Martin: Our democratically enabled oligarchy

Martin: Our democratically enabled oligarchy

April 24th, 2014 By David Martin in Opinion Columns

If you've ever thought your vote doesn't matter, or if you have the sneaking suspicion that the political cards are stacked against you, researchers from Princeton University and Northwestern University probably confirmed your reservations last week with their study "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens."

In a widely discussed investigation aimed at giving a precise name to the type of government currently functioning in the U.S., researchers revealed that the American political system today most closely resembles an oligarchy, meaning we are ruled by an economic elite.

One of the most popular passages from the report -- one that the media likes to latch onto, anyway -- says that "when a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they (citizens) generally lose."

Political pundits have seized on that sentence, attempting to legitimize the popular belief that the voices of individual Americans are subservient to big business, political action committees and the patricians of the 1 percent.

It's hard to argue that American political influence seems to be growing more exclusive by the day. You'd have to be living under a rock to not notice that. But what's absent from most of the conversations surrounding this trend is that the American people have virtually handed over the reins of political power to special interests.

Since 2000, only 55 percent of Americans, on average, have voted in presidential elections. Midterm voter turnout is even worse, as only 37 percent of the voting-age population casts ballots.

Guess what country has a voter turnout that's pretty similar to the United States: Afghanistan.

Yes, even though the Taliban threatened to disrupt this month's presidential election (read: detonate massive numbers of car bombs outside polling places), about 50 percent of Afghanistan's voters turned out on April 5 to pick their next leader. On Election Day and the day before, 23 Afghans were murdered to scare people away from voting -- and those are just the reported killings. In America, the primary thing keeping us away from the polls is apathy.

So while American voters slumber away under the sleeping dust sprinkled by the apathy fairy, big business and special interests have only each other to fight for the strings that pull political power. And they will most certainly go at it full tilt to gather up the influence that American citizens have left on the grand bargaining table called democracy. After all, big business didn't become big business by being apathetic.

But this isn't just a story about bureaucrats and politicians in some far off land called Washington, D. C. Every county and every town has micro-oligarchies. They go by different labels, though -- names more homespun, like "the good ol' boy network." While the Princeton and Northwestern research conjures up images of the oil industry and the Koch brothers, think about how easy we've made things on our local versions. How difficult do you think it is to exert influence over a city of 170,000 when only 16 percent of registered voters pull themselves off the couch to exercise the dearest of inalienable rights? What if voter participation sinks to 12 percent, or below 10 -- how hard will it be to manage us then?

Answer: Not very hard at all.

It would be nice to think the oligarchy study will spur increased activism to tilt the power scale back towards the citizenry, but my fear is that it will only encourage the blame society we live in to shrug and mutter something about individuals not mattering. Or will it?

We can demonize oligarchs all we want, but at the end of the day, they're living in the castle largely because we've given them the keys and shown ourselves to the street.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.

c. David Allen Martin