New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in a March 24 piece, makes the argument that America is slipping into an oligarchy. I would argue that he uses the wrong word; oligarchy means "rule of the few." A better word would be plutocracy, or "rule of the wealthy."
It is nonetheless an interesting article, and I largely agree with him that America is moving towards being controlled by a rich elite. But I think he is a little too harsh and simplistic in setting up the rich vs. poor contest in America as a power struggle the rich is winning.
The truth is, in the United States the public could shatter the political power of the wealthy in one election. If every American who wasn't rich refused to vote for a candidate who was, or for any candidate who supports policies that favor the top 1%, the rule of the wealthy would be over in one day. Theoretically, there is nothing preventing it.
So why doesn't it happen? Why doesn't the middle class simply vote its interests, instead of, election after election, voting the interests of the elite? Krugman argues that it is because the rich control the media and the organs of government, but I don't think that is the whole story. As I said, if it was, the whole thing would end on Election Day.
America is an aspirational culture. There is an old saying in business: Don't dress like your job, dress like your aspirations. And many sayings like it, all amounting to the belief that if you want something badly enough and work hard enough for it, you will achieve it. The Horatio Alger ethic, if anyone remembers who Horatio Alger was. Even though his book series is long forgotten, the ethics embodied in it are still with us: Work hard and you will succeed (which usually means get rich).
The reason the middle class and poor won't vote their interests is because too many of them want to be rich. And they fear, in that odd calculus that human beings have when it comes to emotional thinking, that if they stop wishing to get rich, they never can be. So they vote like the rich because they want to believe that voting rich will make them rich one day. They support elimination of the estate tax because they dream of leaving a fortune to their heirs. They frown on luxury taxes, anticipating the day that they will once live in luxury. They support capital gains tax cuts, without really understanding what capital gains are, because they dream of one day having capital.
And they somehow think, in their heart of hearts, that if they oppose such things God will deny them an estate, yachts to be taxed, or capital to gain.
Consider for a moment that in America's most prosperous time, right after World War II and up to the early 70s, Americans aspired to be middle class, and that was enough for them. People didn't think it was necessary to back an agenda that supported wealth accumulation, mainly because they didn't necessarily think wealth was the only thing worth aspiring to. And America did quite well at that time, thank you.
Liberals are accused of engaging in "politics of envy" when they pursue plans to redistribute money from the rich to the poor. But this is hardly envy; no liberal plan has as its goal making the rich poor and making the poor rich. The goal is to make the poor less destitute and the middle class more self-sufficient. Expanding the middle class is not politics of envy. It is politics of self-sufficiency.
The real politics of envy is allowing the poor and middle class to give up more of what they have because they aspire to be rich. It is starving our schools for the sake of low taxes. It is refusing to address the problems of hourly wage earners because it would take investment opportunities from Wall Street. It is using the envy the poor have for the rich as a weapon against them, by making them feel guilty for having the gall to vote their own interests instead of for the interests of the wealthy.
Envy is not turning our country to socialism. It is turning our country into a plutocracy.