What is a Democracy?

Or an Oligarchy?

Jimmy Carter is something of an expert on elections, having monitored 100 of them in 38 countries since 1989. In addition, he ran for U.S. President, once successfully, once unsuccessfully, and that was after an earlier political career in Georgia. You may not agree with his views, but he knows democracy inside out.

Interviewed by Oprah recently, he made the shocking statement: “We’ve become, now, an oligarchy instead of a democracy.” Democracy is one of those cherished ideas we take for granted. Because we vote, we must be a democracy, right? But Carter has a point. According to Wikipedia’s simple definition: oligarchy is “a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people.”

Carter commented to Oprah: Our government is “just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

Other experts have made similar points. Thomas Piketty noted our “drift towards oligarchy,” and the Princeton sociologist Martin Gilens pointed out in his classic study, Affluence and Influence, that the majority of voters seldom get what they want, having little influence on public policy. Then there is Jeffrey Winters’ book Oligarchy that illustrates how our form of “civil oligarchy” relieves our wealthy from the need to raise armies or build fortresses to protect their wealth. In “civil oligarchy,” that job can be turned over to government. The only thing oligarchs have to do to protect their wealth is ensure their control of the political process. Otherwise, the extreme wealth that sets them apart and provides the basis of their power could be whittled away or confiscated by taxation.

So having elections doesn’t ensure “democracy,” but we have a strong tendency to believe otherwise. We ritually affirm that we are one, that we were founded as one, and that, indeed, there is no better one. We could call that an illusion, but that seems inadequate in the light of the tenacity and fervor we bring to the subject.

What, then, should we call that belief? Ideology? Myth? Faith? I don’t know that it matters, so long as we appreciate that it is not a simple fact. It is an idea, woven into our national identity, that can make us anxious and insecure were we to think otherwise, that might foment civil unrest if we began to wrestle with the implications of it more seriously, and that, most importantly, supports the control of the oligarchs, because if we can’t think about it we can’t do anything to change it.

Our politics is full of such ideas, which is another reason being a candidate for office is so difficult. As Carter said in his interview with Oprah: “There’s no way now for you to get a Democratic or Republican nomination without being able to raise $200 or $300 million, or more.” But then there is the problem of how speak to an electorate that can’t face certain realities.