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Lewis Morris / February 11, 2021

Taming the New Oligarchy

The rise of an ultra-rich elite threatens the American system and usurps our everyday freedoms.

America faces serious challenges from within that must be addressed if our republic is to survive. Among them is the rise of the corporate oligarchy, the group of super rich tech gurus and investors who seem to always profit no matter what the circumstances — social unrest, international strife, pandemics. Nothing seems to stop people like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, Elon Musk, the Walton family, and others from continuing to accumulate wealth on a scale that is forcing some to question our capitalist system.

The rise of the oligarchy is certainly not new in the American experience. The Gilded Age of the late 19th century was marked by a sharp rise in corporate wealth resulting from the post-Civil War industrial expansion that made America an economic powerhouse. The downside of this tremendous growth was that corporate titans influenced politics to rig the game in their favor, leading to a divide between rich and poor so great that it threatened to topple our society.

The corruption and social upheaval at the turn of the 20th century soon gave way to a progressive era that saw some needed reforms like worker protections and the break-up of corporate monopolies. But it also brought other less-needed reforms that greatly expanded federal power at the expense of the states. Take, for example, the graduated income tax and the direct election of senators.

We appear to have reached an age of oligarchy once again. Some would say that history is repeating itself. But there are important distinctions to be made between then and now, and a new progressive era is the last thing that will save us from this new breed of corporate overlords.

The modern oligarchy holds tremendous sway over society, greater than at any time in our history. America’s 614 billionaires have amassed a collective net worth of $931 billion. Walmart and Amazon account for 15% of all retail sales in the United States. The five largest publicly traded companies — Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft, and Facebook — account for a whopping 20% of the total value of the stock market. And all these companies have thrived during the pandemic while millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and thousands of smaller companies have been destroyed.

The oligarchs of today are part of a nexus of power that runs from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to Washington. They have ingratiated themselves into American politics, and while they are big donors to the Democrat Party, we shouldn’t underestimate their hold on Republicans as well. From outside Washington, it’s difficult to see a difference in the fiscal and administrative behavior of the two political parties. They spend taxpayer money with no accountability for where it goes, and they have ceded their power to an anonymous bureaucracy that runs our daily lives.

There have been uprisings against the oligarchy and its political minions. Bernie Sanders might be a socialist but he’s also a populist, and the Vermont senator was summarily shut down in 2016 and 2020 as he tried to wrest control of the Democrats from the power brokers. Donald Trump, also a populist, was assailed throughout his presidency and defeated in 2020 for fighting against the corporate, political, and social status quo that the oligarchy has put in place. And average Americans are routinely silenced on social media and in the court of public opinion if their views do not comport with those shared by our overlords. The oligarchy frequently has to rig the game in order to stay in power.

The good news, though slight, is that the oligarchy is not invulnerable. The secret is out on who these people are and what they intend to do. The overreach by elected officials during the pandemic and by social media companies in the lead-up to the 2020 election may not be so much an expression of tyranny as ham-handed attempts to maintain power. If that is the case, we can expect more mistakes by this powerful elite as we continue to challenge their vise-like hold on our country.

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