Threats to Democracy: Oligarchs

Democracy is the rule of the people, and the most vibrant democracies have systems in place to keep gross inequities of economic and political power from occurring within society. When too much wealth and political power accumulate in the hands of a few, it typically leads to disproportionate political influence by the rich, and this leads democracies down the path to becoming oligarchies characterized by rule of the wealthy as opposed to the rule of the whole people.

The countries that have succeeded in avoiding significant wealth inequality have more vibrant and robust democracies than those countries that place little to no limits on wealth accumulation and the ability of the rich to use their wealth to exert political influence. Through greater equality of opportunity, full democracies provide more equal access to education, healthcare, a safe and healthy environment, quality infrastructure, and other core social programs and services to allow for greater opportunities for all persons in society to flourish. These countries also use progressive forms of taxation in order not to exacerbate wealth inequality and the disparity in political power it creates.

In flawed and failing democracies and in the more full blown autocracies of the world, there is much less effort to curtail wealth inequality and provide equal political representation and participation for all. Mutually reinforcing relationships between the wealthy and those in political power develop that work to keep a disproportionate share of economic and political power in the hands of the few. The relationship between Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchs is perhaps the most blatant example of this corrupt mutually reinforcing relationship, but it is merely the top of the iceberg of the political influence of the global oligarchy to protect their interests and preserve their profits and power.

American oligarchs may be more subtle than their Russian counterparts when it comes to wielding their political influence for the sake of power and profit, but they nonetheless possess exorbitantly greater political clout than the average citizen and are able to use their wealth to perpetuate their interests and expand their economic and political power. The Supreme Court of the United States has been captured by this oligarchic influence and has made it even easier for corporations and the wealthy to use their money to influence political outcomes – see the Citizens United SCOTUS decision as a case in point in which corporate political spending is given the status of free speech and nearly unlimited financial contributions are allowed.

Through their wealth funded political influence, oligarchs and the corporations they oversee are able not only to control the politicians and the legislation that is passed, they are also able to capture the very agencies and institutions that are meant to regulate their economic activities. One need only see the revolving door between appointments in government agencies and the corporate world to understand this reality. For example, in the United States, executives and other high level employees of industrial agricultural companies end up working in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and representatives from fossil fuel companies end up working with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For a period of time during the Trump Presidency, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency was actually a coal lobbyist.

When oligarchs control politicians and capture government agencies for their own interests, it is not only a threat to democracy, but it is also threat to all people and the planet. In the case of global fossil fuel oligarchs, they have proven that they are willing to threaten a livable climate for the sake of their power and profit. It is not an accident that the most vibrant democracies are also the most ecological sustainable societies. A government by and for the whole people would never sacrifice a livable climate for all for the sake of more profits for the wealthy few. The well being of all life on the planet hangs in the balance in the global struggle between democracy and autocracy, and the oligarchs are a direct threat to democracy. If democracy is to win in the struggle against autocracy, the oligarchs will have to be controlled and their economic and political power diminished.

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