Monday, December 14, 2009



Americans learn to revere the word "democracy." In public school, they learn that the American government is "democratic." They take pride in "democracy" because "democracy" is a "free" form of government that is "better" than other governments. After all, when students learn about the American Revolution, they inevitably hear that our Framers established a "democracy." And "democracy" is "better" than the unjust "monarchy" that led them to revolt. Applying these indoctrinated ideals, Americans claim that they never believe in "family distinctions," "aristocracy" or other "elitism" based on inherited titles.

I venture that this is all nonsense. The United States is not--and certainly never was--a democracy. And Americans believe in aristocracy far more than they like to publicly admit: The truth is that both democracy and equality are American myths.

I first doubted the rhetoric about American democracy when I read history books about ancient Greece. In those books, I learned that pure "democracy" imposed no limitation on a person's participation in government. Every voice was equal. Everyone could vote and every decision required majority approval by all. There was no "representative body" that made decisions "in the people's name." No, in pure democracy, the people rule--literally. Everyone has an equal say in policy, from the richest landowner to the lowliest beggar.

Democracy sounds like a wonderful idea. After all, don't we all want to be equal to one another? Should we not all have an equal right to decide on important public questions? Isn't it somehow reassuring to know that the government works for you, and that you have a real chance to influence it? Of course it sounds great. Democracy is idealistic. It lends itself to myths. And like all myths, it does not really exist.

Lately, I've been re-reading Aristotle's Politics. As the world's first real political scientist, he presaged almost every significant political debate that came after him. By categorizing governmental forms, he created the vocabulary of modern political discussion. And Aristotle's text gives me immense support for my contention that the United States is no democracy--not even close. Rather, the United States is an oligarchy.

In criticizing Plato's Laws, Aristotle makes some cogent observations about voting. Americans learn that "democracy" is all about voting. They learn that "going to the polls" proves that "everybody means something" in our political system. There is a theme in American voting rhetoric about equality and dignity. Because we all can supposedly vote, that makes us all equally powerful and worthy. But Aristotle says: "The practice of selection by lot from a number chosen by election is common to both oligarchy and democracy; but to impose upon the richer citizens, and upon them only, the obligation to be members of the Assembly, to vote for office-bearers and do any other duty that falls upon a citizen--that is oligarchical." The Politics, Book II, ch. vi, § 1266a5.

In early America, only white men with sufficient landholdings could vote for representatives. In other words, the "obligation to be members of the Assembly" and "vote for office-bearers" fell solely upon the "richer citizens." Women, slaves and the vast majority of white men had no say whatsoever in government. They could not even go to the polls. Although voting restrictions have certainly diminished over time, it is still no easy thing to vote in the United States. State laws impose numerous handicaps on citizens' right to vote. And in a good year, we're lucky if 50% of the eligible voters actually show up to cast their ballots. Other State laws completely disable people from voting. For example, if you commit a felony--even a relatively minor one, like writing a bad check--you might lose the right to vote for the rest of your life.

In this light, America has historically been far more "oligarchical" than "democratic." If this were a true democracy, everyone would have been able to actively participate in government from the outset. We know this is not the case. Americans have never actively participated in their government. Rather, they elect "particularly distinguished people" from "particular social strata" to rule for them. This, too, is oligarchical. Think about where the Representatives and Senators come from. They are all generally wealthy, white and well-educated. They do not represent a fair cross-section of American society. If anything, they resemble the "richer citizens" Aristotle mentions in The Politics. Just look at Congress. These are not typical Americans: They are 535 people who are far more powerful and wealthy than the people who elected them. And for over a century in this country, they were exclusively landed white males.

Aristotle provides further support for the conclusion that the United States has been--and in many ways, still is--an oligarchy. Concerning oligarchy, he writes: "So also is the attempt to secure that a majority of the office-holders should come from among the wealthy, and that highest offices should be filled by those from the highest property-classes." The Politics, Book II, ch. vi § 1266a5.

What a striking insight. It is as if Aristotle predicted what the United States government would look like 2000 years later. Think about the "majority of the office-holders" in American government. What social class do they represent? You guessed it: They largely come from the "highest property-classes," or at least act like they do. Even President Obama made quite a bit of money as a lawyer and law professor before diving into politics. The fact that there are only two political parties reinforces the oligarchical nature of American government. Unlike European parliamentary systems, Americans have only two choices: Liberal rich guy #1 (the Democrat) or Conservative rich guy #2 (the Republican). There are no "Greens," "Socialists," "Labor Men," "Women for Animals' Rights" or "Christian Theologues." In the American system, every "high office holder" is basically the same: A wealthy believer in free market capitalism who owns significant amounts of property. That is oligarchy.

In the final analysis, it is clear that people from the "highest property-classes" run the American government. They always have, and they always will. Let's just be honest about our terminology: This is an oligarchy, not a democracy. It is simply false to call our system a "democracy," no matter how many people can technically vote. Despite this, it works in the government's favor to identify itself as a "democracy." After all, "democracy" has a magical ring to it. It conjures all kinds of hopeful ideals. It also fools the people into believing that they actually have a say in policy. History shows that people revolt when they feel they are powerless. But when they think their government actually speaks for them, they refrain from revolution. In that sense, calling America a "democracy" maintains social control, even if it is untrue. Calling America a "democracy" keeps things quiet. And that's just how oligarchs like it: It lets them continue to hold all the power.

Oligarchy proceeds on the premise that only a few hold political power. It implies inequality. Democracy, on the other hand, proceeds on the premise that everyone holds political power. It implies equality. Yet a quick look at inequalities in the American political system beginning in 1787 reveals just how absurd it is to call the United States a "democracy." And a quick look at the "kind of people" who have held high office in the United States over the years--Presidents, Senators, Supreme Court justices--merely confirms Aristotle's analysis: These guys (well, almost all guys) all came from the "highest property-classes."

In this light, it is simply disingenuous to delude our children into thinking that they live in a democracy. If they do not come from "high property-classes," they stand a much lower chance to ever influence government. That does not mean that they cannot rise into a "high property-class." It simply means that they must first obtain wealth before even thinking about politics. After all, it wouldn't be an oligarchy if poor folks suddenly held all the high government jobs.

In truth, no country can ever be fully democratic. Could a country in good faith entrust its most pressing concerns to half-fed beggars, idiots and wage laborers? Certainly not. It is reasonable to put political power into "competent" hands. And generally the wealthy are those most competent to administer the State. I simply believe we must be honest in the way we think about our government. That means dropping all aspirations to "equality" and "dignity." The sad fact is that perfect equality is a very bad idea when it comes to government. It would be better if we simply acknowledged that and stopped perpetuating myths that "everyone is equal" in American society. That is not the goal, nor can it ever be. Yet even the oligarchs in power circulate meaningless rhetoric about democratic opportunity and equality for all in America.

We are oligarchs; why not just admit it? Let's at least stop lying to our children about democracy.


René Monroe said...

Very enlightening. I really enjoyed this.

Balthazar Oesterhoudt said...

Thanks for your comment, Rene! Feel free to check out my archives for other musings on American politics and all the philosophical baggage that goes with it.

René Monroe said...

I shall.