In 2014, Princeton and Northwestern universities released a major study on the wealth gap in America, bearing the relatively boring title, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.” The paper posited that the desires of the nation’s top earners drove national policy far more than the desires of the bottom 90%, prompting most outlets to run with the much less benign headline, “America is an Oligarchy; Not A Democracy.”
This was still the era of Facebook “shares” helping articles go viral and the story took a wide tour around the internet. It was every bit as splashy as the famous “Selfies Kill More People than Sharks” headline of 2015. And just like the selfies vs. sharks report, it wasn’t completely true. Over the next few months, “Testing Theories” was debunked by three different academic papers — both for the models it used and the conclusions it drew from those models. These rebuttals did agree that the ultra-rich own tremendous voting power, but nevertheless, democracy was holding on. It had lived to fight another day.
Three years later, that day has arrived. The GOP tax plan benefits the one percent as much, if not more, than the 2003 Bush tax cuts. Meanwhile, the FCC’s push to kill Net Neutrality creates an economy for a product which, until now, had been relatively egalitarian: The Internet. And to cap it off, President Trump took back 80% of Bears Ears National Monument and 45% of Grand Staircase Escalante — essentially stating: “This land is not your land, this land is our land. And by ‘our’ I mean privatized interests particularly pertinent to a billionaire; potentially mining concerns.”
So maybe it’s time to dust the old “Oligarchy” theory off and broaden it a little. Because a democracy isn’t just about how policy is shaped, it’s also about the masses enjoying some semblance of upward mobility and an equal locus of control over the land we all share. And the fact that the mega-rich will soon be able to use their tremendous sway to access information quicker and privatize BLM property for profit seems like a far cry from the nation’s “for the people, by the people” roots.
Oligarchies begin with money, but they end up being about power.