When I bring up the subject of plutocracy in my course on Plato’s Republic, most of my students seem to think I am talking about a dog. I might as well be, because the steady advance of the United States toward plutocracy appears to be proceeding invisibly and, well, doggedly. One way to look at it, as Plato did, is that when the outcome of national and regional elections are decided by a few extremely rich citizens, you have both an oligarchy and a plutocracy. “Pluto” is not merely the name of the Walt Disney dog character, or of the planetoid that was so rudely demoted because it was so small, or of the old Greek god. It means “wealth.”
I noticed this week that the media turned their eager attention to a fellow named Sheldon Adelson, a vastly wealthy Las Vegas casino-magnate who it appears is going to call the shots regarding the Republican Party nomination and perhaps decisively influence the outcome of the general election by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the war chests of his favored candidates. The Koch Brothers, Richard Vigurie, and a number of other members of the .01 percent club will also be on board that train. So far, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have not shown their hand and may not. But the Democrats will not be lacking for support from the mega-rich. Needless to point out, perhaps, the citizens of this fair republic never elected any of these plutocrats to any state or federal office. It’s simpler to buy one than run for one. Or many.
With the infamous “Citizens United” decision, the United States Supreme court pretty well opened the flood gates of big money from corporations, while Pacs and Super-pacs favoring both sides of The Aisle have been a feature of American politics for a generation now. But the recent elevation of a tiny minority of multi-billionaires to the ranks of political king-makers is something of a novelty. That they have made the ascent so effortlessly is disturbing, to say the least. It could well sound the death knell of participatory, that is, truly popular, democracy.
In a mid-term election, voter turnout tends to be low, as this month’s primaries and local elections demonstrated all too well. Opening the electoral process to seventeen-year-olds only seems to have meant that there is now an ever larger percentage of non-voting citizens out there. When November rolls around at last, the fallout will be evident.
Politicians love to end speeches by reciting “God bless America.” Perhaps they should amend that to “God help America!” After all, we still put “In God We Trust” on our pennies, dimes, and bank notes (all of them: has anyone noticed recently?). But as that old curmudgeon Mark Twain observed about a century ago, it’s a lie. “If this nation ever trusted in God, that time has gone by; for nearly half a century its entire trust has been in the Republican Party and the dollar — mainly the dollar.”
It seems that the price has gone up substantially, and I’m sure Mark Twain would understand. Increasingly, to all appearances, the purpose of big money in US politics is to assure the .01 percenters that government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich shall not perish from the earth. But maybe it should.