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American oligarchy

Written By: - Date published: 10:14 am, August 5th, 2015 - 37 comments
Categories: democracy under attack, us politics - Tags: , , , ,

Last week (ex) President Jimmy Carter created a bit of a stir with this pretty frank assessment of the state of US politics:

It [money in politics] 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 to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.

Carter is not alone in this opinion:

“Yes, We’re Corrupt”: A List of Politicians Admitting That Money Controls Politics

• “You have to go where the money is. Now where the money is, there’s almost always implicitly some string attached. … It’s awful hard to take a whole lot of money from a group you know has a particular position then you conclude they’re wrong [and] vote no.” — Vice President Joe Biden in 2015.

• “Lobbyists and career politicians today make up what I call the Washington Cartel. … [They] on a daily basis are conspiring against the American people. … [C]areer politicians’ ears and wallets are open to the highest bidder.” — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2015.

• “When you start to connect the actual access to money, and the access involves law enforcement officials, you have clearly crossed a line. What is going on is shocking, terrible.” – James E. Tierney, former attorney general of Maine, in 2014.

Read on in that piece for many more. And follow it up with this from last year:

Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy

A new study from Princeton spells bad news for American democracy—namely, that it no longer exists.

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

I think it’s a little too simplistic to say that American democracy is dead. I think there are still meaningful differences between Republican and Democrat, between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But I would certainly agree that American democracy is far from healthy, the influence of money far too strong, and the difference between Republican and Democrat often more posturing than substance. We must fight to prevent NZ from heading down the same depressing path.

37 comments on “American oligarchy ”

  1. Brendon Harre 1

    I think the problem in the US is the President’s -power of patronage, he appoints all sorts of civils servants, judges etc. This means there isn’t a clear separation of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary.

    All the politicians are beholden to the Democratic or Republic political machines, which are run by money from a relatively small number of wealthy donors. This is biasing civil society in the US away from representing the wider community interest to servicing the vested interests of the wealthy few.

    This has a number of implications for NZ. Do we want to tie ourselves to this system -institutionally with the likes of the TPPA and its investor protection agreement processes?

    Going forward what reforms should NZ enact to keep a clear separation of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary? How do we create an unbiased civil community? How do we maintain a clean sovereignty?

    In the past I have suggested reforms to the Parliamentary Speaker post would be the easiest and best way forward for NZ to do this.

    That the Speaker should be elected by a super-majority or unanimous vote in Parliament. That the MPs would be locked into Parliament until they found a neutral person agreeable to all. The Speaker would then be a neutral referee overseeing Parliamentary debate. The Speaker could be given the task of appointing the top people in the civil service and the judiciary.

  2. Save NZ 2

    Hello, we are already there.

    It is more a case of, how do we push away from this corruption of democracy.

    “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

    Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

    In NZ there are more than 2 individuals but clearly there are the same names and companies getting deals from Government. Sky City comes to mind as a company but also there are the same cronies who are bought in to ‘transform’ the public sector such as Paul Rebstock and ex Nat ministers.

    • Rosemary McDonald 2.1

      “It is more a case of, how do we push away from this corruption of democracy.”

      1. Demand complete transparency. In donations, election spend….

      2. Bring in a “no confidence” vote at the ballot. If a percentage of voters (say 30%) have no confidence in any party….

      3. Have a constitution.

      4. Forget about democracy….let anarchy rule!

      “Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy”

      Really…this is not news, or new.

  3. red-blooded 3

    It’s getting pretty damn ridiculous when there are families like the Kennedys, Bushes and yes, even the Clintons being recycled around from one election to the next. Name recognition and money-raising abilities shouldn’t be the most important qualities for a political candidate. Yes, there are still “break-through” candidates once in a while, but in we all know the old, familiar names…

    • Colonial Rawshark 3.1

      The Kennedy’s made their family fortune from breaking the Prohibition and dealing with all kinds of gangsters and mafiosos en route…

  4. millsy 4

    It is mainly because the GOP has moved so far to the right over the past 20 years, that the likes of Reagan, Eisenhower and Nixon would be on the (far) left today.

    During the 1980 campaign, Reagan was endorsed by more than one union and made a few positive references to unions in a few speeches — this would be unthinkable in today’s GOP.

    The Democrats have had no choice but to allow themselves to be pulled rightward.

    • Save NZ 4.1

      Millsy – disagree – the Democrats can allow themselves to push to the left. That is how Obama got in, in transforming health care in the US. That was his mandate.

      He has been very disappointing – but – again he has got a corrupt system to fight in and in the US they seem to think money is more important in an election than people.

      • Colonial Rawshark 4.1.1

        Obama has not “transformed healthcare” in the US; he has however made the situation a little better for the low paid and formerly uninsured, in exchange for government guarantees of private insurance companies windfall profits.

        • Save NZ

          exactly. That’s why he has been disappointing. But he was voted in by ‘lefties’ to do an election promise on Healthcare that has failed in many ways to achieve.

          Now under TPPA they want to export that failed system.

  5. DH 5

    I think NZ went down that track decades ago, maybe even from the start.

    I once viewed politicians as working for the interest of the people but lost that idealism a long time ago. I can still recall reading a newspaper report about a highly respected war veteran being asked to join one of the major parties (National I think) He refused point blank with the rejoinder they were just a bunch of gangsters. This was a man who led people and won respect & trust the hard way, I believed him over the forked tongue politicians and I’ve never trusted them since.

    Some of NZs history has never been written or acknowledged. A quiet class war was waged for decades after WWII with those who went to war battling to prevent themselves being marginalised by the elites who stayed home & got rich from the war. Citizen soldiers came home to find themselves expected to act as if nothing had changed but they’d seen the world in its ugly glory and many weren’t content to be treated like easily manipulated peasants any more. Maoris in particular were quite resentful, rightfully so too IMO.

    For a period the war generation was dominant, which were probably NZs best years in regards to social cohesion & equality, and I sometimes wonder if perhaps many of our existing social problems are down to that generation getting old & pushed aside by the moneyed classes.

    • Brendon Harre 5.1

      +1 For a thoughtful comment.

    • adam 5.2

      Nice DH, thanks for writing.

    • Paul 5.3

      Definitely the case.

    • Chooky 5.4


    • Sabine 5.5

      For a period the war generation was dominant, which were probably NZs best years in regards to social cohesion & equality, and I sometimes wonder if perhaps many of our existing social problems are down to that generation getting old & pushed aside by the moneyed classes.

      not so much that they get pushed aside but more to the fact that the old WW2 generation is dying away. And with it the memory of deprivation , of the efforts of the men at war, but also the efforts of the women that stayed in the Country and worked the Farms, the Factories and ran everything else.
      There was a realization after the WW1 that the old rules of Aristocracy and Peasants did not work anymore and again that was re-inforced after WW2 – after all they equally died in the same ditches, and they equally survived those same ditches.

      Now we have a generation that wants to go back to Artistocracy and Peasants, believing of course that they would be Aristocrats or at least Nouveau Riche.

      • ropata 5.5.1

        In the early 20th century communism was viewed as a viable alternative and there were popular movements for land value taxes and better wealth distribution. WW1 put a stop to all that nonsense

        We live in a world captured, rooted and upturned by the titanic economic and techno-scientific process of the development of capitalism, which has dominated for the past two or three centuries. We know that it cannot go on ad infinitum. The future cannot be a continuation of the past, and there are signs that we have reached a point of historic crisis. The forces generated by the techno-scientific economy are enough to destroy the environment, that is to say, the material foundations of human life… Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change… If humanity is to have a recognisable future, it cannot be by prolonging the past or present… The price of failure, that the alternative to a changed society, is darkness.
        From Chris Harman’s review of “The Age of Extremes” … an excellent essay

        see also

  6. adam 6

    Thom Hartmann is a great interviewer, he gets people to open up and give his straight answers. He does a shows on RT, which is well worth a look – if you are not already.

    It seems very unworldly of some, to think this is not happening in NZ. I know Penny Bright says a lot – “follow the money” – she is not wrong.

    What makes you think the system has not been corrupted, are you not reading the news or watching events?

    This has happened all over the western democracies. Each and every one of them is effectively a oligarchy. The real rub, is they have kept the forms in places whilst they had done it.

    Take here for instance, we still look like a Westminster style democracy – we still have elections and like. But ask yourself this, when was the last time government did something genuine for the people?

    I know some labour people will now jump up and down and give examples to show I’m wrong – but really who wanted a the employment relations act? Working for families? They have not worked for people, they/were at best a band aid – the oligarchy could hand those out with no fear, whilst they despoil working people and the environment at will.

    But, OK if you think that the system can be corrected with an election – go ahead. But after the next one – do you get angry? Do you actual wake up to the fact you and yours are going to die? Or do you just bow your heads, and say – yes master I’ll be a good…

  7. AmaKiwi 7

    @ Save NZ

    Yes, we are already there.

    1. The independence of the watchdogs (police, regulators, etc.) is critical. We don’t have it and it’s getting worse by the day. Examples: Ignore Slater but harass Hager. Lack of workplace inspections and prosecutions. Etc.

    2. Limiting campaign donations to small sums is also essential. This one’s technically easy to do. Every contribution must be logged with the IRD number of the individual donor. No corporate or non-personal donations allowed.

    But how do we bring about such changes?

    Will a minor party (Greens) make it part of their platform?

    Do we form an anti-corruption People’s Party?

    • Save NZ 7.1

      +1 an anti-corruption People’s Party

      It’s the politicians that need the most policing!

  8. AmaKiwi 8

    @ Anthony Robins

    “I think it’s a little too simplistic to say that American democracy is dead.”

    Anthony, the USA is a republic. It has NEVER been a democracy. It’s government was designed by rich white men who owned Afro-Americans and loathed “common folk.”

    Example: The US Supreme Court. Nine unelected old farts appointed for life dictate policies which can NEVER be changed by anyone except themselves. Even worse, they are all lawyers.

    • Colonial Rawshark 8.1

      and worthwhile recalling that the “Founding Fathers” (almost all of whom were wealthy land owning slave owning white men) went out of their way to prevent popular democracy and concentrate decision making in the hands of who they considered the ‘right people.’

      No voting for women or Blacks. An appointed Senate. The Electoral College system, designed to utterly skew representation.

      • Chooky 8.1.1

        how does USA compare with China…democracy and human rights wise?

        • Colonial Rawshark

          China is not a democracy. Neither is the USA. China rules over 1.2B in much poorer circumstances. But they do have fewer prisoners per capita and they kill fewer innocent civilians in wars than the USA.

          • Chooky

            @ CR…these facts speak for themselves..but you always ignore them:

            ‘World Report 2015: China’


            ‘China Human Rights’


            ‘Human Rights Abuses in China ‘At Worst Since 1989′: Report’


            ‘Human rights in Tibet’


            ‘Livers, kidneys and even corneas removed from 11,000 live political prisoners WITHOUT anaesthetic every year in China, claims documentary ‘


            • greywarshark

              Could it be said that all countries have committed atrocities and the bigger the country, the bigger their infractions will be?

              I consider this truth – Power tends to corrupt, and absolute (or near) power corrupts absolutely (or near). Each country has good points and has achieved some worthy achievements, and each has the opposite. So then what is the balance, and what is their excuse for each descent into inhumanity and destructive practices? That should be looked at when making the decision ranking countries.

              And there is another truism, that revolution tends to produce excess, both from those supporting the status quo, and from those seeking change. The excess must come from the change-seekers first I think, as it takes a big surge of energy and determination to sacrifice time, personal enjoyment, disdain or rejection by others, and loss of family, or health, or suffer injury or death. The result of extended energy on protest expended by alternatives will arouse alarm in the status quo group which if it doesn’t wish to appease or consider viable change, will attempt to top the protest energy, and the disagreement see saws upwards till a climax of some kind.

              So bad things are guaranteed to happen, as the powerful humans finally put any values acquired under the seat and turns to either spears and pick handles or guns and other weapons. The punishment for dissenters and those disagreeing with the status quo tend to be unlimited, and inhuman as the others are pigeonholed as ‘undeserving’ of fair treatment or dangerous bad people who ‘deserve whatever they get.’

      • AmaKiwi 8.1.2

        @ Colonial Viper

        Yes, the Southern founding fathers were wealthy slave owners.

        The Northern founding fathers were merchants who owned the slave ships that kidnapped the Africans and stuffed them like sardines into ships for the trans-Atlantic crossing.

        “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived for slavery and dedicated to addicting the world to the narcotic, nicotine.”

        • Colonial Rawshark

          The Northern founding fathers were merchants who owned the slave ships that kidnapped the Africans and stuffed them like sardines into ships for the trans-Atlantic crossing.


    • red-blooded 8.2

      There’s no reason to think a republic can’t be a democracy. Both terms refer to a state in which representatives are elected by citizens, in which power to govern is delegated to those representatives.

      I’m not disagreeing with you about whether the US is a good democracy, but to say it can’t be one because it’s a republic just doesn’t make sense.

      As for the Supreme Court; I think if anything the problem with this institution is that it’s been too politicised, with presidents appointing people of their own political stripe. However, to say that it’s broken because the judges are not elected is again simplistic. What would you rather; a court system that changes with the political tides? The separation of the judicial system from the political one is not perfect in the States or here, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have an elected judiciary.

      • greywarshark 8.2.1

        The difficulty is that with USA judges, the prevailing party will appoint its own persuasion. And then they are there for the duration. There used to be a half and half of conservative and the not-so but now it is probably 80/’20 stacked with right wingers. And the candidates when under consideration, go through some surpising maneouvres to present themselves as worthy.

      • AmaKiwi 8.2.2

        @ red-blooded

        Dear Red-Blooded,
        You have ONLY two choices. Final decisions are made either by:

        1. the people (that’s democracy) OR
        2. by someone else (representatives as in a republic or king, dictator, etc.)

        We are awakening to the fact that our NZ “representatives” don’t even remotely represent us. In opposition, my MP is useless. In power, my MP never speaks out against even the stupidest decisions of his/her caucus.

        Two choices: we decide via binding referendums OR decisions are made by party “leaders” who could be “in the service of others.”

        You might infer party leaders take bribes/campaign contributions but I couldn’t possibly comment.

    • gnomic 9.1

      Haven’t you heard, this is a ‘developed’ country, part of the First and Free Worlds. No banana republic our great little country, though we are strong on milk solids, cowshit, and nitrates. Hell we are even in the OECD. No failing states here, all of our states are succeeding, like trust me mmkay?

      Hmmm, it seems Greece is also an OECD member. As is Ireland. Suddenly I feel less secure.

      The PR thing is maybe a bit different from our own plight, as it is an official colony (or protectorate, waddeva?) of the US whereas Aotearoa is an independent nation state. Unless the Nats are in power, and just want their bellies scratched by their masters, when our status becomes subservient satellite.

  9. Lloyd 10

    If we have a sufficiently progressive tax system there won’t be enough money in anyone’s pockets to bribe the senior members of the government.

  10. AmaKiwi 11

    Corporations want the rights of persons but not the limitations, like ethical responsibilities or the size of their campaign contributions.

    During the Occupy demonstrations one sign said, “I’ll believe corporations are persons when Texas executes one of them.”

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