The Transformation of American Democracy to Oligarchy

08/06/2015 05:38 pm ET | Updated Aug 06, 2015
  • Akbar Ganji Dissident Iranian journalist; Intl. Press Association World Press Freedom Hero

The United States has the world's largest economy, is the most important contributor to scientific advancements, has the most powerful military and some of the best universities in the world, is a democratic state, and accepts more immigrants than any other nation. But, over time the democratic foundations of the United States, equality of the citizens and their human rights, have been eroding. It is impossible to make inequality a pillar of the structure of the state and deepen its roots, and yet to be proud and claim that the citizens have equal voting rights. When all types of inequalities take deep roots and expand, citizens lose their power to influence the political process. Let us take a look at some facts.

Discrimination against the American Dream

In his books, Inequality Examined, Development as Freedom, and The Idea of Justice, Harvard Professor and Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen links equality to the capabilities theory, an idea that was expanded by Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, in her book, Women and Human Development. According to this theory, certain capabilities, such as having food and drinks, a place to live, health care, education, and job are essential to the definition of human being. The capabilities theory proposes two threshold states for the people. A life below the first threshold is not humane, while a life lived below the second threshold is not a good life.

Tens of millions of people in the United States are living their lives below the first threshold. The economic gap has been widening, denying millions of people a respectable life. Speaking about the widening economic gaps in the United States in July 2013, President Obama pointed out that the American middle class has hardly experienced any significant wage increase over the preceding decade, and that the "American dream" is turning into a myth.

Statistics indicate the huge gap between the average incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans versus the remaining 99 percent: $1,303,198 versus $43,713, a gap of roughly 30 to 1. In 1950 the top 1 percent received only 5 percent of the total incomes produced during the economic expansion. The top 1 percent now receives 95 percent.

In his book, The Price of Inequality, American economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2001, demonstrates that, over the past few decades, economic inequality has increased dramatically. He shows that 1 percent of the American people own 25 percent of the total wealth. In interviews with Jon Stewart (here, here, and here), der Spiegel, and Euro News, Stiglitz argued that the only solution to the problem is an economic model similar to that of the Scandinavian countries, and that the "American dream" has become myth. In his article in the New York Times in 2013, Robert Putnam, Professor of public policy at Harvard University also argued that the "American dream" is being destroyed.

Democracy of the Rich

The problem is that the rich have become the most powerful political force in the United States, and the people's votes and opinion have become ineffective, representing little more than a decoration. Many liberal thinkers believe that money is an enemy of democracy.

Political philosopher John Rawls deeply changed his field through his books, A Theory of Justice, Justice as Fairness, and Political Liberalism. In his book, The Law of People, Rawls stated that a constitutional-based democratic state is a pillar of liberalism, and that (p. 139):

"Public deliberation must be made possible, recognized as a basic feature of democracy, and set free from the curse of money. Otherwise, politics is dominated by corporate and other organized interests who through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public discussion and deliberation."

To prove his point that "money is an enemy of democracy," Rawls referred to the article , The Curse of American Politics, by Ronald Dworkin. Rawls offered a masterful critique of the economic gap in the United States, and pointed out that lobbies for American corporations have transformed Congress to a center for buying and selling laws, writing (p. 24):

"An example worth mentioning is Public financing of both elections and forums for public political discussion, without which sensible public politics is unlikely to flourish. When politicians are beholden to their constituents for essential campaign funds, and a very unequal distribution of income and wealth obtains in the background culture, with the great wealth being in the control of corporate economic power, is it any wonder that congressional legislation is, in effect, written by lobbyists, and Congress becomes a bargaining chamber in which laws are bought and sold? "

The inverse relation between the economic power and democracy can also be analyzed from another perspective. In his book, Bowling Alone, Putnam demonstrates that since WWII the widening gap between the rich and the poor has been in parallel with a decreasing rate of participation by the people in the political process. Statistics confirm his claim.

The percentage of people voting in the Congressional elections in the 1990s and the year 2000 was never more than 39 percent. Less than 30 percent of the eligible voters voted in the last Congressional elections, although another study put it at less than 19 percent. The voting rate in the presidential elections is higher, but not too high. It declined from 63.1 percent in 1960 to 51.3 in 2000. Obama's anti-war coalition of 2008 increased that to only 56.8 percent.

In his 2014 essay, America in Decay, conservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama analyzed that processes that have contributed to the decay of democracy in the United States. In particular, he identified the distribution of power as one of the main contributing factors. Fukuyama wrote that:

"Liberal democracy is almost universally associated with market economies, which tend to produce winners and losers and amplify what James Madison termed the "different and unequal faculties of acquiring property." This type of economic inequality is not in itself a bad thing, insofar as it stimulates innovation and growth and occurs under conditions of equal access to the economic system. It becomes highly problematic, however, when the economic winners seek to convert their wealth into unequal political influence. They can do so by bribing a legislator or a bureaucrat, that is, on a transactional basis, or, what is more damaging, by changing the institutional rules to favor themselves -- for example, by closing off competition in markets they already dominate, tilting the playing field ever more steeply in their favor."

Fukuyama explains how the lobbyists buy Congressmen to pass legislations that benefit their interests. In his view money enters from the back door and creates supporters [for the lobbyists]. The lobby industry bribes the congressmen and later demands what it wants. He says that:

"Politicians do not typically reward family members with jobs; what they do is engage in bad behavior on behalf of their families, taking money from interest groups and favors from lobbyists in order to make sure that their children are able to attend elite schools and colleges, for example.Reciprocal altruism, meanwhile, is rampant in Washington and is the primary channel through which interest groups have succeeded in corrupting government...Interest groups are able to influence members of Congress legally simply by making donations and waiting for unspecified return favors. And sometimes, the legislator is the one initiating the gift exchange, favoring an interest group in the expectation that he will get some sort of benefit from it after leaving office...Oftentimes, the impact of interest groups and lobbyists is not to stimulate new policies but to make existing legislation much worse than it would otherwise be."

In 2009, 13500 lobbyists and interest groups spent $5.3 billion to influence Congress, and hurt its credibility. The American people's trust in Congress has declined from 42 percent in 1973 to just 7 percent in 2014.Fukuyama says that:

"Neither political party has an incentive to cut itself off from access to interest-group money, and the interest groups don't want a system in which money won't buy influence."

If we take a look at the contributions that Israel's lobby groups have made to election campaigns of Congressmen and Senators, we can understand why Congress often acts for Israel's, rather than the U.S.' interests. In his trip to Israel last December, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that "Congress will follow your lead" regarding the nuclear dispute with Iran. Netanyahu's competition with the President for getting the votes in Congress to defeat the nuclear agreement with Iran leads to the question: Is this Congress a U.S. Congress or an Israeli one?

Another well-known lobby in the United States is the gun lobby. When 20 school children and seven adults were killed by a gunman in Connecticut, the President tried to limit sales of guns, but failed. He said (here and here) that the National Rifle Association has a tight grip on Congress, and that he did not believe that Congress would do anything to limit gun sales. In 2012 the gun lobby spent nearly $5 million to prevent Congress from limiting sales of guns. The NRA spent $14 million in the 2012 elections to defeat the President. The lobby represents, of course, an industry with an annual income of $6 billion.

Transformation of Democracy to Oligarchy

Former President Jimmy Carter believes that the American democracy has been transformed to an oligarchy. He criticized the Supreme Court's vote in favor of Citizens United that has allowed unlimited funds to be spent in elections, and said:

"It violates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it's just an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or being elected president. And the same thing applies to governors, and U.S. Senators and congress members. So, now we've just seen a subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect, and sometimes get, favors for themselves after the election is over. ... At the present time the incumbents, Democrats and Republicans, look upon this unlimited money as a great benefit to themselves. Somebody that is already in Congress has a great deal moreto sell."

In an op-ed in the New York Times Carter wrote that the United States violates at least 10 articles of the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is estimated that the 2016 elections will cost close to $10 billion. Aside from the top 1 percent, who in the middle class or among the poor can participate in such an expensive process? This has become a democracy for the rich and dynasties. Consider the candidates. Bill and Hillary Clinton have made $141 million over the past 8 years and have paid $43 million in taxes. Jeb Bush has already received $103 billion for his campaign. The election system has destroyed the playing field for almost every ordinary citizen.

The New York Times estimates that the chances of a child of a state governor becoming a governor is 6000 times better than an ordinary citizen, and that the chances of a child of a U.S. Senator becoming a Senator is 8500 times better than a common citizen.

In his book, Is Democracy Possible, distinguished liberal theorist Ronald Dworkin discusses democracy in the United States, and considers some of the facts mentioned earlier. A Congress that is trusted by only 7 percent of the people is not a parliament of a democratic state. Some may say that the people can vote out those whom they not like. But, the facts are,

One, a large majority of the people does not vote in the Congressional elections.

Two, even if they vote, they must pick either a Democrat or a Republican. Thus, the political structure is such that political power is divided between the two parties forever, and perhaps tens of millions of people have no representative in the political system.

Third, lobbyists and interest groups enjoy considerable influence in such elections.

Fourth, the faith of the people in a Congress that, instead of trying to address their needs and pursuing the true national interests of the United States, serves lobbyists, and interest groups, and the oligarchy, will continue to decline.

So, given the strong evidence, has U.S. democracy not been transformed to an oligarchy?

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.