O’ Say! Can You See The Oligarchy?


As Americans prepare to celebrate the Fourth of July, a former U.S. congressman deconstructs a dangerous threat to our democracy, freedom, and independence.



he collegian in the first row exploded when the subject turned to campaign spending limits. It was 1998, 12 years before the U.S. Supreme Court freed the super-rich to dump limitless wealth on the campaigns of the political windsocks of their choice.

“I’m totally opposed to limits,” the student bellowed. “America is a capitalist country! If you limit campaign spending you sabotage capitalism.”

The bell rang and my students scattered.

Shocked by the display of civic ignorance, I made a note to talk to my student. Here was a political science major and Dean’s List regular who did not understand that capitalism isn’t democracy. Nor did he seem to care that without political power distributed fairly across society, capitalism easily shape shifts into oligarchy.

Capitalism cannot be a legitimate governing system because it is singularly dedicated to amassing wealth as an end in itself. It unsentimentally trusts in nothing that it cannot weigh and measure. Not, in the spirit of Bobby Kennedy, the joy of our children’s play, or our art, or the strength of our health, or our opportunity to redress our grievances—in short, none of the other dimensions of life that democracy was invented to serve.

Fast forward to 2010. Neoreactionary Republicans seize complete control of both the GOP and the U.S. House on the strength of gerrymandering, libertarian extremism, and Tea Party rage. Just like that, my student’s mental hiccup became the platform of a major American political party, and the polemics of Grade B philosopher Ayn Rand, its Holy Grail.

With the Supreme Court also in the hands of neocons, America is caught in the leg irons of a nascent oligarchy.

Rand, neoreactionaries, and the right wing’s revanchist financiers worship the untrammeled pursuit of self-interest as Man’s highest calling. They condemn government (e.g., “collectivism”) as a violation of natural law. They divide society into two types of people, “producers” and “parasites.” Do you really wonder why the Republicans in the House of Representatives refuse to increase the minimum wage or extend unemployment insurance? By their reckoning, either one would throw a bone to society’s leeches. And note how these individuals selectively omit the historic success of Land Grant colleges like Oregon State University and Montana State University, the GI Bill, or the Interstate Highway System—“collectivist” endeavors that helped build the world’s most industrious workforce and most powerful national economy.

With the Supreme Court also in the hands of neocons, America is caught in the leg irons of a nascent oligarchy. Political money is “free speech,” according to the court, effectively giving more of it to the rich than to you and me. But wealth is also so stratified that Thomas Picketty, the much-heralded French economist, believes its inequality is, or will be, a direct threat to democracy. While Picketty focused on developed and undeveloped nations alike, in the U.S. the figures don’t lie. The top one percent of our population possesses 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. The gulf between the richest 10 percent and middle income America is over 1,000 percent. According to economist and former labor secretary Robert Reich, the average American employee today must work more than a month to earn what the CEO earns in one hour.

And the chasm will only widen over time. Picketty points out that income accruing to vast individual stores of capital always outpaces income from 9 to 5 workers who have nothing to sell but their labor.

Where, you might ask, is the threat to democracy? Covering more than 200 years of human experience, Picketty’s research traces how holders of enormous wealth have ultimately gained dominant political power and wielded it to preserve their riches from the larger population. For the super-rich, then, democracy becomes not a virtue, but a threat. Along with Ayn Rand’s hedonism, this explains a lot.

It explains the real reason neoreactionaries will never raise taxes on the one percent or even on the top 10 percent (“producer” demigods, all). And why campaign spending limits had to be destroyed, benefiting as they did the commoner over the capitalist. It explains why the extreme right wants our forests and rangeland and schools in private hands, so private elites, not you and me, decide how they’re managed. And why at this very moment the Koch Brothers and their acolytes are bankrolling efforts in every state to make voting difficult in every conceivable way for the 99 percent. Because truly, for folks who worship self-interest above all else, less democracy is better than more.

I am not a Cassandra or a Chicken Little. But I have been in public life for more than 45 years, and I never dreamed I’d see what’s become of U.S. politics. I’ve also never been more concerned about the future of the country I’ve served.

We need a president who sees the truth about the alarming state of our national politics and tells it to the American public.

I don’t have a formula to triumph over the oligarchs, neoreactionaries, and anti-democrats.

But I do know where to start. I know that Wall Street Democrats in the White House and Congress must be reeducated or replaced. Liberals—I don’t run from that term—need to build a movement around leaders like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Jeff Merkley, and others of the kind. They need to promote trickle-up economic populism for 9 to 5 workers of every color, sex, and religion; green energy to save the planet; a foreign policy that engages strictly in wars of necessity, not of choice; a national security apparatus that respects its citizens’ privacy; and a veterans program that serves our returning warriors in lieu of a defense budget that services the makers of exotic weapons of no practical value.

What’s more, we need a president who sees the truth about the alarming state of our national politics and tells it to the American public. Namely, that it isn’t just about congressional Republicans being “obstructionists,” for god’s sake. That their intransigence is only one front in hydra-headed, full-scale, ideological civil war. And that if oligarchy wins, democracy dies.

Which will it be? Our egalitarian republic has endured for 225 years through wars, economic catastrophe, and domestic upheaval. Young men and women in uniform have sacrificed themselves for the notion that, here, it is the people who are supreme, not a ruling class dressed up as our corporatist saviors.

Which reminds me of something Benito Mussolini got right. He explained, “Fascism is just another word for corporatism.”


Les AuCoin is a retired U.S. Congressman from Oregon, the former Glenn L. Jackson Visiting Professor of Government and Business Ethics at Southern Oregon University, and an author/writer who makes his home in Bozeman, Mont. Read his blog. Follow him on Twitter.


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