It's been a little over four years since I delivered a brief talk -- "Confronting Tyranny and Stupidity: What Works?" -- for a teach-in on democracy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The occasion was the abolition of the Faculty Senate at the university. Much has happened since then, including this, this, and this from recent days. The natives are restless. My talk was basically about the varieties of oligarchy that have afflicted many world societies and, alas, some contemporary American institutions as well. (The YouTube video of the first part of the talk streams above. Part II and Part III can be found here.)
Dan Froomkin's essay in Nieman Watchdog describes the some of the broader patterns of oligarchy in the country right now, noting the forces now arrayed against the Occupy Wall Street movement. Quoting political scientist Stanley Winters, he comments:
What this means, Winters says, "is that although U.S. democracy is founded on one-person-one-vote, each oligarch can bring to the political table the dollar impact of 20,000 Americans. Decisions like Citizens United open the flood gate for oligarchs and their minions in the wealth defense industry to flex the maximum political muscle money can buy. And that's just in the context of electoral campaigns. No one is even talking about how the wealth defense industry silently and invisibly benefits American oligarchs every day, year-round."
By contrast, he says: "Anybody who wants to challenge the wealthy, they've got to get rained on, and eventually snowed on, and it means they have to stop whatever they're doing. Ordinary citizens actually have to join organizations and physically be there and participate, to the exclusion of anything else they might do. And that is at tremendous burden."
His conclusion: "This is one of the reasons a very small number of ultra-wealthy Americans can distort democracy in their favor against tens of millions of ordinary citizens."
My talk concludes with some reflections on Barbara Tuchman's wonderful book, The March of Folly, a work that grows in relevance each day. Here is her optimistic vision of how citizens, leaders and whole societies might begin to dissolve the follies in which they are enmeshed:
"If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, and self-confident enough to acknowledge it, and wise enough to reverse it, that is the summit of the art of government."