THE BLOG

Understanding and Overcoming America's Plutocracy

11/06/2014 07:47 am ET | Updated Jan 06, 2015
Paul Taylor via Getty Images

Pity the American people for imagining that they have just elected the new Congress. In a formal way, they of course have. The public did vote. But in a substantive way, it's not true that they have chosen their government.

This was the billionaires' election, billionaires of both parties. And while the Republican and Democratic Party billionaires have some differences, what unites them is much stronger than what divides them, a few exceptions aside. Indeed, many of the richest individual and corporate donors give to both parties. The much-discussed left-right polarization is not polarization at all. The political system is actually relatively united and working very effectively for the richest of the rich.

There has never been a better time for the top 1%. The stock market is soaring, profits are high, interest rates are near zero, and taxes are low. The main countervailing forces -- unions, antitrust authorities, and financial regulators -- have been clobbered.

Think of it this way. If government were turned over to the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Bechtel, and Health Corporation of America, they would have very little to change of current policies, which already cater to the four mega-lobbies: Big Oil, Wall Street, defense contractors, and medical care giants. This week's election swing to the Republicans will likely give these lobbies the few added perks that they seek: lower corporate and personal tax rates, stronger management powers vis-à-vis labor, and even weaker environmental and financial regulation.

The richest of the rich pay for the political system -- putting in billions of dollars in campaign and lobbying funds -- and garner trillions of dollars of benefits in return. Those are benefits for the corporate sector -- financial bailouts, cheap loans, tax breaks, lucrative federal contracts, and a blind eye to environmental damages -- not for society as a whole. The rich reap their outsized incomes and wealth in large part by imposing costs on the rest of society.

We can't actually tote up the total spending on this campaign by the richest donors because, thanks to the Supreme Court, much of the spending is anonymous and unreported. Still, we know that the Koch Brothers, through their complex web of shell groups, put in at least $100 million and probably much more. Many other billionaires and corporate contributions helped to raise the total kitty to more than $3.6 billion.

The evidence is overwhelming that politicians vote the interests of their donors, not of society at large. This has now been demonstrated rigorously by many researchers, most notably Princeton Professor Martin Gilens. Whether the Republicans or Democrats are in office, the results are little different. The interests at the top of the income distribution will prevail.

Why does the actual vote count for so little? People vote for individuals, not directly for policies. They may elect a politician running on a platform for change, but the politician once elected will then vote for the positions of the big campaign donors. The political outcomes are therefore oriented toward great wealth rather than to mainstream public opinion, the point that Gilens and others have been finding in their detailed research. (See also the study by Page, Bartels, and Seawright).

It's not easy for the politicians to shun the campaign funds even if they want to. Money works in election campaigns. It pays for attack ads that flood the media, and it pays for elaborate and sophisticated get-out-the-vote efforts that target households at the micro level to manipulate who does and does not go to the polls. Campaigning without big money is like unilateral disarmament. It's noble; it works once in a while; and it is extremely risky. On the other hand, taking big campaign money is a Faustian bargain: you may win power but lose your political soul.

Yes, yes, yes, of course there are modest differences between the parties, and there is a wonderful, truly progressive wing of the Democratic Party organized in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but it's marginalized and in the minority of the party. So many Democrats have their hand in the fossil-fuel cookie jar of Big Oil and Big Coal that the Obama administration couldn't get even the Democrats, much less the Republicans, to line up for climate-change action during the first year of the administration. And how do Wall Street money managers keep their tax privileges despite the public glare? Their success in lobbying is due at least as much to Democratic Party Senators beholden to Wall Street as it is to Republican Senators.

Is there a way out? Yes, but it's a very tough path. Plutocracy has a way of spreading like an epidemic until democracy itself is abandoned. History shows the wreckage of democracies killed from within. And yet America has rallied in the past to push democratic reforms, notably in the Progressive Era from 1890-1914, the New Deal from 1933-1940, and the Great Society from 1961-1969.

All of these transformative successes required grass-roots activism, public protests and demonstrations, and eventually bold leaders, indeed drawn from the rich but with their hearts with the people: Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Yet in all of those cases, the mass public led and the great leaders followed the cause. This is our time and responsibility to help save democracy. The Occupy Movement and the 400,000 New Yorkers who marched for climate-change control in September are pointing the way.