This is what Oligarchy Looks Like

“This is what oligarchy looks like: Today, the top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The top one-hundredth of 1 percent makes more than 40 percent of all campaign contributions. The billionaire class owns the political system and reaps the benefits from it.”

                                                                        – Sen. Bernie Sanders

 FPR columnist Greg Wagner’s recent reflection on my interview with Marisa Holmes was both articulate and astute. He impugned, and rightfully so, the unilateral and thus limited scope of reactionary protest. However, he erroneously argues that Holmes conflated broken democracywith crippled capitalism. Rather than looking at them in aggregate, Holmes believes that the abysmal state of American democracy is the product of our economic system; it is the inevitable manifestation of corporate influence. Consequently, those who are working and middle class are politically excoriated and subjected to increasing economic hardship.

A salient issue of Sen. Sanders’ presidential campaign was the economic stratification between the top percentile of Americans and everyone else. Following the 2008 financial crisis, we’ve seen a mass disparity in both wealth accumulation and in new income. This arises from an economic system that gives preferential treatment to the top percentile, thereby encouraging – rather than combating – their propensity for greed.

Incidentally, I disagree with Wagner’s assertion, “Democracy is not failing – the rise of the populist candidate in Donald Trump is succinct proof.” We would be remiss to say that Donald Trump is evidence of a robust democracy, au contraire. Trump has seized upon popular trepidation, inculcating intolerance, and rewarding political ignorance. He purports to be a champion for the working class, but his policies exclusively favor the top 1 percent. Trump is evidence of democracy in peril.

Fundamental to our economic system is American capitalism. It must be said that capitalism in and of itself is not the issue; unfettered capitalism is the issue. American democracy is healthy only if everyone’s vote holds the same weight. In theory this is the case, but even a perfunctory observation reveals that our democracy is failing. It is failing because 40 percent of campaign contributions are from the wealthiest 0.01 percent; it is failing because the duopoly in American politics, the Republican and Democratic parties, obfuscate veracious discourse by erecting barriers for third-party candidates; it is failing because corporations exercise gross lobbying power; and it is failing because Congress passes legislation to the benefit of millionaires and billionaires, not to the benefit of everyday Americans.

Furthermore, I disagree with Wagner’s notion of radicalism. While it is true that Occupy’s radicalism may have inhibited its effectiveness, Wagner presents it as a universally pejorative term. Civil rights for African Americans was considered a radical idea; women’s suffrage was considered a radical idea; marriage equality was considered a radical idea; a minimum wage was considered a radical idea. We now hold these to be axiomatic rights, upholding equality for all people. It is in this way that radicalism is good: it forces society to rethink social constructs and challenge our national consciousness.

Wagner’s prognosis of the cynicism within the Occupy movement is correct. That’s because the movement was reflective of the national pessimism that transcended, age, race, gender, and superficial political allegiances. I also agree with Wagner in that the castigation of progressive champions, such as Sen. Sanders, isolates the movement and is inauspicious to its success.

We don’t need cynicism, for that leads to political apathy. What we need is encouragement, solidarity, and collective gumption. Occupy movements cannot work in isolation. They need to function within the existing framework, using the power of the people to pressure legislators.

But to say that Holmes is the one tearing society apart is unfair; the failed economic system is tearing society apart.