I promised a blog post by Thanksgiving and here I am, two days past due. Better late than never, right? This post is from the archives; it is an essay I wrote in the Spring of 2015 for one of my favorite classes I have ever taken–Honors Composition II. Matthew Marx taught the course; he always urged us to deconstruct the world around us and try to figure out what media and news sources were trying to “sell” us. I learned so much about the world and myself during that class.
The title of this post is a quote from the great George Carlin. I went ahead and hyperlinked the bit that includes the quote with the title so click there and watch it. I wrote this particular essay about oligarchy, a government power structure in which all of the power rests with a few number of the people i.e. the rich and the elite. Since the President-elect is a billionaire and has appointed billionaires and multi-millionaires to his cabinet, the shoe still fits and it seemed only right I shared this essay about oligarchy with you all. I will write a separate post in the future, after finals, with something other than recycled essays. Until then, enjoy!
“It’s a Big Club, and You Ain’t in It”:
Oligarchy in America
From the time they enter the education system to the time they throw their caps and leave it behind, Americans are taught that they live in a country whose government is the epitome of a democracy. A country built by founding fathers who preached equality, it is known as the land of the free, home of the brave. It is easy not to question the United States’ government’s true form, especially for those who live above the poverty line. However, those with lower incomes feel the effects of what the government has now become. The United States’ government has long been thought of as a democracy. However, as time has passed it has grown into its current state – an oligarchy. Elites have gained the majority of power in government, average citizens and mass-based interest groups struggle to have their voices heard, and despite the fact that it is now 2015 people are still experiencing the effects of tremendous inequality.
When a small group of people have control over a country, the government becomes what is known as an oligarchy. In the case of the United States, the small group of people in power are the elites. Former presidents of the United States (with the exception of a few) went into office with power and wealth. The same goes for members of congress as well as other government officials. This is not a coincidence; it takes an immense amount of money and status to be elected into high government positions. Aristotle states, “Of oligarchies, too, there are different kinds: – one where the property qualification for office is such that the poor, although they form the majority, have no share in the government, yet he who acquires a qualification may obtain a share” (67). It is extremely difficult to gain support for candidacy without the power that comes behind money. Presidential candidates have been known to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their campaigns. Average Americans are unable to run for offices because they simply do not have the funds. They also do not hold the status needed to win an election. Candidates for presidency and other high government positions often have degrees from prestigious law schools such as Yale and Harvard. They have held positions in government before or spent years practicing law. The majority of the population of the United States are not as highly educated; they do not possess knowledge about policy making and laws.
When elites fill up the majority of offices in government, the checks and balances system struggles to exist. This system is crucial to the government because it helps prevent an imbalance of power between all aspects of law as well as the government and the people. (Madison 113-114) When there are no longer officials in government offices who have the interest of the common people in mind, this becomes a serious issue. Not only does it become easier for oppression to occur but an entity can effortlessly step in and ignore the liberties of the people.
Elites have gained the majority of power in government and thus have a greater impact on policy making. Crucial decisions that may have dire effects are left in the hands of people whose lives do not reflect that of an average American. Laws are passed by people who do not know what the impact could be on those people living in or below the middle class. According to the article “Testing Theories of American Politics” by Gilens and Page, “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all. By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy” (572). Laws focused on taxation, health care, education, and wages are handled by people whose incomes far exceed the majority of Americans. Important policies and laws that may benefit the majority of Americans are cast aside to make way for those that pertain more so to the elites.
It is not just the people who hold office that influence policies; businesses do their fair share of swaying decisions as well. Corporations and businesses can influence policy makers in a number of ways including contributing to campaigns and forming advertisements directed at lawmakers. Big companies like Monsanto spend millions of dollars a year in order to push their agenda. Monsanto is a controversial agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation; the company is also behind Agent Orange – the chemical mixture used in Vietnam warfare that had devastating effects. Occasionally these businesses even hire former policy makers to lobby for them. In 2013, Monsanto along with the telecom company Comcast and oil refiner Valero signed with a lobbying group ran by former United States senator Blanche Lincoln (Sheppard). Their efforts to influence policies become more effective and efficient with the help of former government officials who know the entireties of the law making processes. This is a serious matter as some of the policies being pushed by corporations could be detrimental to average Americans and the world as a whole. Whether these laws are about drones, pipelines, agriculture, or natural resources they all come with a far bigger impact on the country and the Earth than what the policy makers generally broadcast.
When big corporations and elites have the ability to influence policies, inequality results in the United States. They have power to sway court rulings in their favor and use the money they possess to push certain bills and laws that would benefit them. Of all the world’s commercial seed market three companies – Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta – control 53% of it. Monsanto is known for ruthlessly taking down small businesses and farmers in court cases over their products. The Center of Food Safety has tracked numerous lawsuits involving Monsanto and farmers. They found 142 patent infringement suits against 410 farmers and fifty-six small businesses in more than twenty-seven states. Monsanto has won over twenty three million dollars from these cases (Harris). Farmers and small businesses can’t afford the outcomes of these lawsuits and risk going bankrupt. When big corporations have the power to win cases over farmers and small businesses and they own a majority of the market, this creates a monopoly effect which ultimately results in economic inequality.
Economic imbalance is also a result of decades of racial inequality. Many assume that racial inequality ceased to exist with the establishment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, the War on Drugs brought forth a war on African Americans. Due to little educational opportunity African Americans worked mainly in factories. Globalization and advances in technology left many without their factory jobs. Without any legitimate employment opportunities, the incentive to sell drugs drastically increased and tougher sentences made jail time inevitable. This has resulted in a continuous cycle of crime, incarceration, and poverty for many African American families (Alexander 5-50). While one could argue that people have the decision whether or not to sell drugs, it is extremely difficult to support and feed a family on a minimum wage salary or a scrawny unemployment check. It is even more difficult to escape this cycle when it is all a person has ever known and when you have virtually no way out. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to steadily grow and the great divide between the white majority and African Americans remains as wide as it did in the 1960’s.
Perhaps it is not entirely fair to claim the United States government is solely an oligarchy. Americans have the ability to vote in regular elections, have the freedom to practice any religion, and have the power to speak their minds. All of these characteristics are central to a democratic government; that is indisputable. However, as the years pass Americans give up more of their rights for the illusion of security and safety. They accept big corporations with open arms for the sake of convenience and the possibility of saving a few bucks, and then wonder why there is such substantial economic inequality in the country. They continue to ignore signs of a crumbling democracy as the government of the United States grows more and more like an oligarchy.
Current voters are more open minded than before and have made it possible for laws dealing with previously controversial matters, like same-sex marriage, to pass in some states. There is hope still that future American children will be taught that their government is the epitome of a true democracy and that those words will ring true. The majority must gain the greater part of power in government, businesses and corporations should not overpower the voices of average citizens and mass-based interest groups, and the great divides between majority and minority groups must substantially shrink. The government’s form is not set in stone; there are ways to fix its current oligarchical state. Exercise the right to vote, be aware of what’s going on in the country and in the world, and above all else, never stop fighting for the equality preached by the founding fathers so many years ago.
****I also need to note the importance of contacting your local, state, and national representatives. If you are worried or excited about a certain piece of legislation passing or don’t like things going on in this country like the DAPL, email and call your representatives. For my Nebraska friends, here is the link to find out who your local representatives are, along with their contact information: http://www.nebraskalegislature.gov/senators/senator_find.php
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed. New York: New Press, 2010. 1-50. Print.
Aristotle, “Democracy and Oligarchy.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2013. 62-72. Print.
Gilens, M, and B.I Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” Perspectives on Politics. 12.3 (2014): 564. Print.
Harris, Paul. The Guardian, 12 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/feb/12/monsanto-sues-farmers-seed-patents>.
Madison, James. “Federalist No. 51.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2013. 113-117. Print.
Sheppard, Kate. “Monsanto Hires Former Sen. Blanche Lincoln As Lobbyist.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 1 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/16/monsanto-blanche-lincoln-_n_4110750.html>.