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The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

The student news site of Guilford College

The Guilfordian

Oligarchy threatens democracy in US

We the people or we the very rich few? Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont recently joined scholars and activists in accusing the United States government of becoming less of a democracy and more of an oligarchy.

“Do we want to have a nation in which the concept is one person, one vote, that we’re all equal, that you have as much say in what happens in the government as anybody else; or do we want to have a political system where a handful of billionaires … will determine who gets elected president?” asked Sanders in the Senate chamber. “Is that really what American democracy is supposed to be about?”

The senator’s comments join those of Martin Gilens and Benjamin L. Page, Princeton professors who recently raised concerns about the state of U.S. democracy in a new research paper released earlier this year.

“(The findings indicate) that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on United States government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence,” wrote Gilens and Page in the abstract of their study.

According to researchers like Jeffrey Winters, professor at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences and author of the book “Oligarchy,” the Supreme Court decision removing restrictions on political spending by corporations has harmed democracy in the U.S.

“When the Supreme Court decided that using money in politics was the equivalent to First Amendment voice, they opened a disastrous floodgate,” Winters told The Guilfordian. “That decision greatly expanded the ability of oligarchic resources to be used in politics.”

Some, including Senator Sanders, have identified the Republican Party as a key supporter of this expansion. However, Winters emphasizes that both major parties are guilty of relying on the very wealthy.

“Both parties are heavily funded by oligarchs and are completely bought and paid for,” said Winters. “About 90 percent of the funding for city, state, and federal elections comes from one-third of 1 percent of the American population, so it’s not surprising that candidates coming through this process are vetted and have very narrow agendas.”

Bob Williams, professor and chair of the economics department, suggested that the current situation might be replicating older forms of oppression.

“We have a pattern in this country of having extreme wealth,” said Williams. “It’s probably at its peak right now, and it’s never been this bad in terms of being so heavily concentrated in so few hands. There are a number of different forces within the economy, but also in public policy, that are encouraging the concentration of wealth and some have racial consequences.

“We no longer have blatantly race-based policies, but we do have wealth-based policies that are largely the same. It’s much like the Jim Crow system, in that it gives the advantage and power to the white and wealthy.”

Some who see the nation sliding towards oligarchy, however, still have hope. Robert Duncan, assistant professor of political science, offered his thoughts on fixing this issue.

“We don’t have a spending problem in this country, we have a revenue problem,” said Duncan. “We need a tax overhaul badly, but this won’t happen until we can get people in Congress who care about the people and not wealthy special interests or being reelected. We need a revolution, a democratic revolution, where the 99 percent put people in Congress who are beholden to them rather than their financiers.”

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