From Democracy to Oligarchy

The framers of the U.S. Constitution hated tyranny.  They believed that government’s authority derives from the informed consent of the people.  So James Madison and his colleagues devised a system of self-government that would be adequate to govern the new nation without threatening the rights of its people.

To prevent the government from becoming tyrannical, the framers divided the government’s power between three equal branches of government – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.  If one branch overstepped its bounds, the others were there to keep it in line.

The framers were, also, concerned about the tyranny of the majority.  So in the Bill of Rights they explicitly set forth certain rights that no one could touch including the right to free speech, to bear arms and to due process of law.

The new system worked pretty well in the early going.  And what made it so successful was not just the Constitution.  During this early period of America, the country enjoyed economic and social conditions which were very favorable to a stable democracy.

First, the economy was prosperous, decentralized and possessed a broad middle class.  Most people supported their families as farmers and tradesmen.  Operating with a high degree of autonomy, they were independent minded and largely self-sufficient.

Second, early Americans, also, benefited from a uniquely American system of self-education.  While there were schools, most education took place at home or in non-institutional settings where the youngster developed the life skills he or she needed and a critical and independent mind.  This system produced a higher level of literacy than exists today, as well as, great leaders, like Franklin and Lincoln.

Third, early America benefited from a thriving and diverse press.  The media back then included anyone who had a printing press.  All viewpoints, not just those of the rich and powerful, could reach the people and effect public policy.

But the framers’ system of self-government got blindsided.  They did not foresee the emergence of large industrial corporations in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The large industrial corporations, highly centralized and well capitalized, rendered the division of powers irrelevant.  Through lobbying, election finance and ownership of mass media, they effectively came to control all branches of government, as well as, the parameters of public discussion.  And in one of the most perverse turns of events, they were accorded the protection of the Bill of Rights.

Additionally, the industrial corporation by virtue of its large scale operation and huge investment requirements rendered most small operators whether farmers or tradesman obsolete.  So most of the descendants of the independent, self–sufficient families of the early Republic must now support their families working directly or indirectly for large corporations or other bureaucracies.  Their fate is no longer in their own hands, but rather in the hands of a large faceless organization.

Finally, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialists replaced the uniquely American system of self-education with the Prussian system of compulsory schooling.  The avowed purpose of the new industrial system of education was to manufacture compliant workers not nurture independent citizens.

These economic and social changes have brought us from democracy to corporate oligarchy.  The corporate oligarchs, not the people, set public policy whether in area of economics, health care or foreign affairs.  And like any good oligarchs they look out for number one – not for you and me.

So if we are to remake the America into the country we want – an America in which we can enjoy prosperity, peace and liberty, we have to tackle both the economic and political aspects of the problem.  We’ll have to figure out how to return both economic and political power to us so that we, not the corporate oligarchy, set the nation’s course.

In the next blogs, I’ll outline the two most important steps we need to take.  One concerns money and the other war.

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About Ken

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