We do not live in a democracy; we live in an oligarchy, “government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). I’ve been waiting for people in high places to say it.
Goldman Sachs executives’ testimony Tuesday before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations brought the elephant into the living room, but the name of this species of government remains unspoken for understandable reasons.
A democratic republic is a constitutional form of government where the people rule through their elected representatives gathered in deliberative bodies. The faces and voices of Goldman Sachs’ executives demonstrated the intransigent arrogance of the private institutional concentration of wealth and power of deregulated capitalism.
The “small and privileged group” that operates corruptly and selfishly knows that elections are bought and sold in America. No one gets elected without big money.
A circus for the masses
Those who wield such economic advantage from Wall Street know that much of what’s happening in these hearings is a circus — a public show for the masses. They knew going in that the senators would take turns shouting at them about greed and unregulated derivatives and the fraud that led to the home-mortgage crisis and the near meltdown of the economy. They knew that for a day or two the senators would look and act like the public servants we elected them to be, but more important, they knew that two or three days later that they’d still be in charge of the country because they own the electoral system and those we elect.
This small and privileged group owns both political parties. While Republicans scream about socialism and Democrats talk more like regulators, neither party dares take a swipe at the trunk that feeds them. Neither dares to name the elephant.
The later Roman emperors knew that political power is a game of economic security and diversionary entertainment. “Bread and circuses” — a phrase coined by the Roman poet Juvenal around 100 C.E. — lamented that a once vigorous republic anchored in thoughtful public debate about national life had gone off to the circuses, leaving public policy to the few. Throw the people some bread and give them entertainment and they’ll be happy — because they’re stupid.
Look closer — at the sneer
Today we watch Senate investigative hearings, where we saw the senators mad as hell and Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and Fabrice Tourre frying on the hot seat. But look closer at the sneer on their faces and listen to the bark in their voices that say to the senators and everyone who’s watching, “You can put us on public trial, to cleanse your own conscience for a moment or if that’s what you need to do to convince an angry public that you’re doing something, but you and we both know that tomorrow you’re going to need our campaign contributions to get re-elected. The hearing makes good public theater, but tomorrow and the day after, we’ll still be running the show. This is an oligarchy.”
If we, the electorate of a constitutional democratic republic, substitute short-term security (bread) and the diversions of entertainment (circuses) for the hard work of vigorous public debate and the search for reality and truth, the elephant in our living room will continue to grow without ever being named or discussed.
Truth alone has the power to set us free. Until the truth is told and heard and hammered home, more and more of us will find ourselves on the street because there was no longer any room left for us in the house we thought we owned.
The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, host of the Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues: Examining critical public issues locally and globally.