There are three words that have become more popular in recent years that you should know about. The three words are often used interchangeably, even though they mean slightly different things, and they all could factor into the future of our democracy.
The first word is oligarchy, which means “rule by the few.” Like all the words we’re discussing today, oligarchy is a Greek word.
Next is kleptocracy, which means “rule by thieves.
And finally, plutocracy, which means “rule by the wealthy.”
The reason these words are so important and could potentially bear on the future of our country is that the relatively few wealthy, who are often viewed as corrupt (i.e., thieves) are leading the charge toward authoritarianism in the United States.
Although Donald Trump (himself, a want-to-be oligarch) is the face of this movement, it is much deeper and more committed than just Trumpism. It has gathered many disparate players from traditional Republicans, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, militia groups, other far-right groups, and evangelicals (particularly Christian Nationalists) who view the turn toward an autocracy run by oligarchs as a way to achieve their individual political agendas.
We often associate—with good reason—oligarchs with Russia. The reason for this is that the people who benefitted most from the fall of the USSR were the people who spirited away millions and billions of dollars (or rubles) from the national treasury to line their pockets. The money helped these people, including Vladimir Putin, to gain and exercise power in the newly formed Russia.
Its this hunt for money that makes our current turn toward authoritarianism different from what we saw with the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, or the rise of fascism under Benito Mussolini during that same period in Italy. Those movements, much like the administration of Viktor Orban in Hungary today, were grounded in fanatical patriotism. While patriotism can be a good, constructive thing, fanatical patriotism tends to support country at the expense of civil rights, particularly for marginalized groups.
What we are seeing in the United States is more akin to an oligarchic autocracy. Also known as a kleptocracy or plutocracy, it plays on the patriotic fervor of those on the far-right, but it’s true aim is to enrich (or further enrich) the few at the top of the movement.
To be sure, there are some common hallmarks shared by the money-grubbing Russia-style autocracy and the nationalistic-based authoritarianism. For instance, both create laws favoring the wealthy. In the United States, we have seen tax breaks for the rich, government subsidies to corporations and wealthy landowners, and suppression of voting rights, especially impacting the poor and marginalized groups.
The impact on the poor and marginalized groups (including women) is another shared trait. Rights gained through years of hard-fought advocacy are often lost during authoritarian regimes. Often, leaders will pay lip service to civil rights, but in practice, will work to curtail them.
Yet another commonality between these two groups is the use of violence. In the United States, we saw a rise in violence against citizens during the Trump administration, including the use of government law enforcement personnel in a storm trooper-type role, national guard troops breaking up peaceful demonstrations, and the normalization of citizen-on-citizen violence for political purposes. In addition, we witnessed an attempted violent coup against the government that was largely excused by those supporting authoritarianism, and for the first time in our history, we failed to have a peaceful transition from one presidential administration to another. The specter of violence continues to be a daily concern, with right-wingers threatening another civil war and asking their leaders when they can start shooting those that defend democracy.
A contributing factor to oligarchy in the United States is the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v Federal Elections Commission. In essence, the Citizens United case gave corporations and other outside groups the right to spend as much money as they’d like to influence political campaigns. This invited wealthy individuals and corporations into politics, giving them unlimited ability to not only influence the outcome of elections, but to have undue influence over a candidate once they had been elected to office.
Giving wealthy individuals and corporations the ability to spend to their heart’s content on elections also had the effect of reducing the influence a citizen of ordinary means has in an election. This act of moderating, or even eliminating, the power of the non-wealthy is a cornerstone to the rise of oligarchy in the United States.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice:
“With its decision, the Supreme Court overturned election spending restrictions that date back more than 100 years. Previously, the court had upheld certain spending restrictions, arguing that the government had a role in preventing corruption. But in Citizens United, a bare majority of the justices held that “independent political spending” did not present a substantive threat of corruption, provided it was not coordinated with a candidate’s campaign…As a result, corporations can now spend unlimited funds on campaign advertising if they are not formally “coordinating” with a candidate or political party.”
To understand what is happening in the United States from a political perspective, it is important to understand the meaning of oligarchy, kleptocracy, and plutocracy. They will be playing an increasingly important role in our national discussion, and sadly, in our future.
To better understand oligarchy, PHILO-Notes, the online philosophy teaching project, put this video together that does a good job of explaining oligarchy in just three-and-a-half minutes.