American democracy, as it was designed, is dead. At the very least, it’s on life support and has been for a while. If we aren’t careful, we aren’t going to be able to revive it and the Founding Fathers’ efforts to give it to us will be lost.
As the story goes, Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and was asked by a woman if the new government was a republic or a monarchy. It was reported that without hesitation he responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” So, what exactly did he mean and do we need to heed his warning today?
Today, if you walked down the street of any American city and asked any average citizen what kind of government we have in America today you would likely hear from nine out of ten people, “A democracy.” That answer, to a degree is correct. A democracy is “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.” (1b) That other person (I am being optimistic here), the one out of ten, would answer “a democratic republic.” This answer would be more correct. A republic is “a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law.” (1b.1) America is both a democracy and a republic. Or, at least it was.
I say “it was” because I am beginning to believe that it may no longer be. We the people, I think, like to pretend that we still have a democratic republic but does the “supreme power” really rest in the hands of the people? I would argue that it does not. What do we really have? It is now more of an oligarchy. An oligarchy is “a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” (2) Thomas Jefferson once said, “Liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it [be]comes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of the government by an individual, by a group.” (NOTE: Jefferson was not talking about fascism in the WWII sense that we tend to think of it today. He was talking about it more in the economic sense.)
The key part I want to focus on is that our government is now run by a small group of elites, by a group of people who have tremendous economic wealth and through that wealth “own” the government. Let’s first start with the distribution of wealth in our country. To understand this argument, you have to start here because wealth is the means to power.
Did you get that? The richest 1% of the country has 40% of all the nation’s wealth and they own 50% of all the investments in the stock market. What do they do with all that wealth? Well, they invest it of course because that generates more wealth but they also put it to good use by buying elections. Yep, I said it, they buy elections!
This is where the oligarchy of our government comes in. Our government, Congress and the President, is “owned” by private power, a small percentage of super rich elites, who use their wealth to perpetuate what is best for themselves and their friends. The last presidential election cycle is a good example to show my point. Why? Well because we are seeing it happen before our eyes. One thing that I have become keenly aware of is that in order to run for a political office, you need a pretty substantial stack of cash along with some pretty hefty backers as well. If you don’t have the financial support of a few big donors or the very influential party you choose to side with (who also have their own big donors), you likely can’t win an election in America. Running a campaign has become extremely expensive and it has gotten worse over the years. As a result of the media exposure, costs have gone through the roof. How do you make a win happen? Find and use a money source. Well rather, in many cases, they find you. If you don’t find yourself in the “favor” of those with the wealth, you probably don’t stand much of a chance on winning.
The total cost for the federal election cycle of 2012, Congressional and Presidential, was just under $6.3 BILLION. That’s a big pile of dough! If you click on those links, you can see that being a politician is an expensive venture. So, does all that cash come from their pockets or do they have help? Many of those who ran for office did have their own wealth, and collectively the 535 Congressional members have a net worth of more than $1 million each. The millionaires’ club has now gone over 50%. So, what does all that mean? The group of rich people in Congress, those men and women who make our laws, don’t get much competition when it comes to running for office because the average Joe can’t afford to run. Yes, there is competition and in some cases it was a very fierce competition (just look at the top 11 campaigns for self funding) so money doesn’t always guarantee a win, but it does certainly help in a vast majority of campaign races. And, of course, there is help from many other sources as well, all of whom represent a small percentage of the population but a large percentage of the wealth.
Thomas Jefferson spoke of it, and Ben Franklin warned us about losing control of the very government the Constitution set up. We have not heeded the warnings of our Founders. We the people are all created equal but if we don’t keep private power from controlling the government, equality of opportunity isn’t going to survive in the land of the free. Instead, those who have the wealth and the power control opportunity and access will be severely limited to those who can afford it. We already see this in practice as the costs of college have gone up in the last decade. Not just slightly, but by leaps and bounds.
The American government can’t be allowed to continue towards a more powerful oligarchy, but we are well on our way down that road. We have to fight the rise of private power by being educated in our voting and not merely settle for whom has the best commercials or most striking mass mailers. We can’t rely simply on the incumbent, who often becomes entrenched with tenure and power, or vote because it is the only name on the ballot we recognize. We can’t just let those with great personal wealth or with seemingly unlimited backing from a small percentage of the population continue to gain control of our government. For if we do, it will no longer represent us – as many have made the case for already.
Our democratic republic is in danger and our Founder Fathers would be disappointed in us.