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Trickle-Down Democracy

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Whether the restrictive policies of Lord North or the madness of King George III lost the American colonies, if George Washington had had a son, the new American republic would likely have become a monarchy, and almost five percent of the world’s population would now be living in the biggest monarchy in the world, the United Kingdom of America. More than two centuries on, one has to wonder: Is it Crown Prince Jeb versus Queen Hillary for prez now, with their eye-popping war chests?

Many a proud establishment boasts its heritage with a Proprietor and Son sign above the door. Lawyers beget lawyers, actors create actors, and sons follow their fathers into the butcher’s business, but one wouldn’t think that a name matters in a democracy, all things being created equal and all.

And yet, family democracies have seemingly become more common, not just the Adams, Roosevelts, or Dalys, but today’s Browns, Kennedys, Bushes, and Clintons, the devils we know preferred to the devils we don’t. Even one-fifth of all women who served in the United States Senate succeeded their late husbands, including the first ever woman senator in 1931, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas.

Until recently in Greece, the so-called cradle of democracy, the Papandreous dynasty had perfected an almost perpetual relationship with an undiscerning polis (father, son, and grandson), whereas in Ireland, Daniel McConnell noted that “Children following in their parents’ footsteps has been a hallmark of our electoral system” (The Sunday Independent, December 27, 2009). Indeed, 49 percent of national Irish parliamentarians were either related to current or past members in a recent parliament. Argentina has seen two sets of husband and wife presidents (Juan Perón/Isabel Martínez, Néstor Kirchner/Cristina Fernández), while in India and Pakistan, family democracies have ruled for much of their histories (Nehru/Gandhi, Zardari/Bhutto). Hardly representative government.

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote that, “the legislative part … are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present.” Paine and other early patriots were believers in representative government. Further on, he warns of the evils of monarchy: “One of the strongest natural proofs of the folly of hereditary right in kings, is, that nature disapproves it, otherwise she would not so frequently turn it into ridicule by giving mankind an ass for a lion. Indeed, “Who’s your daddy?” is no prerequisite for democracy. As Paine succinctly noted, “virtue is not hereditary.”

So on to Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, the presumed son-brother and wife contenders. We can’t really prefer a top-down ordering of society from one anointed neo-king to another, by blood and connection, rather than a tried-and-true, bottom-up representative of the masses. I thought we’d learned our lessons in war after war. What’s next—Caligula’s horse?

Sometimes the point is made though about the dangers of inherited thought, as when New York congressman Gary Ackerman commented on Caroline Kennedy’s grab at Hillary Clinton’s vacated senatorial spot, “I don’t know what Caroline Kennedy’s qualifications are. Except that she has name recognition, but so does J-Lo.” In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy suffered a similar fate, when his son was forced to remove his lofty hat from the running to be head of a €100-million-a-year public agency.

The parchment may state that we are all created equal, but there seems to be a different version going around today, one overseen by a closed thinking shop. Of course, conservative politicians are fond of championing the occasional upstart that appears from the sidelines to show the strength of their dogged perseverance, as in an always happy-ending Hallmark Hollywood movie. Margaret Thatcher often commented on her shopkeeper’s daughter upbringing, and even B-movie stars or weightlifters make it to the top of the political food chain now and again.

It’s not just name recognition that counts these days. One also needs a rather large war chest to get elected, where more than $7 billion was spent on the 2012 American presidential campaign, up from $2 billion the previous election. In his bid for New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg spent $73 million of his own wealth (five times that of his rivals) and in the California gubernatorial race to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger, billionaire former ebay CEO, Meg Whitman, spent $81 million of her own money just on the primary. Indeed, the political and social divide is now firmly defined by money. Lots of it.

According to Forbes, the 100 richest people in the world have a whopping $2.3 trillion and are mostly American, including 7 of the richest 10. Family wealth is evident with the Koch brothers tied for sixth ($86 billion) and four of the Walton family in the top 12 (Christy, Jim, Alice, and S. Robson with $161 billion). Half of all American wealth is also inherited, perhaps not surprising since money has been at the centre of the American Dream since its inception. Kurt Vonnegut elegantly restated this notion from Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 Democracy in America: “Want a taste of that great book? [de Tocqueville] says, and he said it 169 years ago, that in no country other than ours has love of money taken a stronger hold on the affections of men.” Indeed, money, power, and connections, the soul of today’s democracies, not morality, passion, and convictions.

Inequality is one thing, but donor democracy and buying elections is another. Nicholas Confessore noted that the Koch brothers and their political network are planning to spend close to $900 million on the next presidential election (New York Times, January 26, 2015), having already spent considerably in the last election cycle, perhaps the decisive factor in the recent Republican Senate takeover. Politics is big business, and to the victors go the spoils with an agenda of corporate interests and old-fashioned quid pro quo, fashioned after the likes of Andrew Jackson who ran his administration on a “spoils” system.

Is it all failed trickle-down thinking? William Jennings Bryan, the three-time American presidential candidate, perhaps better known for his religious views in the Scopes monkey trial, his attempts to wean the United States from gold to silver, and the creation of the Federal Reserve, is credited with coining the “trickle-down” moniker, stating that “if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through to those below.” John Kenneth Galbraith aptly characterized the mechanism behind the real workings: “The less than elegant metaphor that if one feeds the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.” Father to son, husband to wife.

Social Darwinism, the failed pseudo-scientific belief that wealth and material advancement is the measure of one’s success as if “naturally selected,” continues as the standard bearer of American enlightenment despite its obvious shortcomings, when redressing the imbalance created by a business-first world is needed if we want to live in a more human-based egalitarian society that attempts to solve the problems of our times and our shared existence. A government of the people, by the people, for the people? Sadly, more like one man, one billion dollars, one million votes. Trickle-down thinking and trickle-down democracy is a step into a failed past of family cliques and failed self-interested policies.

At least we’re guaranteed an all-woman race around 2040, given the strengths of Brands Bush and Clinton, when Barbara (and/or Jenna) and Chelsea should be readying their test of the electoral waters. Yes, it’s high time for a female president, but imagine the political fireworks had our past monarchs, Messrs Washington, Clinton, and Bush sired boys. Behold the United Kingdom of Great America.

JOHN K. WHITEan adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013)Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

 

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John K. White, an adjunct lecturer in the School of Physics, University College Dublin, and author of Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at: john.white@ucd.ie.

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