Time is Running Out: Who Will Protect Our Wrecked Democracy from the American Oligarchy?

Photo by Joe Schueller | CC BY 2.0

There’s been an interesting debate over the years about the relation between capitalism and democracy, for example, are they even compatible? I won’t be pursuing this because I’d like to discuss a different system – what we could call the “really existing capitalist democracy,” RECD for short, pronounced “wrecked.”

Noam Chomsky, 2013

It’s incredible. Here we are fifteen months into the horrific, arch-plutocratic right-wing Donald Trump presidency and still the United States (U.S.) has done nothing to protect its elections and its broader political culture from the vicious oligarchs who have subverted U.S. “democracy.”

The 2018 mid-term Congressional elections are only months away.  Major party primary races are in full swing right now. Is the nation really going to stand by twiddling its thumbs while more U.S. elections and the nation’s politics are hijacked by kleptocratic interlopers and the treasonous politicos who collude with them?  Time is running out!

No, I’m not talking about Russian hackers, schemers, and bots.

Sorry, this isn’t MSDNC, I mean MSNBC.

I’m talking about something monumentally more powerful than Russia when it comes to influencing U.S. politics and policy.  I’m referring to the U.S. oligarchs and their highly-placed agents and allies, who make sure that there is no “great [U.S.-of] American democracy” for Russia to subvert.

“Beyond Plutocracy”: The Permanent Political Class (PPC)

Just what grand U.S. model of American popular self-rule and sovereignty is there for Russia to undermine?

It doesn’t exist.

Saying that Russia has undermined American democracy is like me –  middle-aged, five foot nine, and unblessed with jumping ability – saying that the Brooklyn Nets Russian-born center Timofy Mozgov undermined my potential career in the National Basketball Association.

University of Kentucky history department chair Ronald Formisamo’s latest book is titled volumes: American Oligarchy: The Permanence of the Political Class (University of Illinois, 2017). By Formisamo’s detailed account, U.S. politics and policy are under the control of a “permanent political class” – a “networked layer of high-income people” including Congressional representatives (half of whom are millionaires), elected officials, campaign funders, lobbyists, consultants, appointed bureaucrats, pollsters, television celebrity journalists, university presidents, and executives at well-funded nonprofit institutions. This “permanent political class,” Formisamo warns, is taking the nation “beyond [mere] plutocracy” to “the hegemony of an aristocracy of inherited wealth.”  It:

“drives economic and political inequality not only with the policies it has constructed over the past four decades, such as federal and state tax systems rigged to favor corporations and the wealthy; it also increases inequality by its self-dealing, acquisitive behavior as it enables, emulates, and enmeshes itself with the wealthiest One Percent and .01 percent …[It engages in] the direct creation of inequality by channeling the flow of income and wealth to elites [while]… its self-aggrandizement creates a culture of corruption that infects the entire society and that induces many to abuse positions of power to emulate or rise into the One Percent” …[and as it] contributes to continuing high levels of poverty and disadvantage for millions that exceed almost all advanced nations.”

This “permanent political class” (PPC) and the “aristocracy of wealth” it dutifully attends to and apes is a product of U.S. history and U.S. state capitalism. It has nothing to do with Russia.

Oligarchically Correct: The General Public is Powerless

Formisamo is just one of many distinguished and relatively mainstream U.S.-American thinkers who understands that the U.S. as an essentially oligarchic nation. Even some conservative elites like the veteran federal jurist and economist Richard Posner concede this basic reality.  As the distinguished liberal political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Marin Gilens (Princeton) showed in their expertly researched book Democracy in America? last year:

“the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy.  Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups – especially business corporations – have had much more political clout.  When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless…The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves…Majorities of Americans favor…programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes.  Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs] (emphasis added).”

A perfect example of American oligarchy is the arch-regressive Republican tax bill signed by Trump last December despite the measure’s public approval rating of 25 percent.  Predictably enough in a nation where the top tenth of the upper One Percent already possessed nearly as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent, the tax law was opposed by three in four U.S. citizens.  So what? The oligarchy wanted a tax-cut the nation hated and could ill-afford.

More recently we heard the president proclaim that “there’s not much political support” for increasing the minimum age for purchasing an assault rifle.  This might have seemed like an absurd statement since polls taken after the latest gun massacre in Parkland, Florida showed that 82 percent of U.S.-Americans backed precisely such a gun reform. But Trump’s comment was oligarchically correct. The policy change in question would be widely approved by the mere citizenry. But the citizens don’t make federal legislation, Congress does. And the money-drenched federal legislature is cowed by the fearsome lobbying and campaign finance (and fire-) power of the wealthy and proto-fascistic National Rifle Association, which wants the nation’s gun violence machine kept set on kill.

“Elections Alone Do Not Guarantee Democracy”

Some political scientists argue that regular elections with competitive contests for citizens’ votes are all that is required for a nation to be a democracy. That is a profoundly stupid thing to believe. “Elections alone,” Page and Gilens note, “do not guarantee democracy.”  That’s no joke. Majority opinion is regularly trumped by a deadly complex of forces in the U.S. The list of interrelated and mutually reinforcing culprits behind this defeat of popular sentiment in the U.S. is extensive.  It includes but is not limited to: the campaign finance, candidate-selection, lobbying, and policy agenda-setting power of wealthy individuals, corporations, and interest groups; the special primary election influence of full-time party activists; the disproportionately affluent, white, and older composition of the active (voting) electorate; the manipulation of voter turnout; the widespread dissemination of “distracting, confusing, misleading, and just plain false information;” absurdly and explicitly unrepresentative political institutions like the Electoral College, the unelected Supreme Court, the over-representation of the predominantly white rural population in the U.S. Senate; one-party rule in the House of “Representatives”; the fragmentation of authority in government; and corporate ownership of the reigning media, which frames current events in accord with the wishes and world view of the nation’s real owners.

We get to vote?  Big deal. Mammon reigns nonetheless in the United States, where, Page and Gilens find, “government policy…reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (emphasis added).

A Vicious Circle

“I’m so glad,” rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry once sang, “I’m living in the USA.  Anything you want, they’ve got right here in the USA.”

Anything that is, except substantive majority-rule democracy, and all the things that go with it, like social justice, rough equality, and the privileging of people and the common good over private profit and the rule of the rich.

Thanks to the American oligarchy, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social ill-health: economic inequality, intergenerational social immobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, low life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, illiteracy, and environmental pollution and fragility.

It’s a vicious circle. As Page and Gilens note, “When citizens are relatively equal [economically], politics has tended to fairly democratic.  When a few individuals hold enormous amounts of wealth, democracy suffers.” Savage inequality and oligarchy are two sides of the same class-rule coin in New Gilded Age America, as in previous eras.

As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies is supposed to have said in 1940, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Rigged in Advance: What Happened to Bernie Sanders

One of the PPC’s roles is to protect big money-vetted candidates against insurgent politicos and movements that might challenge the nexus between wealth and power to make policy on behalf of the working-class majority. Take the contest between Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) and Bernie Sanders. The monstrous billionaire Donald Trump sits in the White House today thanks in no small part of the PPC’s rigging of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary race against the progressive Sanders.  Under a formal funding arrangement it worked up with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in late September of 2015, the depressing “lying neoliberal warmonger” HRC’s campaign was granted advance control of all the DNC’s “strategic decisions.”

The agreement was finalized three months before the first presidential caucus (Iowa) and primary (New Hampshire).  It violated the spirit and letter of the Charter and Bylaws of the Democratic Party, which technically require the DNC to function as an impartial arbiter of contests between presidential contestants within the party.

The DNC abrogated that requirement during the primary campaign, acting for Clinton and against Sanders in numerous ways. The Clinton fix was evident in Las Vegas, when the Nevada Democratic Party chair “shut down debate behind a screen of uniformed police” after the party excluded 58 Sanders delegates with sudden “rules changes” clearly made to block Sanders’ rightful claim to have won Nevada.

In July of 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairperson Debbie Wasserman-Schultz was forced to resign from her position after thousands of Wiki-leaked emails showed the DNC exhibiting a clear bias for Hillary over Sanders and other Democratic Party presidential candidates.

Wasserman-Schultz’s successor was interim DNC Chair Donna Brazille, who was later shown by WikiLeaks to have used her position as a CNN commentator to have relayed questions ahead of primary campaign debates to the Clinton campaign.

Then there was the open mockery of democracy behind the fact that much of Hillary’s party delegate lead over Sanders – enough to give her the nomination without a contest on the convention floor – derived from the 525 explicitly unelected and so-called superdelegates pledged to her before Sanders even declared his candidacy.

The Democrats’ pivotal opening Iowa Caucus was an open “debacle” (the Des Moines Register) in which pro-Clinton party officials denied Sanders a rightful game-changing victory.

The game was rigged before the contest even began, courtesy of the PPC.

Also critical was the role of the corporate communications oligopoly behind the so-called mainstream media. Sanders attracted giant overflow crowds and record-setting small-donor support for his campaign against “the billionaire class.”  The Sanders campaign was a remarkable development, reflecting the simple fact that the Senator from Vermont ran in accord with longstanding majority progressive public opinion on numerous key issues – health insurance, economic inequality, poverty, tax policy, workers’ right to organize, college tuition, student debt, civil rights, campaign finance, the climate crisis and more.

In the Clinton-leaning dominant media’s reporting and commentary on the primary race, however, the Sanders phenomenon was systematically downplayed and maligned.  Sanders received slight attention compared to the ruling commercial media’s obsession with the Republican candidates – the freakish Trump above all – and the Clinton campaign.  Sanders came off as a marginal and extremist crank and longshot despite his widespread popular support, his long history as a U.S. Senator, his alignment with majority citizen sentiment, and the curious fact that he consistently out-performed Mrs. Clinton in one-on-one match-up polls against the Republican candidates, including Trump. The semi-celebrity liberal New York Times columnist and talking head Paul Krugman viciously likened Sanders’ common-sense and majority-backed single-payer health insurance proposal to “a standard Republican tax-cut plan.” Hillary’s prizefighter Krugman accused Sanders of “deep voodoo economics” and “unicorn politics,” calling Sanders’ supporters “dead-enders.”

Recklessly Promoting Trump

Thanks to WikLeaks, we know that the Clinton campaign conspired from the outset not only to sink the Sanders primary challenge but also to promote Trump. An April 7th, 2015 email circulated among top Clinton strategists expressed two notable campaign goals:

1) To “make the goal of a potential HRC campaign and the DNC one and the same.”

2) To promote the “Pied Piper” Republican campaigns of Donald Trump. Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson, making them seem more “mainstream” and thereby elevating them relative to the supposedly more formidable Republican establishment candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

How reckless was that?  In what was fated by the Great Recession and by the wealth- and power-serving performance of the centrist, arch-neoliberal Obama administration to be an anti-establishment election, the PPC Democrats’ strategy was a formula for the installation of a malignant and moronic white-nationalist atop the world’s most powerful nation. It was an anti-establishment “populist” election in which only one of the two parties fielded an anti-establishment “populist” candidate.

Lucky Trump, Smart Trump

We know what happened. With the help of the Clinton-DNC shenanigans, the corporate Democrats’ party structure held to prevent the nomination of the “left-populist” Sanders, who would likely have defeated Trump. By contrast, the Republican establishment crumbled before the “right-populist” Trump-Bannon challenge, which was abetted by a corporate media that gave more attention to Orange Caligula’s every sick sexist and racist Tweet than it did to Sanders’ massive anti-oligarchy rallies. With Sanders’ majority-backed criticism of the wealthy Few defeated, the unspeakably vile sexual assaulter and uber-jackass of a president-to-be was more easily able to win white middle- and working-class votes by playing and preying on the long-term scapegoating of racial minorities and immigrants as the (false) cause of declining opportunity and income and growing inequality in the neoliberal era.

Trump was further able to exploit the four-decade plus rise and spread of neoliberal “small government” and “free market” ideology – a bipartisan oligarchic ideology the Clintons and Obama had promoted in lethally effective, fake-progressive ways. Trump mined the “anti-government” discourse to promote his anti-Washington campaign even as he advanced a reactionary populist and white-nationalist critique of globalization and immigration.

Trump also and critically benefitted from bitter partisan, racial, cultural, and ideological polarization between the Republican and Democratic parties.  The national political culture’s virulent polarization guaranteed that Republicans voters would support Trump to block the presidential candidate (especially the widely loathed Hillary Clinton) of the hated Democrats no matter how offensive and idiotic Trump showed himself to be.

At the same time, Trump coasted on mass disgust with the partisan gridlock that took hold in the nation’s capital after the election of the country’s first Black president, the passage of Obama’s signature health insurance reform, and the rise of the Republican Tea Party.  Trump exploited public revulsion at with the resulting epic dysfunction of the d federal government by posing as a great outsider and savior who “alone” could “clean up the mess” and “drain the swamp.” His personal fortune became an ironic “populist” asset as he asserted that it made him independent from the pull of big money Wall Street-Washington swamp creatures.

All that was left for Trump and his handlers to be smart enough to do (they were) was to keep the Ted Cruz-affiliated evangelical wing (which had obvious cultural difficulties with the New York City mogul Trump’s vulgar and scandalous life history) of the Republican Party on board by (as Mike Davis has noted) granting the “Christian Right” the Vice Presidency (the homophobic Christian fascist  Mike Pence), a “free hand to draft the party platform” (Davis), and the right to vet federal judicial appointments.

RussiaGate: Four Toxic Functions

After Herr Donald shocked even himself (though not Steve Bannon) by defeating the leading Russophobe HRC, Russia-hating took on a new and seductive political meaning for PPC Democrats and their media allies. The Blame Russia narrative has proved irresistible to the corporate and imperial Democratic Party and centrist media “elite” for four basic reasons. First, top Democrats have wanted to politically delegitimize the Trump presidency with an obvious partisan eye to the 2018 and 2020 elections. They’ve seen tarring Trump as a treasonous friend of a leading “foreign adversary” as useful for that purpose.

It helps them in this regard, of course, that Trump does in fact seem to have had strange and disturbing ties to oligarchic Russia, that he has behaved as if Russia has something on him, and that he has made little secret about his desire to “obstruct justice” in the Robert Mueller-led Russia investigation.

Second, highly placed “deep state” NATO-expansionist New Cold Warriors in both major parties (and in the media oligopoly) have wanted to keep the heat on Moscow. The Russia election-hacking and collusion charges have been potent tools for the New Cold War camp to use to hedge in Trump’s promises of U.S. rapprochement with Russia and his oligarchic role model Putin.

Third, the Russian interference allegation helps the DNC and the neoliberal Democratic Party establishment avoid responsibility for blowing the 2016 election by rigging the primaries against Sanders and then badly running a wooden, corruption-tainted Wall Street candidate atop a vapid and elitist campaign that couldn’t mobilize enough working- and lower-class voters to defeat the epically noxious Trump in the key battleground states. The “Moscow stole it” narrative is a fancy version of “the dog [bear?] ate my homework” for a dismal, dollar-drenched, and PPC-managed Democratic Party that abandoned the working class and the causes of social justice and environmental sustainability long ago.

The “Inauthentic Opposition” Party (as the late Sheldon Wolin aptly described the neoliberal Democratic Party) does not want to concede anything to those who dream (naively) of turning it into a peoples’ party that will win by advancing with a bold progressive vision and agenda. The “Russia did it” (not our horrid and demobilizing neoliberal centrism) take on the 2016 election works for establishment PPC Democrats hoping to stave off demands from insufficiently social-democratic progressives in their own party.

Fourth, the neo-McCarthyite culture created by the New Cold War works, as did the original Soviet-era McCarthyism, to smear domestic protest and dissent with the brush of treason by painting it out as a reflection of nefarious outside interference in American domestic affairs. Under McCarthyite rules, normal conflict and popular struggle in the “homeland” are darkly suspected of being part of Russia’s allegedly super-potent conspiracy to “destabilize” the U.S. by spreading “divisiveness.” A chilling CNN report last September spoke breathlessly about how evil Russia “bought  Black Lives Matter Facebook ads targeting Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore” to “create a climate” of “incivility and chaos” and “disorder” to “undermine the American democratic project, generally, to undermine America’s strength at home,” and to “weaken the argument that may have tempted old Soviet bloc states that western democracy was the grand goal of where they should be heading.” The report rested on the core false assumptions that the corporate-managed U.S. is a great model and beacon of democracy and that the United States’ own internal power and oppression structures (race, class, etc.) are not sufficient to fuel internal U.S. conflict on their own, without foreign manipulation.

As good servants of the One Percent, the PPC Dems are quite ready to smear those who dare to challenge the American oligarchy and domestic inequality and oppression as tools of foreign “meddling.”

It’s a timeworn authoritarian ploy: blame homegrown popular resistance on “outside agitators.” Dictators and other tyrants have been doing that around the world forever.

Do Republicans want to use the Russia paranoia to play that authoritarian game too?  You betchya! .The Republican-led U.S. House Science Committee recently tied U.S. protests of the environmentally disastrous Dakota Access Pipeline to “Russian interference” via Facebook. The right does the same to Black Lives Matter and the new youth-led gun control movement that has arisen in response to the latest school massacre in Parkland, Florida.

Party of Empire and Wealth

Meanwhile, the Russia-blaming and Russia-bashing corporate Democrats seem content to persevere in tilting to the center, purging Sanders-style Democrats from the party’s leadership and citing the party’s special election victories (Doug Jones and Conor Lamb) against deeply flawed and Trump-backed Republicans (Roy Moore and Rick Saccone) in two bright-red voting districts ( the state of Alabama and a fading Western Pennsylvania Congressional canton) as proof that tepid neoliberal centrism is still the winning way to go, even after HRC’s stunning defeat. Tweaked and done right, the PPC Dems sense, the centrist tack can draw new turnout strength from the lived awfulness of an actual Trump presidency (haunted throughout by RussiaGate) as opposed to just the supposedly small (wrong) threat of “Pied Piper” Trump becoming president in 2016.

Consistent with the proto-fascistic and neo-McCarthyite spirt of the times,  the Democratic Party is reconfiguring itself  as what Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers call the  “party of military and intelligence candidates.” In a recent three-part series on “the CIA Democrats,” the World Socialist Web Site’s Patrick Martin reports that more than 50 candidates with military and/or intelligence backgrounds are seeking the Democratic nomination in 102 districts identified by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as 2018 targets. 2018.  Zeese and Flowers write that:

“as many as half of all new congressional Democrats could come from the national security apparatus. An example is the victory in Pennsylvania by Conor Lamb, an anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-drug war, ex-Marine, which is being celebrated by Democrats. The Sanders-Democrats, working to make the Democratic Party a progressive people’s party, are being outflanked by the military-intelligence apparatus. In the end, Democratic Party leadership cares more about numbers than candidate’s policy positions…. Just as Freedom Caucus Tea Party representatives hold power in the Republican Party, the military-intelligence officials will become the powerhouse for Democrats. This takeover will make the Democrats even more militarist at a dangerous time when threats of war are on the rise and the country needs an opposition party that says ‘no’ to war” (emphasis added).

It may play out how the PPC Dems hope, helping their party turn the House blue and putting the impeachment of on the table. But (contrary to Zeese and Flowers’ otherwise excellent reporting).  establishment Democrats are not just about “the numbers” instead of “policy positions.” Make no mistake. The Inauthentic Opposition always prefers to lose to the right than to the left, including even the (mild) left in its own party. Even if they determine that coming elections won’t fall their way unless they undertake a leftward alignment with majority progressive policy opinion, the dismal Dems will choose defeat over doing what it takes to win. As Formisamo notes, the top priority for member of the permanent political class is always to take care of themselves and their own by serving their corporate and financial masters.  That is theirfirst and controlling objective, not serving the “virtually powerless” working-class majority or even winning elections.

Bernie Plays Along

It is depressing but less-than-surprising that the “outflanked” progressive Bernie F-35 Sanders has been playing along with the conspiratorial, neo-McCarthyite Russiagate narrative.  Sanders’ portside sentiments don’t extend to the giant, havoc-wreaking U.S. war machine that eats up more than half of U.S. federal discretionary spending. He’s a Russiaphobe in his own right, consistent with his disturbingly fervent support for Bill Clinton’s criminal bombing of Russia’s ally Serbia nineteen years ago this month (please read Will Miller, “Bernie the Bomber’s Bad Week,” Liberty Union Party, March 20, 1999 here)

Maybe Bernie sincerely believes that Putin tipped the election in 2016.  Or maybe Sanders knows better and is just trying to mouth enough of the Russia-blaming things he has to say to stay influential and mount an effective campaign again in 2020.

Whatever it’s all about, nobody has greater cause than Bernie Sanders to stand up and scream that the nation’s real democracy problem doesn’t emanate from overseas but rather from America’s own corporate and financial oligarchy.  That oligarchy denied him the Democratic Party nomination and thereby greased the skids for the ascendancy of Tangerine Satan, host of an endless presidential reality television freak show that makes a laughingstock out of the U.S. and poses grave dangers at home and abroad.

Still Unprotected!

As Republican special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s RussiaGate investigation grinds on with no end in sight, the nation’s election system and political culture remain supinely captive to the deadly, democracy-canceling interference of the nation’s own corporate and financial oligarchy/ kleptocracy, supervised by the PPC.

Who will protect Americans from the American oligarchy? CNN and MSNBC shriek about our continuing vulnerability to evil Russian intrusion.  They say nothing about how no steps are being taken to outlaw the controlling influence of nefarious homegrown American big money campaign funders, lobbyists, and, of course, corporate media.

The Democratic Party’s internal structure remains rigidly authoritarian, leaving the PPC free to rig Democratic primaries on behalf of oligarchy-friendly candidates – a shocking number of them now veteran agents of the U.S.-imperial national security and war state.

The ridiculous, openly anti-democratic Electoral College and the absurd assignment of two U.S. Senators to every state regardless of population differences remain unchallenged.

Rampant racist voter suppression (which itself provided the difference for Trump in the 2016 election – something that receives remarkable attention in U.S. “liberal” media) and the transparently partisan hyper-gerrymandering of U.S. electoral districts live on despite occasionally promising and useful court challenges.

There are no steps being taken to empower third and fourth parties to provide alternatives to the despotic nothingness of the reigning oligarchic “winner-take-all” regime.  The only electorally viable parties are still “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904).  Despite different histories, constituencies, and platforms, the two major capitalist political organizationss are controlled by the same unelected and interrelated dictatorships of American wealth and empire.

The U.S. oligarchy bends further towards “an aristocracy of inherited wealth” while liberal talking heads at CNN and MSNBC tell us that the real threat to our freedom and democracy is found in the Kremlin.

Wow, that’s original.  History is often less new than it seems.

Meanwhile, in something new: history itself is running out of time, thanks to the escalating onset of a human-generated climate catastrophe that could very well spell the collapse of civilization in remarkably short order.  This is a story that does not seem to garner a lot of attention from the oligarchy’s media, which is obsessed with the Trump and Russia story but has incredibly little to say about the most significantly awful thing about the Trump presidency:  it’s arch-petro-capitalist commitment to the stepped-up Greenhouse Gassing to Death of Life on Earth. the biggest issue of our or any time…though not a good television ratings booster.

Please help Street keep writing here.


Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).