10 April 2014

The United States—democracy or oligarchy?

Last year, Iran held an election to choose its president. Many in the West mocked the election because the candidates were vetted by the Guardian Council (a group appointed largely by the Supreme Leader). This, however, is not so different from American presidential elections. In the U.S., candidates have to get approval from the corporate sector simply because if they don't get those big corporate bucks they'll never be able to afford a successful campaign. This is an informal vetting compared to the Iranian formal one, but a vetting nonetheless.

We have long referred to the United States as the world's leading democracy. It is certainly still a leader, but given the increasing influence of money in American society generally and in politics specifically, the "democracy" part now has to be reconsidered.

Democracy is political equality, and the U.S. is a very long way from political equality. It starts with the vast inequality of wealth in the country and ends with the ability of the disproportionate rich to corrupt politics with abundant largesse.

The magnitude of the inequality is vast and growing. The richest one per cent of Americans own 38 per cent of the country's financial wealth, the bottom 60 per cent own 2.3 percent. One family—the Waltons, owners of Walmart—are worth $148-billion, more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined. From 2009 through 2012, 95 per cent of all new income earned went to the top one per cent. One family, the very politically-active Koch brothers, saw a $12-billion increase in their wealth.

This might not be so bad for democracy if the wealth was kept out of politics, but it isn't. Any hope of that has been systematically extinguished by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2010, in the Citizens United case, the Court ruled that the constitution forbade governments from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations and other associations. Acting independently of candidates and parties, big donors can spend unlimited amounts on attack ads and other campaign efforts.

Recently the Court loosened the reins even further. In another ruling, it decreed that big campaign donors can dole out money to as many candidates and political committees as they want as long as they abide by limits on contributions to each individual campaign. In striking down reasonable campaign limits, the Court seems incapable of distinguishing money from speech, or corporations from citizens.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders sums up the Court's behaviour with the observation, "The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process,” a sentiment hard to argue with.

Corporate control is not, of course, limited to funding politicians. The defense industry, for example, has cleverly established manufacturing plants around the country such that hardly a single congressman can propose reducing the military budget without proposing the loss of jobs in his own constituency or state. Furthermore, gun manufacturers have a proxy in the National Rifle Association. By heavily funding what has been referred to as a "virtual subsidiary of the gun industry," they allow it to savagely attack any politician who dares to propose gun control laws or indeed any measure that might interfere with the profits of gun dealers and weapons makers.

Republicans are, not surprisingly, delighted with the Supreme Court and find no problem with corporations using their economic muscle to set the political agenda. I remember my first conversation with an American conservative about democracy and she pointedly informed me that the United States was not a democracy, it was a republic. If she wasn't right about the former when she told me this those many years ago, she is certainly right now.

1 comment:

  1. The United States is much too corrupt to sustain genuine democracy. The outrageous rulings of the Supreme Court are a glaring example.

    Every law student learns of the 'legal fiction' of the corporate personality whereby enterprise could be granted standing to sue and be sued, etc. The USSC simply circumvented that.

    Theodore Roosevelt warned of the peril to democracy of commercial intervention in politics in his "Square Deal" speech at Osawatomie, Kansas in 1910. Everything today's US courts and the 'bought and paid for' Congress has done flies in the face of Roosevelt's warnings.

    As Joe Stiglitz demonstrates conclusively in "The Price of Inequality", modern inequality has precious little to do with either market forces or merit. The overwhelming part of it is legislated, deriving from grants, subsidies, tax breaks, deferrals and outright gifts of resources and permits.

    All of this is aided and abetted by the rise of concentrated, corporate media. Once the 'watchdog of government', today's media have bee transformed into government's lapdog. To the extent the American public is informed at all, it is often deliberately misinformed. What better way to eliminate the threat of an informed electorate?

    Two years after the Bush gang announced that no WMDs had been found in Iraq, 60% of FOX News viewers believed these weapons had in fact been discovered. Goebbels could hardly have done better.

    Between an ill-informed electorate, voter suppression, voter apathy,gerrymandering, the corruption of elections by tainted money, a 'bought and paid for' Congress and a corporatist Supreme Court, it is safe to conclude that oligarchy has now decisively routed democracy in the United States. We're next.