I’ve been plugging away at this blog for around five months, and it seems like a good time for an accounting. So far, I’ve bounced around from one thing to another as the whim struck me – ancient Pagan thinkers, astrology, economic nationalism, ethnic politics, and lots and lots of stuff on Trump. Yet, in spite of the attention I’ve devoted to snickering at our so-called President, I haven’t said much on the topic that caused me to take up this activity in the first place: the current existential threat to the very survival of American democracy. So, I’ve decided to devote the next few postings of this blog to expounding on that interesting, if depressing, subject.
I’ll start with a comment which I’ll be repeating. Trump isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of the problem, and in some ways makes it worse. But he didn’t originate the threat to our democracy, and the threat won’t disappear if he’s somehow removed from the scene. In fact, his visibly irrational behavior may to a certain degree interrupt the drift towards autocracy that was proceeding without him.
I’d compare the situation of the United States today to that of Rome, right before the fall of the Republic. It may be useful to review how that went down, since it could give us a preview of what’s coming for us.
Under the early Republic, the Roman legions were a glorified militia. A farmer put down his plow for a season, picked up a shield and spear, and went off to do battle with Hannibal or the Goths. If there was any plunder, the soldiers all would share in it. But as conquests were made further from home, and the campaigns stretched out over many years, farms went to ruin, and the spoils of war didn’t compensate. The Roman people were impoverished by their own victories. In fact, their generals made off with most of the booty, and used it to purchase ruined farms – thus concentrating property even further – as well as to bribe voters and juries.
During the later Republic, populistic politicians made various proposals for land reform to alleviate the condition of the common people, but these were all frustrated by the propertied elite. The generals raised their armies by making large promises to their troops, which could only be redeemed at the expense of the other generals’ troops. Not surprisingly, this led to civil war. Ultimately, the Roman people decided that the rule of one capable despot was preferable to that of a selfish and greedy oligarchy, punctuated by clashes of warlords, and they acquiesced in Caesar’s dominance. Perhaps it wasn’t the end of the world, but it was the end of popular government.
Let’s analyze the factors in our own situation that could lead to this result. I’ll be discussing them in what I take to be their order of importance.
First comes the extreme concentration of wealth in the United States today. For all practical purposes, we’re an oligarchy already. I won’t bother to present extensive statistics documenting this, since the evidence is well known and easily available on the internet – here’s an informative site – but a historical overview might be interesting. In 1933, the height of the Great Depression, the richest one percent of Americans held one-third of the country’s wealth. In 1979, after half a century of liberal federal government taxing and spending policies, the wealthiest one percent’s share had been cut down to “only” 20.5% – about one-fifth of the whole. We were slowly becoming more equal as a nation. But since the advent of Reaganomics in the 1980s, the top one percent steadily has gained at the expense of other income groups, and in 2013 accounted for about 35% of our economy – even more than they had before the New Deal.
From a political standpoint, however, these aren’t the truly significant numbers. The real menace to democracy becomes apparent when we recognize that even within the richest one percent, the gains have mostly come at the very peak. The first name on the Forbes list of the four hundred wealthiest Americans (Bill Gates) is worth $81 billion – that’s up from $2 billion for the first name on the list back in the 1970s. I recall a time when the yearly budget of the United States government was $80 billion. I can’t find a figure for the total wealth of the four hundred individuals on the Forbes list, and I’m not about to manually add them all up, but given that the very last one has a net worth of $1.6 billion, I’d guesstimate a grand total of one trillion dollars – give or take a couple of hundred billion either way.
Given that the entire wealth of the United States in 2016 was about $88.1 trillion, this means that a pile of wealth amounting to between one and two percent of the net worth of our entire country can be wielded for political or other purposes by a set of people who could fit into the auditorium of an average-sized elementary school. Anybody who doesn’t think that’s a grave danger to free government needs to read a little history. Over the centuries, the lesson seems abundantly clear: any group that can seize power will seize power, or try to, eventually.
More on this next time.
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