During World War II the Nazi propaganda machine continuously referred to the United States and Great Britain as plutocracies. Simply stated; a plutocracy is a governing system where the wealthy few rule. Some of the better known historical plutocracies have been the Roman Republic, some of the Greek city states, Carthage, and the Italian city states. However, all of these existed either during the European Classical Period or the later Middle-Ages and Renaissance Period. With the United States claiming to be a democracy, what is the rationale for the Nazis to label the US as a plutocracy?
It’s no secret that what the Nazis were referring to was a thinly veiled reference for what they promoted as Jewish global banking dominance. Clearly this premise was and is untrue; but, is the United States truly a representative democracy or is it a plutocracy in disguise, controlled by the wealthy elite; and, have we been educated and led to believe that we are living in a merit based democracy?
If we look at our history and our founding, the break from the British Monarchy was conceived of and promoted by the colonial elites. The “founding fathers” were, by all measures; the best educated, leading “enlightenment” thinkers of North America and some of the wealthiest men on the continent. It didn’t matter whether the wealth came from mercantilism or agriculture, what mattered was their wealth and social position. In keeping with the principles of the enlightenment; a republican democracy was chosen as the government structure. If we honestly look at it, our system of government started out much closer to that of plutocracy than a true democracy. The elite elected or chose the legislative representatives who drew up, first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. When the US Constitution was ratified, it was ratified by the elected elite within each state. I don’t think that it ever occurred to the founding fathers that anyone other than the elite would be in positions of power. One only has to look to who was eligible to vote to determine their intent; white property owners. However, over the course of our history, if we determine the level of democracy by who is eligible to vote, we have become more democratic over the course of time. Amendments to the Constitution have empowered more and more people to full participatory citizenship. Finally with the 19th Amendment giving women suffrage, all US citizens were given the right to vote. Unfortunately, one group was routinely denied their constitutional right to vote; southern blacks. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally addressed this denial of legitimate citizens’ right to vote and we became a true representative democracy.
As more and more Americans have been given the right to vote, the battle has shifted to the selection of candidates who will stand for election for the various political offices. Although we have two political parties, our choices have been traditionally limited by whomever the wealthy and powerful elites have chosen to run; therefore limiting our choice to one elite candidate or the other. True grassroots candidates are few and far between. One of the greatest limiting factors preventing candidates is the massive amounts of money needed to get elected. Unless someone is independently wealthy they cannot run and succeed without seeking patrons who will help fund their candidacy. No matter how independent the candidate is, he or she will still be beholding to those who have financed the campaign. Although the majority of citizens complain about this system, they don’t appear committed enough to change it and it would take at least one more article to examine it in depth. To overcome this problem, many nations will not allow private financing of candidates and it accomplished through government financed elections. As long as both sides have equivalent amounts to spend on support of their candidates, the election process is considered to be fair and balanced.
If the citizen is given a choice, then the battle moves to a fight for the minds and hearts of the electorate. Whoever can shape the issues and consistently stay on message has a higher probability of prevailing. However, this also takes massive amounts of money. Over the last forty years a myriad of think tanks, institutes, political action committees and other special interest enterprises have been created to help create the intellectual arguments, policies and strategies to win the hearts and minds of the American citizen. In American society liberal and conservative groups have been formed to perform this function. Better known groups such as the American Enterprise Institute, Foreign Policy Council, Council on the American Family, etc are all focused on specific points of view and the promotion of those same views.
A favorite theme that is promoted is the American myth that we live in a meritorious society. In other words; no matter how lowly one is born, that through merit one can rise to the top based on individual merit. To affirm this myth, stories about Abraham Lincoln, Oprah Winfrey and others are told over and over again. This highly placed value is purely mythical in nature. In order for it to be true, all would have to be born at the same level of status and wealth. But as it is, they are a very large number of citizens who are born with little or no opportunity to rise up, while the elites provide every possible opportunity for their own to succeed even if they possess less talent, intellect or skill than those who are lowly born. Their claim to station is that they were born to the right parents, under the right circumstances and in a culture that promotes and values wealth and power.
So we come to the point of what we are; democracy, plutocracy or something else. I think it’s clear that we are not a true and pure representative democracy; but neither are we a plutocracy. We are also not a meritocracy. Therefore, what are we? We are unique and do not fit anyone system since we have elements of all systems; including a little socialism and a little communism.
What truly marks us as a great society is that we hold the ultimate authority. Our votes are the final determining factor for what kind of society that we are. This is dangerous for any one person or group that may want to force us into doing something that we don’t want to do. In Wisconsin we have been going through a fight to exercise our ultimate authority. The recall petitions and recall elections are proof positive of the people’s power. This is disturbing for those who fear the power of the people. The demonstrations in Madison brought the reality to the forefront that people have power. Oligarchs, autocrats, plutocrats and dictators hate and fear when the people exercise their authority. The final answer is that we are a free people who will guard our freedoms jealously.
Remember to exercise your freedom and vote!