Lessons: We live in a Plutocracy

Source: Livingston County News / www.thelcn.com / By Bill Cook /

Readers know that it is hard to find a more zealous “small d” democrat than I.

I celebrate democracy’s many virtues and try to suggest ways to deal with inherent problems. Each year I attend a conference founded by the Dalai Lama, Eli Wiesel, and Vaclav Havel. All suffered from unjust totalitarian regimes.

But as I look at the United States and the mature democracies in Europe, I am discouraged. It does not surprise me that some recent democracies are slipping back into more totalitarian forms of government. Hungary and Poland are examples with Slovakia and the Czech Republic, alas, not far behind. And we have to proclaim Russia’s short flirtation with democracy a failure.

It is easy to blame the diminution of democratic ideas and practices on a few bad actors. The National Front in France and the League in Italy along with smaller movements in England and Germany are frightening. Of course, Donald Trump comes to mind. And indeed these folks are on my “bad guys” list. But we have to face the fact that liberal democracy (liberal here is not the opposite of conservative but a term that is derived from the Latin “libertas” meaning freedom) has failed in serious ways.

No reasonable democrat (remember, small “d”) will disagree that we have become a functional plutocracy, governed by the rich.

Elections are almost always won by the candidate who spends the most money. That means that most high officeholders are rich or are beholden to the rich. No one will equate wealth with intelligence or virtue, so the folks deciding policies are not whom we want in charge. The bottom line is the we do not all count the same on election day, and that is undemocratic.

Given who is in office, it is no surprise that the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are staying about where we have been or are sliding backwards. No wonder fewer of us sense that we are players, shareholders, in our nation. More and more the reality is we are not.

Our bureaucratic form of modern democracy is corrupt, bloated, and often ineffective.

Too often, we assume that the more regulations, the better things will be. We need smart regulations that help ordinary people and care for our planet. Such regulations do not have to be thousands of indecipherable pages of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

Our schools are not very good, especially given how much we spend on them. Our universities burden children who have to borrow for decades while those who start ahead get farther ahead. Elitism is alive and well despite some democratic gains. Let’s focus on teaching knowledge and wisdom rather than test taking.

We spend more on national defense than the next nine nations combined, and defense got a 10 percent “raise” in this year’s budget. No civilian program got such largesse from Congress and the President. If you don’t think so, ask retirees and folks who live paycheck to paycheck and families who need SNAP.

Even programs designed to help those groups that have traditionally faced discrimination have sometimes gone amok. If you are poor and want to go to college, you are better off being from the ghetto than from the hills of West Virginia (or Western New York).

I was once told by a famous American college that I should not apply for a job if I am not a member of a minority group. I believe in affirmative action, but it needs to shift its focus and should have the goal of making such a program unnecessary.

“Give me your tired, your poor.”

Forget it. Now it is show me your master’s degree in a STEM subject.

It was poorly educated Catholics who built canals and railroads and Chinese who did that work in the West. Those groups who would never fit in and become “real” Americans have fit in quite well, thank you.

Democracy — let’s clean house a little, re-think some things, and start moving forward again.