capitalism inevitably leads to a concentration of wealth into the hands of a few and a neglect for the worst off. Rawls' theory tries to prevent democracy from being eroded by caring for the interests of the worst off. With a purpose on redistributive justice, all policies should adhere to the difference principle—inequalities in the distribution of goods are permissible only if they benefit the least well-off positions of society. Rawls' theory of egalitarian liberalism is useful to analyze the current state of America. America's claim to preach values, such as equality of opportunity, is not supported by an analysis of recent policy advancements because these policies are geared towards helping the rich—illuminating telltale signs that you are living in a oligarchy.

The wealthy make the policy.

(Photo: Syndicated by Cagle Cartoons)

A report, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, by Princeton University professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University professor Benjamin I. Page argues that the wealthy have a substantially larger impact on policy than the average American.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

While average Americans enjoy rights associated with liberal democracies such as freedom of speech, of association, and of assembly—their influence in the democratic process is dwarfed by the deep pockets of special interest groups. The inequality of influence in the democratic process likely stems from these three essential issues with campaign financing such as the costs of running a campaign, the conflict of interest in raising money, and inadequate information about candidates. The cost of running a successful campaign and supreme court cases like Citizens United making super PAC's legal acts a feedback loop outrageous expensive campaign costs—close to $3 billion spent for the 2016 election. While some claim that the floodgates were already open before Citizens United, the results now are staggering—over half the money given to presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign comes from just 158 families. Democratic values are seriously under threat when the wealthy have a greater chance to influence policy and the cost of elections causes politicians to support policies to solicit donations.

Wealth Inequality and Social Mobility

One of the essential ingredients of an oligarchy is a characteristic that separates people. The United States closely mirrors the characteristics of a plutocracy because the rich have a substantial impact on politics, wealth and income inequality is rising, and has a relatively low rate of social mobility. Research by the Pew Research Center argues that the Great Recession in 2008 served as an inflection point for an increasing divide between the rich and the middle class. The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country's wealth—a ratio grater then any time in the past 50 years. The chances of getting into the wealthy class aren't high either; Professor of Economics at Harvard University Raj Chetty argues that the probability of a child born to parents in the bottom fifth of the income distribution who reaches the top fifth is 7.5 percent—with Denmark at 11.7 percent and Canada at 13.5 percent. The lack of social mobility is further expounded by the pace of annual pay increases, the top 1 percent wage grew 138 percent since 1979, while wages for the bottom 90 percent grew 15 percent. Other compelling arguments for increasing wealth inequality are the roles of parental incomes and educational tracks on future earning rates for children. The wealth and income of society has to be a politically determined distribution, but people do not seem to care. Recent polls suggest that Republican voters prioritize security issues—threats coming from Mexicans jumping the border and terrorists in distant lands. Republican candidates are intelligent; they are controlling their voter base with strong narratives.

Control Through Narrative

The American Dream perpetuates through anecdotal stories of immigrants or those struggling through poverty and striking it rich by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. These stories are powerful, and inspire young generations to do the same, but the data does not tell the same story. They tell a story of a large majority of low-income families staying poor and empowered.

“There are forms of oppression and domination which become invisible – the new normal.”—Michael Foucault

Narratives such the American Dream blind disenfranchised populations about the invisible forms of domination they face. A 2014 Gallup poll found that only 52 percent of Americans think there is plenty of opportunity for the average Joe to get ahead, down from 81 percent in 1998. This gap in the actual vs perceived ability to climb in social status is different between political leanings—the left are more skeptical about social mobility than the right. Narratives about false perceptions are common tactics to impose will on subjects. George Orwell's 1984 eloquently revealed the dangers of strong narratives with the concept of DoubleThink.

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”—George Orwell, 1984

How can Americans know that wealth inequality is rising, social mobility is decreasing, but also believe in the myth of the American Dream? Perhaps the Dream or limited state involvement is so closely associated with the American national identity that people worry about being "Un-American?" These are the questions that must be unraveled in the coming decades.

Bernie Sanders, the Savior?

The self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Bernie, leans far left for the United States, but more moderate in comparison with the European left. Universal healthcare, free college education, expansion of Social Security (pensions), and increased taxes for the wealthy—his campaign promises failed to inspire enough public support. However, there is merit in his critique of America's systemic issues. Health spending per person is two and a half times the average for the OECD, a club of mostly rich countries, and 44 million students have student loan debt of one and a half trillion dollars. While his promises may be infeasible for practical implementation, he certainly offers a starting point for negotiating policies that fit Rawls' difference principal—inequalities in the distribution of goods are permissible only if they benefit the least well-off positions of society.

Donald Trump took office in 2017 with a net worth near $2.8 billion, pinning him as the wealthiest president of all time. His cabinet is also the wealthiest in the past three administrations, with his cabinet's total net worth at $2.3 billion. Trump campaigned on promises to help those in rural areas of the United States that has been passed on by modern industry and to "drain the swamp." The tax cut to take effect in 2018 is projected to hurt the population that elected him—and helping the rich. Vox writers Dylan Scott and Alvin Chang argue that the tax bill is the antithesis of egalitarian, "In 2019, a person in the bottom 10 percent gets a $50 tax cut and a person in the top 1 percent gets a $34,000 tax cut." A policy that likely flew under a lot of people's radar is that the estate and gift tax exemption has been doubled to an estimated $11.2 million per individual, or $22.4 million for married couples. Since Trump's inauguration, the swamp has become amuck with scandal. Brenda Fitzgerald, Paul Manafort, Scott Pruitt, and Tom Price all have faced, or have resigned as a result of, serious accusations. Trump certainly did not pick advisors with ethical compasses that steered them towards helping the public good—but rather self-indulgence at the expense of the public.

Concluding Thoughts

Living in a oligarchy is unlikely to be a pleasurable experience—unless you are one of the lucky few at the top. An oligarchy masked as a democracy can be dangerous because the oppression is invisible and hidden under the guise of public service and interest. The United States, lately, closely mirrors an oligarchy by its vehement protest for policies that adhere to being in the interest of and benefitting the worst off in our society. The systemic issues relating to stagnating wages, increasing wealth inequality, weak social mobility, politicians reliant on wealthy donors, and general public ignorance coinciding with each of these issues mentioned does not paint the United State's liberal-democratic values in a good light. The future does not look bright either, as Trump and his administration are deeply involved with wealthy people, private interests, and developing stories of corruption. The signs you are living in an oligarchy are overwhelming, but that should not stop you from exercising your rights to vote and using the freedom of speech to protest the current state of affairs.

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Blake O'Connor


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