Are We Living in a Democracy or Oligarchy?

The first presidential election that I voted in was 1992. George Bush was running for re-election against democratic challenger Bill Clinton and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Nearly 25 years later, our most recent election had another Clinton running for office. Within those 25 years, we’ve also had another Bush as president and yet another Bush who attempted his own presidential bid in 2016.

After thinking about it, it occurred to me that a Bush or Clinton has been involved in every presidential election since 1980 with the exception of 2012. They have either been the Republican or Democratic choice for president, been involved in the primaries, or been on the ticket as vice-president. Put another way, a Bush, a Clinton, or both has been a part of 9 of the past 10 presidential elections.

The prominence of these two families in American politics made me question, are we living in a democracy or an oligarchy?

Editor’s note: This was a difficult post for me to write. I was deeply disturbed by the most recent presidential election. It was clear that our two party system failed us. Our choices were determined not by their fitness for office but by who they knew, how much money they had, and their celebrity status. By celebrity status, I’m referring to their ability to perform in front of a camera and to entertain their audiences and the media with 10 second sound bytes. It was an election that was foreshadowed by author Neil Postman in his landmark book Amusing Ourselves to Death. It was written in the early eighties and laid out the implications that mass communications media would have on political discourse, This concentration of media power is threatening the very core of our democracy. It is centralizing power and putting it in the hands of the wealthiest and most powerful and influential people and corporations. These groups are in essence deciding who will be put in office and manipulating the public through the media to get their way. It has led me to the conclusion that we are transitioning to an oligarchical form of government, if we are not already there. The remainder of this post is an attempt to crystallize my thoughts in a more coherent manner and show that we may have reached a point of no return. A state in which we are no longer a country with a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

According to, these two forms of government are defined as follows:

democracry [dih-mok-ruh-see] – government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.

oligarchy [ol-i-gahr-kee] – a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.

When two families dominate our political system for over 30 years, and persons are content to make political office a career, I believe we start leaning more toward the latter than the former. Why? It’s because the power concentrates among those holding the office and the powerful people and corporations behind them. At that point, they no longer represent the interests of the people. They represent the interests of those supporting and funding them.

My overarching concern is that we may have reached a point of no return. The sentiment toward, participation in, and results of the last election indicate to me that we have resigned ourselves to government by the few. Similar to a barrel floating down the Niagra River, I’m not certain how we can paddle against the current that is pulling us more and more over the falls on to the rocks of an oligarchical government. Now that people have figured out how to use their money and power to influence the operation of the government in their favor, and they are permitted and rewarded for doing so, how do we turn back?

If I was able to influence the direction of government, here are things that I would propose.

First, we need to limit the centralization of power in the federal government. It feels like the federal government continues to assume and take more responsibility from the states in the form of laws and regulation. The centralization of power makes it easier for people and companies to influence laws since they can focus their efforts in Washington, D.C. and not have to chase down the lawmakers in every state, or even worse for them, in each community. The dispersion of power is what makes a democracy work, not the centralization of it.

The dispersion of power is what makes a democracy work, not the centralization of it.

Second, we should push more responsibility and governance to the local level. The beauty of the United States is the diversity that exists between states, and even between the cities and areas within the larger states. It’s important that we encourage these different views and give people the ability to control their destiny. By centralizing authority, we encourage apathy towards politics and government, which promotes concentration of power in the few.

Third, we need to start putting term limits in place, especially at the federal level. People should not be taking political office for career building purposes. Their motives should be built around public service. They should be looking at maximum timeframes of 10-12 years, at which time they would return to their “normal” jobs. Having people positioned in office for 25, 30, 40 years, or in some cases longer, is not healthy for the democratic process. It breeds corruption where people become connected to a small, influential group of people who they depend on to fund their campaign and keep them in power. In return, these groups are owed political favors.

Finally, I would urge revisiting the decisions of Citizens United and reevaluate the role of corporations in our electoral process. The resources corporations can bring to bear on influencing elections is much greater than those available to the vast majority of individuals. In the last two presidential elections, I believe we are seeing the effects of large amounts of corporate spending in the media to influence election outcomes. It may not be apparent on the surface, but following the money attributed to politically motivated media, such as mass media advertising and documentaries, will reveal how involved corporation are in shaping the outcomes. And it’s in their best interest. Putting favorable candidates in office can have a huge impact on corporate profitability.

Bottom line, it’s time to return to a government of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s up to us to make it happen, otherwise we’re heading over the falls. If we do go over, what our country will look like when it comes out the other side is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, we’ll survive if we do.


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