Over the past few months, it has become common for Democrats and progressives to invoke “Our Democracy”™ whenever they criticize efforts to ensure election integrity or condemn the perpetrators of the January 6 “insurgency.” On one level, the phrase is just another annoying example of debasing the language by the very people who have been working overtime to rewrite the Constitution.
But on another level, the phrase suggests something even more sinister: that those who invoke it literally mean “their” democracy, i.e. a regime that belongs to them, validated by the votes of the “right people” who approve of their so-called progressive enterprise. Anyone who doesn’t approve is, by definition, an insurgent, an enemy of the state. Any attempt to limit their power—e.g., by insisting on election integrity—is therefore “anti-democratic.”
I am only one of a number of writers who have argued that the United States has devolved from a republic or commonwealth to an oligarchy. Lest we succumb to the error of progressives and simply use a word to mean something we don’t like, it is important to understand the nature and background of oligarchy. It is not just any “ruling class” but an elite and ruling class of a particular sort. In this regard, it helps to examine the taxonomy of regimes outlined by the first political scientists, Plato and Aristotle.
These writers identified three types of rule: the one; the few; and the many. Each form had a good and bad version, the former based on rule for the benefit of the entire polity and the latter rule on behalf of the ruler or ruling class alone. Thus, the good form of rule by the one was kingship; the bad form tyranny. The good form of rule by the few was aristocracy; the bad form oligarchy or plutocracy. And the good form of rule by the many was politeia or a balanced constitution, which the Romans translated as res publica and which is most properly rendered as commonwealth in English; the bad form was pure democracy or ochlocracy: that is, mob rule.
For Aristotle, all regimes were subject to metabole, a process of change that included corruption and decline. His successor Polybius went further, suggesting that all political regimes were subject to the “cycle of constitutions” (anakuklosis politeion). He saw the cycle proceeding this way: A kingship begins virtuously, but over time the rule by the one on behalf of the whole deteriorates into tyranny. The virtuous few, the aristoi, depose the tyrant and reestablish well-ordered rule. But over time that aristocracy deteriorates from the rule of the virtuous to the rule of the wealthy: oligarchy. The oligarchs are then overthrown by the virtuous many (the people), but the balanced constitution that is put in place inevitably deteriorates into unruly democracy. Then the cycle repeats itself. This process of degenerating constitutions was the central problem for the Greek founders of the science of politics: essentially, that good forms of rule become corrupted and descend into bad forms.
The United States seems to have been subject to the same metabole described by the Greeks. What was founded as a commonwealth has devolved into an oligarchy, the interests of which are at odds with those of the people at large. This ruling “elite” includes not only unelected bureaucrats ruling in their own interests but also corporate leaders in tech, finance, and media, who establish rules from which they themselves are exempt or of which they are the beneficiaries.
Of course, all complex societies have a “ruling class,” which can be either aristocratic or oligarchic. The United States has prospered when its ruling class has been aristocratic—prosperous but public-spirited philanthropists devoted to the common good. In such cases, the interests of this aristocratic ruling class have coincided with interests of the nation as a whole. But problems arise when an aristocratic ruling class devolves into an oligarchic one—motivated by a self-interest that diverges from that of the republic and its citizens.
We have seen this with the evolution, or rather devolution, of previous American elites from aristocracy to oligarchy:
- America’s first aristocratic elite, the Federalists of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, devolved into an oligarchic rump of resentful and bitter New Englanders.
- Thomas Jefferson’s “natural aristocracy of virtue and talents” became the cotton oligarchy of the antebellum American South.
- The industrialists of the late 19th century became the plutocrats of the Gilded Age.
- Finally, the great statesmen who won World War II and presided over the establishment of the post-war liberal world order devolved into today’s oligarchic government-corporate-media-technology-finance complex, the policies of which have hollowed out the American middle class and helped to impoverish American workers while the economic gains have accrued to the oligarchs.
This latest faction resembles the Roman elites who replaced free labor with slaves from Rome’s wars of conquest, creating a seething urban proletariat to be bought off with bread and circuses.
Today’s American oligarchy, however, faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the oligarchs exhibit an unprecedented disdain both for the American republic and their fellow citizens. In the past, the members of an aristocratic ruling class loved the United States as a nation and its principles, or at least identified their own interests with those of their country. But not only does today’s oligarchy not love the United States, its members make it all too clear that they hate it. In this, they resemble the ancient Athenian tyrants who favored Sparta over their own city and its citizens.
Yet America’s oligarchs must profess a fealty to “democracy.” But when they say “our” democracy they mean “their” democracy. So like the Romans oligarchs before them, they buy off those who can be bought with government programs. Those who cannot be bought, those who do not acquiesce in the oligarchy’s enterprise, those who are not compliant with its actions, are denounced as the real enemies: potential insurrectionists, mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging Trump cultists, resentful racists and “anti-science” troglodytes. “Our Democracy”™ demands that such deplorables be subject to surveillance and limits on speech and association. If they do not accept the tenets of “diversity and inclusion” in language or the workplace, they are subject to the loss of employment and social status.
This is the true meaning of “Our Democracy”™: an oligarchy in fact but with the external trappings of democracy to provide rhetorical legitimacy. We stand at a crossroads. We as citizens will either reclaim the mantle of republican self-government or, by meekly submitting to the rule of our oligarchic elites, bid a sad farewell to the American commonwealth.