American Shadow-Play

“He makes the voices and moves the puppets. He directs the gamelan musicians. His job is to make us laugh and cry. Very clever man. The dalang is more than a puppeteer. His skill makes us believe that we see a war between two great armies, but there is no war. There is only the dalang.”

(from Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles)

You’ve probably already seen the Princeton report which concludes that the United States is no longer a functional democracy. I doubt that the determination that the U.S. is an oligarchy surprises very many readers. While the feverish true believers on both ends of the political spectrum (and goodness knows I’m one) accuse the other side’s candidates of evil of an almost apocalyptic level, the truth is that things don’t seem to change very much no matter which party is in charge.  Neither George Bush was not a Nazi nor Barack Obama a Marxist.Their policies have been, for the most part, remarkably similar. This is what you’d expect in a government that pays lip service to voters but in fact serves other masters.

However, it’s probably worth asking: “What does it mean to say that the U.S. is an oligarchy?” Sahil Kupur of Talking Points Memo sat down with Martin Gilens, one of the authors of the study, and asked that exact question. Here’s the TL/DR:

Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

 

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

In other words, it’s means exactly what you probably already think. The folks who are organized and have a lot of money influence the government; those who aren’t organized and don’t have a lot of money don’t. TPM being a lefty site, the interviewer makes a couple of attempts to get Gilens to say one side is worse than the other, but he won’t bite. It’s a nonsense line of questioning. The primarily conclusion of the study is that there aren’t “two sides” in any effective sense. It’s like asking if the puppet on the left hand is better than the puppet on the right hand.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make the assumption that this is not what we’d consider an optimal system. If that’s the case, how do we fix it? Is it even fixable, or, at least, fixable without resorting to the “heads on pikes” solution? Gilens points out the decline of unions as a factor in why business has uncontested control of the government. Of course, since business does effectively control the government, any union comeback or other labor movement will be swimming upstream. Business will use the government to try to prevent labor from organizing.

Not that there isn’t some precedent for that sort of thing.

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that again, but I’m not optimistic.

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