Understanding and Managing the American Oligarchy

I have tried many times to tell the story of the political abyss America finds itself in and how it has come to be. Hopefully I occasionally do a decent job and maybe my thoughts make sense to some. I usually look for articles, short synopsis’ detailing the forces constantly attacking democracy, because I don’t think most people are going to read anything of significant size, yet it is important that they get some legitimate and comprehensive perspective. Today I found a very good example, by one of my favorites, Thom Hartmann, found on the ALTERNET. What made this particularly pleasing to me is that I often think of Hartmann as kind of a mentor for me, though I have never met him, for he his thoughts and writings have had a very clarifying effect on me. In this post I will try to summarize his article without losing its essence.

The title to this article very succinctly states its premise posing the question: Time to Overthrow Our Rulers: Is it time to bring a monarchy to the United States, or time to end one? Around the world today, countries are being politically dominated by the super rich, whether they be monarchs, plutocrats, oligarchs or unabashed kleptocrats. In most cases an infinitesimally small percent control most of the wealth and almost all of the political power. What about here in the USA? Well, Hartman doesn’t fool around on this point. Immediately he states

“we already have an aristocracy here in the United States: rule by the rich. In fact, much of American history is the story of the battle between the interests of the “general welfare” of our citizens, and the interests of the #MorbidlyRich.”

Many believe this is how it should be. Recent arguments from the International Monarchist League stated their core arguments: “Countries with monarchies are better off because royal families act as a unifying force and a powerful symbol; monarchies rise above politics; and nations with royalty are generally richer and more stable.” Whereas these beliefs emphasize the need for rule by the minority, democracy is all about rule by the majority. Even the American founding fathers were apprehensive about a real democracy.

Hartmann lists “where we are right now”:

  • A billionaire oligarch programs his very own entire television news network to promote the interests of the billionaire class …,
  • A small group of billionaires have funneled so much money into our political sphere that “normal” Republicans … point out that they couldn’t get elected in today’s environment because they’d face right wing-billionaire-funded primary challengers,
  • The corporate media (including online media), heavily influenced by the roughly billion dollars the Koch Network, Adelson, Mercers, etc. … won’t even mention in their “news” reporting that billionaire oligarchs are mainly calling the tunes in American politics, particularly in the GOP,
  • Former President Jimmy Carter pointed out … that the US “is now an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery,” in part as a result of the right-wing Supreme Court decision in Citizens United,
  • Nobody in corporate media, even on the “corporate left,” is willing to explicitly point out how billionaires and the companies that made them rich control and define the boundaries of “acceptable” political debate in our country,
  • Thus, there’s no honest discussion in American media of why the GOP denies climate change …, no discussion of the daily damage being done to our consumer and workplace protections, and no discussion of the horrors being inflicted on our public lands and environment … There’s not even a discussion of the major issue animating American politics just one century ago: corporate mergers and how they damage small business and small towns.

The article then recounts the “last time the morbidly rich had this much power in American politics was the 1920s, when an orgy of tax-cutting and deregulation of banking led to the Republican Great Depression.” It recaps FDR’s “challenge (with) those he called the Economic Royalists … explicitly (calling) for the overthrow of this kind of power”. This all led to change as the “American people overwhelmingly agreed with FDR, particularly after they’d seen how badly ‘dictatorship by the over-privileged’ worked out for us in 1929. The result was that from 1932 until 1980 American politicians knew how important it was for government, representing the best interests of both our nation and all of its people, to hold back the political power that the morbidly rich could marshal with their great wealth.” It seemed almost everyone agreed, even that radical President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Big business and the wealthy became cautious “largely stayed away from politics from the 1930s onward, not wanting to draw the ire of the American people.”

In 1971 things began to change. The wealthy were frustrated. They needed a solution and the “objective was simple: The revival of a Royalist-controlled so-called ‘free market’ system.”In August of that year, Lewis Powell , a lawyer (and future Supreme Court Justice) who largely defended tobacco and the interests of the Virginia’s upper classes, wrote an apocalyptic memo … (suggesting) that America itself was under attack from ‘leftists’ and people on ‘college campuses’.” This memorandum provided the plan the wealthy needed, a solution where the wealthy could best employ their strengths and retake their “proper position”, control of American government. Powell proposed:

“a small group of very, very wealthy people to reshape American public opinion through think tanks, funding of universities and schools, and an all-out assault on the media. Take over the courts and at least one of the political parties, he suggested, and wrest control of our economy away from government regulation.”

Essentially the goal was to return control of government to the minority – majority and democracy be damned.

Hartmann goes on to cite in more detail how Powell’s plan was adopted and implemented by groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce. Justification was not necessary. “Even though the previous 40 years had been a time of great growth and strength for the American economy and America’s middle- class workers – and a time of sure and steady growth and increases of profits for corporations – CEOs felt something was missing.” This would be a risky proposition but to ease apprehensions Powell emphasized that:

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations … the role of the National Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital’.”

Today, the Powell plan, with detailed consistent implementation and funding by the corporate wealthy has taken control of most of the US economy, legal and political systems. Built on calculated legal changes such as:

  • Money became speech: in the 1976 Buckley v Valeo decision, which struck down many of the campaign finance laws that had been passed in the wake of the Nixon scandals. Money transferred from billionaires to politicians, he and his conservative friends on the court ruled, wasn’t “money” – instead, it was Constitutionally-protected First Amendment Free Speech.
  • The morbidly rich could again own individual politicians, with the 2013 McCutcheon case, the Court ruled that morbidly rich individuals could own a virtually unlimited number of politicians.
  • Citizens United, in 2010 further expands the premise of money as speech, radically expanded corporate personhood and the rights of billionaires and corporations to influence politics.

Hartmann recaps where we are today:

  • “We have a billionaire oligarch in the White House.”
  • We have a man as VP who’s such a toady to oligarchs he actually promoted the idea in 2000 that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer … “,
  • “We have an entire Republican Party that’s been captured by toxic-emissions corporations, petro-billionaires, and others among the morbidly rich.”
  • “On the left, thanks to the DLC and its heirs, substantial parts of the Democratic Party are beholden to the banking, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries (although the Congressional Progressive Caucus is working to change this). “
  • “The Washington Post recently ran an article about how the very institutions of America are beginning to break down under the sustained assault of the oligarchs (although the Post doesn’t use that word).”

What we need to do (according to Thom Hartman):

  • “We must acknowledge that the American aristocracy of the morbidly rich is destroying our country. And then overturn (via constitutional amendment) the twin policies of right-wingers on our Supreme Court that say that billionaires can own their own personal politicians, and that corporations are ‘persons’ with human rights.”
  • “Once we reject America’s new self-appointed royalty, with their billionaire and corporate money fouling our system, our elected officials can restore protections for working people – and we can once again see our wages begin to rise like they did for 40 straight years before the advent of Reaganism. “
  • “Only then can we bring back rules to keep the oligarch’s poisonous money out of our political system, and begin to break up their control of American business and media so that small- and medium-sized businesses, unions, and local media can once again thrive. And, with them, we can return to something resembling a democracy. “

As Hartmann consistently emphasizes on his radio shows, democracy is a participation sport.


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