Politics & Prose March 2005

Oligarchy in America

How the Republican Party perfected the techniques of the rule of the few

"Thus the majority of human beings, in a condition of eternal tutelage, are predestined by tragic necessity to submit to the dominion of a small minority, and must be content to constitute the pedestal of an oligarchy."

—Robert Michels, "The Iron Law of Oligarchy"

Imagine popular rule as a continuum, moving from left to right, of fading democracy. Direct democracy—the New England town meeting—sits at the left end. Representative government occupies the middle. To its right the impress of the people's will weakens as the continuum nears oligarchy. Plato thought the causal sequence ran from right to left, from oligarchy to democracy, with the anger of the many at the excesses of rule by the few igniting civil war. But before anger comes knowledge. That begins with calling things by their right names. For example, what should we call the Republican Senate? Where does it fit on our continuum? In the same week that it vetoed an increase in the minimum wage beneficial to millions, and it passed a bankruptcy bill potentially damaging to millions and beneficial only to banks and credit-card companies. If the Senate is a representative assembly, whom does it represent?

And whom does the Republican House of Representatives represent? A 147-page report released earlier this month by the Democratic minority on the House Rules Committee marshalls evidence to support these assertions:

—That "Special interests, not U.S. Representatives, wrote the major bills in the 198th Congress."

—That "The House GOP took unprecedented steps last year to make the House a democracy-free zone."

—That because of "closed rules" limiting amendment and debate, bills passed without members knowing what they contained; what they contained was pork (the 3,407 undebated "projects" added to last year's budget) and scandalous provisions like a subsidy for a Hooter's restaurant and language allowing Republican congressional staffers to review citizens' tax returns.

—That members had 40 seconds to read each page of a 299-page conference committee report on the dividend tax-cut bill and six and a half hours to review the 1,186-page Omnibus Appropriation Bill.

—That the GOP leadership of the House effectively shuttered debate by limiting its real business to two days a week and staying in session fewer days than any Congress in decades.

Some Republican lawmakers decry their leadership's Supreme Soviet tactics. "I will tell you, this is a scandal," Jim Leach, the moderate, respected Iowan, declared from the House floor after last-minute machinations had stripped from a banking bill an amendment imposing tougher federal oversight of so-called "industrial loan companies." "The fix was in," Leach continued. "The power groupings did not want this to happen." And whatever the power groupings want, they get from the Republican House.

The Senate has mostly escaped the astringent commentary provoked by "the middle-finger approach to governing," in the congressional scholar Norman Ornstein's phrase, favored in Tom Delay's House. Perhaps that will change. For in just the last month the Senate has passed three bills that served no discernible public interest, for which there was no broad public demand, and which rewarded heavy contributors to Republican campaigns in the insurance, manufacturing, banking, and energy industries. Previously, these bills had either been voted down by Senate Democrats or vetoed by President Bill Clinton. But the loss of four seats in November weakened the Democrats, and George W. Bush is President.

We now have one-party government in Washington. The American electorate has favored divided government—until the Bush years. In the 2002 and 2004 elections, for the first time in forty years, the voters increased the congressional majorities enjoyed by the party of the incumbent President. If the GOP maintains its monopoly on power through the 2006 elections, it may mean that the electorate has embraced one-party government out of a preference for GOP policies. Alternatively, it may indicate that the GOP has perfected the techniques of oligarchical rule so far as to stop the alternation in power of "ins" and "outs" that preserved self-rule in the past. These techniques include a congressional redistricting process by which the parties select the voters and the use of unprecedented quantities of cash from grateful special interests to mount propaganda campaigns after Aristotle's ancient heart: "True Oligarchs should affect to be advocates of the people's cause."

The main technique, worthy of Machiavelli, was on lachrymose display in the Terri Schiavo case. It consists of dangling The Bait Infallible—"values"—in front of the people to distract them from the triumphs of bought government. From, say, a bankruptcy "reform" bill that will make it harder for families to escape debts often piled up faultlessly—through uninsured medical bills, the loss of a job, the breakup of a marriage, or the care of an aged parent. The bill makes no exceptions for medical emergencies, which account for more than half of all bankruptcies, or for debts incurred by National Guardsmen serving in Iraq or, incredibly, for soldiers wounded in Iraq. The Republican Senators dared to vote down these Democratic amendments to give the House the "clean" bill demanded by Tom Delay (himself far from clean), confident in the power of "values" to hold the pillar of the oligarchy in place.

Little is new under the political sun. Distraction was a mainstay of Republican electioneering after the Civil War. Waving the "bloody-shirt" of the war kept the northern electorate stirred up against the rebel South and "the party of rebellion." This gave cover to the regnant Republican big business cabal. Behind it they hiked the protective tariff, gave public lands away to mining, lumber, and cattle syndicates, lavished land grants and subsidies on railroads, and otherwise picked the people's pockets. Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton, the Ann Coulter of the Gilded Age, waved the bloody shirt with a vengeance:

Every man who labored for the rebellion in the field, who murdered Union prisoners by cruelty and starvation, who contrived to bring about civil war in the loyal states, who invented dangerous compounds to burn steamboats and Northern cities, who contrived hellish schemes to introduce into Northern cities pestilence of yellow fever, calls himself a Democrat...

Northerners voted their memories, and got the tariff. Today red-staters vote their "values" and get the bankruptcy bill, oil drilling in the Alaska wilderness, tort "reform," and soon an energy bill upon which, in 2003 alone, the energy industry spent $387 million in lobbying fees and millions more in campaign contributions.

Oligarchs, Aristotle instructed, "should take, or at least pretend to take, the opposite line, by including in their oath the pledge: I shall do no harm to the people." Such pretence was not for Mark Hanna, the mining and city traction magnate who made William McKinley President. A rare candid politico, Hanna left the buncombe to McKinley and put the maxims that guided Republican politicians then and still in plain speech. "Some men must rule," he was quoted as saying. "The great mass of men must be ruled." To a fellow politician he wrote: "You have been in politics long enough to know that no man in public office owes the public anything." Under McKinley, he promised, the United States would be "a business state." When, past midnight on November 3, 1896, news reached an elite Chicago club that McKinley had defeated W. J. Bryan, who shook the pillars of the post-civil war oligarchy with a campaign of democratic reform and economic populism, the members were elated. "One of the world's great merchants started the old boyhood game of 'follow the leader,'" a journalist wrote. "He was joined by bank presidents, merchants, Chicago's foremost men; they went over sofas, chairs, tables, up-stairs and down, and wound up dancing in each other's arms." Downstate, in Springfield, the news broke sixteen-year-old Vachel Lindsay's heart. In his epic poem "Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan," quoted in part below, Lindsay memorialized that moment:

Election night at midnight:
Boy Bryan's defeat.
Defeat of western silver.
Defeat of the wheat.
Victory of letterfiles
And plutocrats in miles
With dollar signs upon their coats...
Defeat of the young by the old and the silly.
Defeat of tornadoes by poison vats supreme.
Defeat of my boyhood, defeat of my dream.

Where, the aging poet asks,

...is McKinley, Mark Hanna's McKinley
His slave, his echo, his old suit of clothes?
...Where is Hanna, bull-dog Hanna?
...Where is that boy, that Heaven-born Bryan,
That Homer Bryan who sang from the West?...

It is easy to recognize our Mark Hanna—he is reportedly Karl Rove's hero; and Rove's McKinley. But where, oh where, is our Bryan?

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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