published Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Martin: Our democratically enabled oligarchy

By David Martin

If you've ever thought your vote doesn't matter, or if you have the sneaking suspicion that the political cards are stacked against you, researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University probably confirmed your reservations last week with their study "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens."

In a widely discussed investigation aimed at giving a precise name to the type of government currently functioning in the U.S., researchers revealed that the American political system today most closely resembles an oligarchy, meaning we are ruled by an economic elite.

One of the most popular passages from the report -- one that the media likes to latch onto, anyway -- says that "when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they (citizens) generally lose."

Political pundits have seized on that sentence, attempting to legitimize the popular belief that the voices of individual Americans are subservient to big business, political action committees and the patricians of the 1 percent.

It's hard to argue that American political influence seems to be growing more exclusive by the day. You'd have to be living under a rock to not notice that. But what's absent from most of the conversations surrounding this trend is that the American people have virtually handed over the reins of political power to special interests.

Since 2000, only 55 percent of Americans, on average, have voted in presidential elections. Midterm voter turnout is even worse, as only 37 percent of the voting-age population casts ballots.

Guess what country has a voter turnout that's pretty similar to the United States: Afghanistan.

Yes, even though the Taliban threatened to disrupt this month's presidential election (read: detonate massive numbers of car bombs outside polling places), about 50 percent of Afghanistan's voters turned out on April 5 to pick their next leader. On Election Day and the day before, 23 Afghans were murdered to scare people away from voting -- and those are just the reported killings. In America, the primary thing keeping us away from the polls is apathy.

So while American voters slumber away under the sleeping dust sprinkled by the apathy fairy, big business and special interests have only each other to fight for the strings that pull political power. And they will most certainly go at it full tilt to gather up the influence that American citizens have left on the grand bargaining table called democracy. After all, big business didn't become big business by being apathetic.

But this isn't just a story about bureaucrats and politicians in some far off land called Washington, D. C. Every county and every town has micro-oligarchies. They go by different labels, though -- names more homespun, like "the good ol' boy network." While the Princeton and Northwestern research conjures up images of the oil industry and the Koch brothers, think about how easy we've made things on our local versions. How difficult do you think it is to exert influence over a city of 170,000 when only 16 percent of registered voters pull themselves off the couch to exercise the dearest of inalienable rights? What if voter participation sinks to 12 percent, or below 10 -- how hard will it be to manage us then?

Answer: Not very hard at all.

It would be nice to think the oligarchy study will spur increased activism to tilt the power scale back towards the citizenry, but my fear is that it will only encourage the blame society we live in to shrug and mutter something about individuals not mattering. Or will it?

We can demonize oligarchs all we want, but at the end of the day, they're living in the castle largely because we've given them the keys and shown ourselves to the street.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.

c. David Allen Martin

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Rickaroo said...

Mr. Martin, while voter apathy is lamentable, we could have voter participation of 100% but until we have candidates in the running who are truly interested in dismantling the oligarchy, just showing up to vote is not the answer. It doesn't seem to matter whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the Oval Office or which party has control of the House or Senate; neither party has any interest whatsoever in campaign finance reform or taking action to restore power to the people instead of power to the Kochs, Big Oil, Big Pharma, and the other rich, powerful interests who are pulling the strings of our politicians.

Election after election, the only candidates who speak out about addressing campaign finance reform and even daring to mention the word "oligarchy" are third party candidates, and they have about as much leverage as a crowbar against a ten-ton boulder. They are not even allowed to appear in the debates! Today one must be a multi-millionaire to even consider running, and even then, it's necessary for them to raise umpteen millions more if they hope to have a snowball's chance in hell of winning. And now, with the latest rulings from our corporate-friendly Supreme Court, the power to the fat cats and big business has been legitimized and increased a hundred fold.

It looks as if the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be between Hillary and whatever regressive, boot-licker-of-the-rich Republican the GOP can decide upon. And while we can be assured of all-out oligarchy with a Republican in office, do you honestly think that Hillary is going to go in and try to shake things up in the corporate world? She is even more corporate friendly than Obama! Obama sometimes talks tough against corporate clout but in the end he is just playing politics as usual and has no real interest whatsoever in shaking anything up. He seems to be complacent with his landmark legislation, Obamacare, and even that was a sell-out to the private interests, regardless of the knee-jerk invectives of "socialist" by the Republicans.

Our only hope, short of a full blown depression (which would force us to make the necessary changes economically and politically) is for us, the voters, to stop playing the same gams as our politicians and pretending that we don't have any alterative to our present 2-party system. The time has come to stop voting for the lesser of two evils and turn our attention instead to those 3rd party candidates who are interested in truly turning the tables.

April 24, 2014 at 1:48 p.m.
jaymesser said...


If you find yourself uninspired by the current field of candidates, especially at the local level, then I would encourage you to take a stand and be the candidate that you want to see. Even if running for office means being marginalized and out fundraised by the big two action is favored over apathy. Sitting on our couch and complaining is getting us no where. Will you now when your country needs you the most stop only at words or will stand up and take action on her behalf?

When this great nation was founded the people who served it came from every walk of life and no matter their profession or level of education. During this time taking a seat in congress (or any elected position) was done in service to the greater good of not only their community but their country. The inspiration to run for office did not arise from the desire to be rich or famous.

We seem to have lost sight of the principles that made serving this nation in any political capacity a great honor. With very little exception Congressional representatives seem to have become lost in a quest for individual greatness rather than keeping our nation on the path of greatness. As the rewards for congressional service have increased the average level of character for those seeking to serve has decreased. As Americans it is our duty to bring politial SERVICE back into focus and raise the quality of those that represent us.

April 24, 2014 at 5:26 p.m.
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