America Is an Oligarchy. It Doesn’t Have to Be.

Just three men have more wealth than 160 million Americans. We're ruled by a rigged system designed to exploit the many for the benefit of the few.

Trump Tower stands on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on August 24, 2018 in New York City. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The United States is the richest society in human history. As is well-known by most of the people who live in it, it’s also a country of deep and abiding inequality.

Just three billionaires own more wealth than the 160 million poorest Americans combined and the wealthiest of them — Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — pockets more money every sixty seconds than the typical American household earns in a year and a half.

Disorientingly caught between rising skyscrapers, burgeoning technology giants, crumbling public infrastructure, and a steadily narrowing strata of plutocrats, some forty million people (many of them children) live in poverty as tens of millions more struggle to afford the basic necessities of life. While American workers across every sector are increasingly overworked and underpaid, thousands die from lack of health insurance or go broke trying to pay for treatment. Racial discrimination, meanwhile, remains a constitutive part of a criminal justice system that needlessly keeps more than two million people behind bars and routinely allows police to kill with impunity.

This state of affairs — public squalor and injustice for the many and private affluence for the few — represents an obvious paradox, but most certainly does not imply a contradiction. The needless hardships inflicted on a majority of Americans, symbiotically bound to inequality and exploitation, are the direct consequence of a rigged economic and political system designed to yield precisely these outcomes while precluding any real challenges to the status quo.

With its deep history of racial exclusion and its anti-majoritarian political design, American democracy has long been more of an abstract idea than a lived reality for many of the country’s inhabitants. But in recent decades, amid the collapse of the New Deal, the rise of the New Right, and the neoliberal transformation of the Democratic Party, even many of the most basic democratic mechanisms have gradually withered away. It’s taken a generation, but the American political system has finally come to resemble a giant money-laundering scheme through which a handful of wealthy people and corporate monopolies have gradually asserted their dominion over virtually anything and everything.

Nowhere is this more visible than when it comes to America’s campaign finance system, essentially set up to sell the legislative process to the highest bidder and make certain anyone even thinking about running for office receives a thorough vetting by big money. By allowing billionaires, corporations, and shadowy movements of capital to dominate elections, those at the top can effectively rig the system to reproduce their own interests in perpetuity — whether protecting their own wealth or preserving whatever conditions enabled them to amass it in the first place.

Injustice has many layers and many culprits, but money and hierarchy are often found at its root. From regressive tax laws benefiting the rich to racially motivated voter suppression, from the destruction of unions to environmental degradation; from mass incarceration to a health care system that generates profit from illness and injury and an obsequious media infrastructure pathologically biased towards it all, a lengthy trail of money from self-interested big donors — be they malevolent, activist-minded conservatives like the Koch brothers or multinational corporations simply seeking to maximize return for their shareholders — is rarely far from view.

So sweeping has been the conquest of the American system by the tyranny of wealth that the leaderships of its ruling political duopoly long ago accepted it as a permanent fixture.

For the GOP, ever the party of white, suburban reaction and petit-bourgeois resentment, this accommodation has been easy, natural, and welcome. But the Democratic Party, nominally the socially conscious liberal opposition, is also awash with corporate money and has been for decades (several of its leading presidential contenders are already canvassing Wall Street for donor interest). Acceding to the Reagan realignment and in some respects taking it further, Bill Clinton proudly fawned over high finance and worked hard to discipline or marginalize any constituency skeptical of the party’s newfound triangulation.

After the 2008 crash, despite securing a huge congressional majority and the White House with a popular candidate, the Democrats steadfastly refused to pursue a transformative course or slow the country’s descent into oligarchy. Having accommodated themselves to a rigged system, Democratic leaders long ago settled on marketing themselves as its more competent and professional managers — condemning its evils in increasingly abstract terms while doubling down on the very structures of power that maintain them as facts of life.

With the country so manifestly unequal, the scope of politics so limited by the influence of wealthy donors and big money, and the bipartisan consensus institutionally tipped towards the powerful, it should come as no surprise that millions of Americans regularly opt out of participating altogether.

Nonetheless, beneath the many layers of despair and resignation, vast swathes of the American electorate remain far more progressive and forward-thinking than most of their titular representatives. They know the economy is rigged in favor of the rich. They want a Green New Deal and higher taxes on the wealthy. They’re ready for sweeping criminal justice reform and, despite the ceaseless protestations of insurance company executives and a political class psychologically conditioned to declare it impossible, a majority favor a Medicare For All system that puts human needs ahead of greed and profit.

Among other things, the visible disconnect between the orthodoxies of America’s bipartisan ruling class and the actual preferences of its people makes abundantly clear that further accommodationism would be as electorally foolish as it is morally indefensible.

With a racist billionaire in the White House and the country’s right-wing minority in control of every branch of the United States government, those in the opposition can no longer afford to compromise with America’s oligarchy. Instead, it must be denounced, loudly and without qualification, as the immoral system of plunder and exploitation most already know it to be. Its campaign finance system must be rejected out of hand as antithetical to democracy and any candidate who leverages it to court big donors must be recognized as complicit. Its malefactors, both individual and institutional, must be called out by name and treated with the disdain they deserve.

If America is to become something even resembling a democracy, there is truly no alternative.