Oligarchy and the Demagogue

Benjamin Franklin

The often sagacious Benjamin Franklin spoke at the end of the Constitutional Convention: “I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.” 

The Constitution may have faults, as Dr. Franklin suggested, but it has provided an effective mode of government for the United States for more than two centuries. Severely tested by the trial of secession and subsequent Civil War, the Constitution has endured as succeeding generations have interpreted it in ways conducive to changing needs and outlooks. But, in recent years, the Constitution has come under increasing strain, raising questions as to whether a system devised in the late 18th century can still function in the 21st.

The blueprint Dr. Franklin and his colleagues drafted in 1787 was a plan for a society of mostly small landholders. True, there were large plantation owners in the Southern states — men who owned thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves. These planters comprised an interest group determined to protect its special needs. But, on the whole, the society, particularly north of the Potomac River, was composed of thousands of roughly equal agriculturalists, who Thomas Jefferson dubbed “the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people.”

Over the course of the next two centuries, the slave owners were defeated in war and the plutocrats who arose after it were tamed by the Progressive Era and the New Deal. But, today, the United States suffers from an increasing inequality of wealth on a scale not seen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The vastly wealthy few are not shy about using their money for political ends. They have been aided by various Supreme Court decisions — most notably, Citizens United — which opened the floodgates of money in politics. Politicians dependent on political donations have become beholden to the wants and needs of their wealthy benefactors.

Aristotle

The result: The United States is now a republic in which political leaders work mostly for the interests of the few, the classic definition of an oligarchic society. An oligarchy is a form of government in which the few who rule use despotic power in the interests of a small and privileged class of people for corrupt and/or selfish purposes. Aristotle designated an oligarchia as a system in which a small group of bad men govern unjustly. To Aristotle, as to other Greek philosophers, oligarchy was a debased form of aristocracy, defined as a government in which power is vested in a limited number of the best and most talented individuals. 

In an oligarchical government, leaders do not work for the common good (the word republic — what the Framers devised in Philadelphia — comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public thing”). Rather, our elected officials devote great effort to enriching a small group of very wealthy and important backers who keep the officials in power. The larger public believes it has been abandoned by its leaders and gradually has lost faith in the system. The public, in turn, has become susceptible to demagogues who promise to make everything right.

I alone can fix” the broken system, said Donald Trump when accepting the Republican presidential nomination in Cleveland in 2016. Trump’s demagoguery is evident, having based his campaign mostly on racist, sexist, and xenophobic appeals to the millions of Americans disaffected from a system they view as stacked against them. Trump may appear to be a strange vessel for their aspirations — he is, after all, a member of the privileged few who has been eager to take advantage of that privilege — but he knows how to stoke the fears of his base.

Demagogues often become autocrats, but the United States under President Donald Trump has been saved, so far, from that fate by the existence of an independent judiciary and a free press. Trump has not been shy in attacking both the judiciary and the press, but the attacks have not yet cowed those two institutions. Trump is constrained by another problem: He rose to power by feeding the fears of his supporters, but he governs as an oligarch in the interests of the privileged few of which he is a member. His Cabinet is stacked with billionaires (and others who act as if they were), and his policies — the failed attempt to repeal Obamacare and the mammoth tax cut for the superrich — benefit primarily the wealthiest one percent.  

President Trump ditches his prepared remarks to talk about immigrant “rapists”

To deflect attention from the reality of the hero of the left-behind masses ruling in the interests of the privileged few, Trump does what demagogues always do: He engages in ever more demagogic rhetoric and acts. Hence, his repetition of the claim that Mexican immigrants are rapists, the charge that kicked off his presidential bid in 2015. Last week, Trump threw away his prepared remarks in an appearance in West Virginia to ad lib that women are raped at “levels that nobody has ever seen before” by immigrants. Trump has to engage in this appalling rhetoric since Congress has refused to fund his promised wall, and Mexico certainly will not pay for it. No wall, but read meat instead.

Similarly, Trump promises a trade war with China, something popular with his base, or at least part of it. He needs be careful here, since steelworkers who voted for him may be pleased, but soybean farmers are not. It remains to be seen how serious he is about slapping tariffs on Chinese imports. 

A demagogue ruling in an oligarchic system may presage the “despotic Government” predicted by Franklin. It is an open question whether the Constitution drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 is resilient enough to withstand the depredations of the demagogue and the oligarchs.

Posted April 10, 2018

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