Tuesday, November 08, 2016

The best defense against oligarchy is to participate in politics

Bernie Sanders said it best when he said that change always comes from the bottom up. He also said that the purpose of his campaign was to get people more involved in politics. He has been quoted as follows: "Are we prepared to take on the enormous political power of the billionaire class or do we continue to slide into economic and political oligarchy?" Sanders seems painfully aware of our predicament as are many of us voting, or even not voting today.

Well, today is election day and we're going to see if what he did actually helped. Today we take a snapshot in time to see if more people are willing to participate in politics. I've been blogging about Sanders for more than a year and I've come to a really simple conclusion: the best way to defend against oligarchy is to participate in politics. Thank you, Bernie.

There is no disputing the fact that we now live in an oligarchy. After watching what happened with Hillary Clinton, how the authorities refused to prosecute her, despite a mountain of evidence against her, it is clear that she's working for the oligarchs. It is becoming evident that we live in a nation of men, not laws. "Laws are for the little people", right?

Here is some compelling evidence that we live in an oligarchy: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (PDF). That study reviewed Congressional voting records against polling and found that average Americans had close to zero influence on Congress for at least the last 20 years. Here is their summary at the top of their paper:
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics—which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism—offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented. 
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.
Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. (emphasis mine)
Economic-Elite Domination? Biased Pluralism? Those are two really nice euphemisms for oligarchy. What is oligarchy (Wikipedia)?
Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "few", and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning "to rule or to command")[1][2][3] is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people might be distinguished by nobility, wealth, family ties, education or corporate, religious or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.
Oligarchy is simply described as a power structure that rests on a few people. Countries ruled by a few people, huh? You mean like Saudi Arabia, Quatar and North Korea? No. I mean like the United States. We've already seen two members of the Bush family as president. On this election day, we are very likely to see another Clinton installed as president. Who put them there?

Now that's a very good question. Larry Lessig of Harvard University has put together some very compelling research on the subject. He has narrowed this group of people down to what he calls, "the relevant funders". Relevant funders are people that are so wealthy, that they can tilt the outcome of an election in their favor with their political contributions and connections.

In this video, Lessig works through a white board to show that a series of court decisions including Citizens United, have opened the floodgates to big money in politics (Lessig has a website dedicated to closing that floodgate). The video is short, compelling and provides support for the statement that we live in an oligarchy, or, "rule by the few".

Perhaps by now, you're guessing at a number, you know, to estimate how many people are the relevant funders. How few are the number of people who "rule" this country? Lessig's estimate is that in the 2012 election cycle 60% of SuperPAC funding came from 132 people. As recently as 4 years ago, 132 people could decide who runs for president and does well. 132 people decide who runs for Congress and win. Oligarchy is not rule by the rich, though they certainly play a part. It is rule by the few.

You know you live in an oligarchy when the people who lay claim to power do not have to listen to you. Or your friends. Or even Bernie Sanders. You know you live in an oligarchy that, during a job fair for future lobbyists known as a "lame duck Congress", president Obama insists on a ratifying the TPP, despite massive opposition. You know you live in an oligarchy when the two major parties nominate people who are historically unpopular and could be prosecuted for alleged crimes long before the election, but they are not. You know you live in an oligarchy when one of the biggest banks in the country provides a list of people to be selected for cabinet positions by the president.

If you take nothing else from this election, remember that voting Republican or Democrat will only get you more oligarchy. They go where the money goes. They use political contributions as a measure of the merits of public policy.

Note that the statement immediately above is offered as a general guide. There are a few exceptions and they are known as "Berniecrats". Berniecrats are Democrats that refuse to take corporate money or large donations from very wealthy people. A few of them have been endorsed by Bernie Sanders himself. A good example of a Berniecrat is Zephyr Teachout in New York. She's running her campaign just the same way Bernie did, on the same principles. She also wrote a nice book on corruption in politics. In that race, some very wealthy people are financing her opposition.

The best way to do defend against oligarchy is to participate in politics. This is proven by at least one natural experiment. This study, Compulsory Voting and Income Inequality, reviews the relationship between voter participation and inequality. Here is the abstract from the study:
What difference does it make if more, or fewer, people vote? What difference would it make if the state makes people vote? These questions are central both to normative debates about the rights and duties of citizens in a democracy and to contemporary policy debates in a variety of countries over what actions states should take to encourage electoral participation. To address them, this paper focuses on the phenomenon of compulsory voting – legal requirements that compel citizens to vote in elections. Specifically, by applying a new statistical tool called “synthetic control method” to a rare case of abolishing compulsory voting in Venezuela, we show that not forcing people to vote – and a resultant sharp drop in voter turnout – yielded a more unequal distribution of income. Our evidence supports Arend Lijphart’s claim, forcefully advanced in his 1996 presidential address to the American Political Science Association, that compulsory voting can offset class bias in turnout and, in turn, contribute to the equality of influence.
This study shows how in Venezuela, there is a clear difference in how influence on the government is distributed between compulsory voting and voluntary voting. I'm not advocating compulsory voting here or by presenting this study for your review. I'm saying that there is a positive correlation between inequality and voter participation. If you don't vote, you are contributing to the status quo, to maintain an oligarchy by its very definition. If you don't vote, there are fewer people to "rule" this country.

So, if you should find yourself stuck in an oligarchy, I suggest that the best way to remove the oligarchy is to vote third party. That would be a good start.
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