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Contest of Rich Ideologues Still Oligarchy, Not Democracy

My blog friend John Tsitrian picks up on the Oligarchy not a Democracy study and says, No big deal:

CNBC's Robert Frank writes a nice critique and analysis of the study I reference and calls attention to the fact that for every right wing rich guy promoting schemes that Democrats abhor, there's probably a wealthy leftie advocating the opposite. As Frank notes, for every Koch there's a Buffett. I'd add that for every George Soros there's a Sheldon Adelson--and I'd probably be able to match Big Rich Lib with Big Rich Rightie for as long as necessary to make the point. Weiland's mentor Tom Daschle generally raised millions for his senatorial campaigns here in South Dakota and I don't recall Weiland or any other Democrats bemoaning the influence of Big Money when it suited their party's purposes back then. So what changed? Just the fact that Weiland hasn't been able to scare up 7-figure totals for his campaign now is about all I can see [John Tsitrian, "The Problem with Populism, Rick Weiland Style," The Constant Commoner, 2014.04.22].

Frank's critique rests on a lot of always:

  • "'s misleading to say the wealthy always get what they want
  • "Our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policymaking, the average citizen always loses out."
  • "But the notion of the rich always shaping policies at the expense of the rest of the country is simply misleading."
  • "...what [the rich] want is not always so different from the rest of America."

That response to charges of oligarchy drowning democracy is somewhat like saying evolution doesn't happen because less well-adapted organisms don't always miss out on the chance to reproduce. Sure, slow frogs get to lay eggs, too, but over time, more slow frogs get eaten, and fast frogs dominate the frogosphere.

Saying that rich people don't always win or even that there are rich people with competing interests (and I'd like a breakdown of how often the Soroses and Steyers beat the Kochs and Adelsons) does not change the fundamental critique that the interests of the vast majority of Americans either are not being heard or at best are only heard coincidentally. I don't want coincidental democracy. I don't want oligarchy masquerading as democracy. I want honest, functional democracy, where voices are heard and decisions are made by head count, not bank account.



  1. David Bergan 2014.04.23

    Original SD senator Richard Pettigrew wrote a book "Triumphant Plutocracy" bemoaning the same situation 130 years ago.

  2. David Bergan 2014.04.23

    correction: he wrote it 90ish years ago. and then supported William Jennings Bryan (the anti-science, anti-oligarch) for president.

    Return of the robber barons?

    PS Also relevant is the documentary on Ralph Nader "An unreasonable man". After Carter was beaten, it's been a lot harder for consumers to get their will via politics.

  3. Rorschach 2014.04.23

    So if the poor frogs get eaten by the rich frogs, eventually most frogs will be rich frogs.

  4. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    "In the US, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer."

  5. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    "...we must defend, sustain and secure democracy by enhancing it. That's what Roosevelt knew. That's what Jefferson knew."Watch: Fighting for the Four Freedoms"
    Previously published on

  6. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    in typical repub fashion, Pettigrew amended a bill to create a land corridor thru the Sioux lands from the Missouri to the black hills "gold fields" ignoring the treaty provision of 3/4 adult males consent. he then selected royer as pine ridge agent with only qualification being his campaign support in 1889. royer of course went on to bring in troops upon his arrival to put down the ghost dance. the several week standoff with 4000 Lakota after the massacre was only resolved by Gen. Miles who replaced the "inept Royer". R.W. Larson, "Red Cloud", 236-283

    in the Argus Leader, Pettigrew offered his opinion that the First World War was a capitalist scheme intended to further enrich the wealthy, and he urged young men to evade the draft. The United States Attorney secured a felony indictment of Pettigrew for suspicion of violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Pettigrew's friend Clarence Darrow got him off.

  7. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    The political network spearheaded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch has expanded into a far-reaching operation of unrivaled complexity, built around a maze of groups that cloaks its donors, according to an analysis of new tax returns and other documents. The filings show that the network of politically active nonprofit groups backed by the Kochs and fellow donors in the 2012 elections financially outpaced other independent groups on the right and, on its own, matched the long-established national coalition of labor unions that serves as one of the biggest sources of support for Democrats.

  8. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    "Making fracking safe is simply not possible, not with the current technology, or with the inadequate regulations being proposed," Louis Allstadt, former executive vice president of Mobil Oil, said during a news conference in Albany called by the anti-fracking group Elected Officials to Protect New York.

  9. mike from iowa 2014.04.23

    About a week ago,Soros had a meeting with a bunch of high ranking wingnuts trying to devise a strategy to defeat tea-baggers. Wingnuts flock to Adelson and the koch bros. for mucho dinero. They visit with Libs for sound advice.

  10. Bill Dithmer 2014.04.23

    So if the poor frogs get eaten by the rich frogs, eventually most frogs will be rich frogs.

    Eventually there would be nothing but idea frogs with nobody left to do the work. When the work stopped getting done life would cease to exist.

    Just like the frogs the Dems and the GOP are willing to canniblize their own to make life easier in the present tense.

    The Blindman

  11. David Bergan 2014.04.23

    Hi Leslie,

    I'm confused about your post regarding Pettigrew. It sounds like:
    a) Pettigrew was a rotten guy
    b) But (like Cory) he was wary of rampant capitalism controlling politics


    Kind regards,

    PS I'll agree with (b), and half-heartedly with (a). I don't know him too well, I just thought it interesting when I was learning about him and his fortunes that he came to decry the other rich and powerful (and support WJ Bryant) during the robber-baron era. Rich powerful Republican railroad-builder/city-establisher/politician who was uneasy about the system he participated in.

  12. Douglas Wiken 2014.04.23

    A USD law professor had an expression something like, "We are all equal said the elephant as he danced atop the mice"

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.04.23

    David, Leslie has a point. Pettigrew is far from a pure hero of social and economic justice. Leslie, correct me if I'm wrong, but I get the impression Pettigrew very much facilitated the plutocracy before turning against it and becoming one of Lenin's favorite authors.

    But David rightly points out that, whatever Pettigrew's errors, his book (which we should consider adding to South Dakota high school social studies reading lists) described the same oligarchy that the social science research cited above sees at work today. As Jesus said, the rich will always be with us (or is that against us?).

    (By the way, David, it's nice to hear from you! Have you retired early and returned to the Internet?)

  14. lesliengland 2014.04.23
    FOUR years ago this Sunday, BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico blew out, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, killing 11 workers and setting off an uncontrolled oil gusher lasting 87 days. By the time the flow was stopped, an estimated 200 million gallons of oil had entered the ocean.***
    We have seen this pattern before. The expansion of drilling into deeper water and farther from shore was not coupled with advances in spill prevention and response. The same is true as we push into new territory in the Atlantic. As we commemorate one of the worst environmental disasters in United States history, we hope our leaders can rethink the expansion of offshore drilling, put real safety measures in place in the gulf and chart a course for safer and cleaner solutions to end the need for this risky business in the first place.

  15. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    Russian scientists have drilled into the vast, dark and never-before-touched Lake Vostok 2.2 miles below the surface of Antarctica, the state-run Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Monday.

    An American crew is targeting Lake Whillans, and British researchers have an ambitious plan to explore Lake Ellsworth. An advance party has already braved freezing temperatures to set up vital equipment and supplies, and the project by UK engineers to drill through the two-mile-thick ice-sheet is scheduled for the end of the year.

    The aims are to search for signs of life in the waters and to extract sediments from the lake floor to better understand the past climate.

    I first heard of this melting ice caps technology for exploratory drilling on NOVA, sponsored by KOCHs, I believe.

  16. Bill Dithmer 2014.04.23

    Pettigrew, the Ayn Rand of his time

    The Blindman

  17. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    In nd, oil wells are 2 miles deep, going under Lake Sacagawea 2 more miles horizontally.

    [O]ne well may drain two square miles. The advantage is cost savings. Instead of two wells costing sixteen million bucks, the operator will have to spend thirteen million and get the production from a sixteen million dollar investment. Waste not want not (says the minerals lawyer).

    Say a vertical drill pierces 5,000 feet of rock into an oil reservoir that's 20 feet thick. Because oil moves slowly, the 20-foot exposure would not tap much oil. "In the old days, you'd move 200 feet and drill another well." The record hole is a long-haul [horizontal]monster that wanders almost 7 miles, on the coast of southern England in the Wytch Farm oil field.

    Along with the drilling boom has come controversies over radiation in drinking water and man-made earthquakes. But perhaps the most persistent complaints from residents near the new gas wells are claims that their groundwater supply has been contaminated by high levels of methane, in some cases to the point where tap water can be set on fire.

    Some say methane exists in ordinary artesian water wells which can also be lit on fire.

    The industry does not want "majority rules" or environmental regulations to increase their costs of extraction. Notice the uranium project near Edgemont SD which lobbied repubs and regulatory rules out of existence.

  18. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    Extraction in the arctic is ongoing by Russia as the ice cap melts.

    Recently a $200 million tow ship, Aiviq with four 5444-hp engines [trailed] a thick line connected to the Kulluk, a floating oil rig that wallowed behind. Owned by Royal Dutch Shell, the rig measured 266 feet across and was shaped like a squat, nearly round funnel. A buckle on the towline broke, severing the connection between the two vessels. Then the Aiviq engines failed, leaving both vessels adrift in 30-mph winds and 25-foot seas.

    The storm worsened and the deck pitched violently as Coast Guard helicopters hoisted the 18 men onboard to safety. The Kulluk was headed for the rocks. On New Year's Day 2013, the world awoke to images of Shell's prize oil rig being pounded against the shore by 40-foot waves.

    A new report from the National Research Council says that a full suite of proven oil response tools is needed to address potential oil spills in U.S. Arctic waters, but not all of them are readily available. A decision process such as the Net Environmental Benefit Analysis, which weighs and compares the advantages and disadvantages of different response options, should be used to select the response tools that offer the greatest overall reduction of adverse environmental harm, the report says.

    of course if the inevitable occurs the regulators will likely be blamed by the KOCH et al. spin machine.

  19. lesliengland 2014.04.23

    forgive my rant, was fired up about the thread topic and then the mention of Pettigrew ... knew I recognized the name from somewhere ( and knew I didn't like him). like so many figures that get-good or bad guy treatment ect. the fog of history I guess.

  20. David Bergan 2014.04.23

    Stuff it oligarchy. Let's put democracy in action and have a poll:

    R. F. Pettigrew - Vladimir Lenin or Ayn Rand? (or both?)

  21. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.23

    One of my biggest concerns about an oligarchy is ignorance. Romney is a sterling example. He couldn't figure out why students struggling with college costs didn't just borrow the money from their parents. He felt unfairly picked on when the hoi polloi objected to him including a car elevator in his new, huge, multimillion dollar house.

    The other is the rise of sociopaths in the oligarch class. I remember many, many years ago reading press articles about amoral children. The article focused chiefly on young, black boys/men who murdered without compunction or remorse. The question was, if there is no moral compass in these criminals, can any rehabilitation be possible?

    Now we have oligarchs and wannabe oligarchs who amorally break the law to enrich themselves at great cost to others, and feel no guilt or remorse for their actions. In fact, they are often lauded for it. People are left in dire straits, sometimes suffering intensely.

    Our most dangerous sociopaths have moved up the ladder, from small time gang murderers - of any race - to oligarchs who are able to do painful damage to exponentially greater numbers of people.

  22. John Tsitrian 2014.04.23

    Okay, railing against ruling elites, as Weiland's "take it back" campaign does, has a certain political nobility to it--after all, who isn't for the "common man" occupying a respected and reasonably well-compensated spot in society? That part I get. Unfortunately, there's also an anti-intellectual streak that's common to populism in this country (remember that William Jennings Bryan also prosecuted John T. Scopes) that gives me the creeps when I see charismatic types like Bryan, Huey Long and the erstwhile "man of the people" Rick Weiland start pushing that theme. All to often, the "common folk" have been racist, sexist and xenophobic, and their political patrons have been quick to seize on those impulses by calling themselves "men of the people" and attempting to institutionalize those values into law. Didn't SD just have a legislative session where we saw just that dynamic come into play? I know Rick well enough to believe that he really doesn't fit that mold but that his underfinanced campaign is forcing him to take the cheap and easy "populist" route by setting up his campaign as one between "us common folk" and them "oligarchical oppressors." I stand by my opinion that political life in this country doesn't fit neatly into that dichotomy, that there are distinctions among those "oligarchs" when it comes political philosophy and values, and that lumping them together as part of a populist crusade is essentially meaningless--which is why I doubt that Weiland's campaign will have much chance of success. Voters understand that Rick's approach lacks consideration of that nuance and more importantly, it lacks specificity in terms of targeting his likely opponent and laying out his positions on the everyday issues that matter to voters in this state--things like the future of ACA, environmental concerns, budget priorities and so on,in other words the
    prosaic, bread-and-butter issues that people care about.

  23. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.23

    John, I don't think appreciation of nuance is a strong suit for many American voters, though I wish it weren't true.

    I'm also not sold on your anti-intellectual argument. In this current political situation, intellectuals are leading the charge against the oligarchs.

    These wealthy oligarchs are doing a great deal of harm to the rest of the population. Their small numbers are overshadowed by their outsized political influence. I respect you John, and I think you have blinders on when it comes to the damage the wealthy are doing to our economy, democracy and social structure. Maybe you are looking through binoculars that you've turned around backwards.

  24. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.23

    I read the CNBC article, and note one of the first things he says is, "When a policy was supported only by ordinary citizens, it had little chance of succeeding." Then he brushes on past that and never mentions it again.

    I saw that Wealthy is defined as $146,000+. I'm thinking more of millionaires.

    Full disclosure - My big brother is in the millionaire category. He's a good man, Republican, and wrong about most every political topic. We have fun arguments!

    One of the best tools for liberals is unions. However, Republicans have been quite successful in destroying them. Last election the Kochs and their myriad fake grassroots organizations outspent the top ten unions.

    I think there is a great deal of spin behind the oligarchs-are-really-nice-ordinary-folks story. Also an unwillingness to see things we don't want to.

  25. John Tsitrian 2014.04.24

    The problem, Deb, is that there are just as many different constituencies among the ordinary folks as there are among the oligarchs. Look at what the ordinary folks in Georgia just accomplished. The whole "us vs. them" mentality is indeed anti-intellectual and simplistic, which is why I'm critical of Weiland's appeal to it. I'm certainly not denying that money has political influence in this country--as if there's something new about that. I am denying that Rick's populist campaign has any substance to it.

  26. Jenny 2014.04.24

    You mention all too often the common folks are racist and anti-intellectuals, John. Yes, I would agree with that of the 'common folks' of South Dakota (a good majority of them anyway). I'm not saying that to be sarcastic either. It is disturbing to see South Dakotans vote against their best interests year after year and to be simply content or just not care that SD govt has become a corrupt one-party operation.
    Populism doesn't work in SD because South Dakotans are just simply too ignorant.
    Rick Weiland means well but he seems to me to be rather a dull candidate that is just not energizing the people.
    In my district in SE MN our Representative is DFLer Tim Walz. SE MN is majority republican but Walz has won it the last six years with a populist message. Populism works in MN but sadly not in SD. It is an interesting phenomenom and should be studied.

  27. David Bergan 2014.04.24

    The reason we have an oligarch is because when a poor, God-fearing, RV-dwelling, anti-entrenched-powers candidate runs for office the Madville Times beats on her like a diamond-stocked pinata.

    *tongue firmly planted in cheek*

    Also, said poor candidate raised more money than Rick Weiland. hahaha

  28. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.24

    Jenny, populism has worked quite well in ND. I don't know if that's true in their current political atmosphere.

    Could George McGovern be described as a populist? Has there been anyone else in SD politics who would fit that title?

  29. lesliengland 2014.04.27

    jt-huh? i believe glass-stegal act was huey long's work along with louisiana infrastructure and persecution of standard oil for the commoner's vote. hardly anti-intellectual, unlike bryan, perhaps a religious zealot concerning evolution (that was along time ago) or present-day republican deniers. and, weiland is clear to sd voters about his view of watered-down obamacare. hardly creepy. rick is "taking it back". maybe i don't get your point.

  30. John Tsitrian 2014.04.27

    Huey Long was deemed by FDR "one of the most dangerous men in America." (Here's a Wikipedia piece on the Kingfish: Long was so far out with his populist frenzy that he opposed the New Deal as not being radical enough. Father Coughlin was one of Long's most important and influential media supporters. Identifying Long with Glass -Steagall is somewhat of a stretch, though I believe Long's support came late in the game when G-S's protections were extended to state chartered banks. To me Rick's "take it back" theme has echoes of Long's rhetoric, at least to the extent that it characterizes the campaign as a class struggle. To some, this is indeed the essence of what the election is about, a viewpoint I understand because it has some merit. Unfortunately for for Rick's campaign, I don't think it has much of a chance of winning in South Dakota.
    As to Bryan, he was fighting evolution well into the 1920s with his high-profile entry into the Scopes trial, which showed his "man of the people" persona to be based on appeals to ignorance and religious zealotry, common to those religious zealots in my Republican Party who insist on imposing their version of heaven on the community at large.

  31. mike from iowa 2014.04.27

    The "Kingfish" wasn't popular with everyone in Louisiana. OTOH,Long's assassin wasn't popular with Long's bodyguards,either.

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