Aristotle and Our American Oligarchy
The volatility of our politics is increasingly driven by clashes between elite institutions and working-class people who view them with contempt.
There is only one explanation for the continuing presence of thousands of soldiers at the Capitol: the transition of the United States from a constitutional republic to an oligarchy. What oligarchs fear most is the demos, the common people who historically rebel against rule by selfish elites. The oligarchs must surround the Capitol with troops to remind the plebeians that their brief revolt of 2016 will not succeed again and that they will be crushed.
Aristotle considered oligarchy a deviant form of rule that tended to arise when elites became corrupt and were no longer interested in the common good but only in enriching themselves; this seems a quite accurate description of our elites. I am not alone in making this observation of late. The assertion that America is now an oligarchy is not a new one; it has been made by many commentators including here, here, and here.
Indeed, it is almost old hat to assert that the United States is simply no longer a functioning constitutional republic. That the wealthy have a wildly disproportionate influence upon our politics is an obvious fact. When the nation goes to war or funds the government through a huge Continuing Resolution, the people’s representatives in Congress have very little influence.
What has gone too-little remarked upon is that the transition to oligarchy brings great dangers. In Book V of Politics, Aristotle warns that oligarchies are very unstable forms of government. “Mixed” regimes, where the middle class has some political power are far more stable, Aristotle says. Aristotle’s advice to oligarchs is to avoid relying “upon the political devices…invented only to deceive the people, for they are proved by experience to be useless.” In short, don’t lie because it doesn’t work.
Our oligarchs have not taken Aristotle’s advice—how many still read him?—and have, in recent decades, produced numerous big lies to justify their actions.
In 2003 the Bush Administration told us that America’s sons and daughters needed to invade Iraq or we might all be vaporized under a “mushroom cloud.” Then, when our brave warriors found no WMDs—and endured the meat grinder of war—we were told regularly that victory was imminent. This same deception continues with regard to Afghanistan. The oligarchs and their servants emerged from the wars better off: Paul Wolfowitz went on to run the World Bank; David Petraeus landed at private equity giant KKR; and the defense contractors thrived with the help of retired wartime generals now on their boards. For the 35,000 working-class families of Americans killed or wounded, the wars were tragic.
A few years later came the financial crisis of 2008. We know what caused it. Politicians of both parties required banks to provide favored groups with mortgages, although many were not financially capable of paying them. The banks simultaneously took opposing positions on these toxic mortgages: Their economists warned of financial disaster while their sales divisions rolled the toxic mortgages into securities and sold them. When the inevitable meltdown happened, politicians aligned with the oligarchs rushed to bail out the banks. The banks could then continue their bipartisan contributions to the politicians who constructed the bailout—a vicious circle of growing oligarchy.
The Bush bailouts of 2008 were a decisive event in modern American politics, the moment when it occurred to millions whose lives were badly impacted that distant elites had the game rigged. For the middle class, thousands lost their homes and thousands more saw the value of their homes collapse. The oligarchs told the people that these difficulties were just part of the business cycle; things go up and things go down—the kind of explanation Aristotle would say is designed to “deceive the people” but is politically “useless” because it persuades no one.
In the wake of the bailouts came Barack Obama. Like many Democrat leaders, Obama claimed to be an advocate for the working class. He was in fact a quintessentially oligarchic politician: Ivy League bred, feted by Hollywood, a regular on the Vineyard, a supporter of the 2008 bailouts, showered with Wall Street money, and contemptuous of working-class “clingers” with their guns and religion.
Obama’s ideological progressivism frightened many, too. A middle-class backlash came in the form of the Tea Party. The oligarchs wanted no part of these rubes; so, the IRS was promptly weaponized against them. Lois Lerner, the IRS employee who so effectively undermined the Tea Party, retired with a full federal pension. Several years later, the Obama Justice Department released a statement saying that they found no evidence of a political motive for the kneecapping of Tea Party groups—an obvious falsehood.
During Obama’s presidency, Fox News picked up on the fact that people don’t like being lied to, and they played up every scandal in which the administration seemed to be lying: Fast and Furious, Benghazi, Hillary’s email servers, “if you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan,” etc. As Aristotle might have expected in an oligarchy, Fox News achieved blockbuster ratings when their daily theme became: What lies are the establishment telling the people today? It may be left to the reader to decide which scandal was serious and which sin was venial, and whether the Obama Administration lied more egregiously than the Bush Administration. Suffice it to say that many working-class Americans became convinced that their elites were serial liars.
Then, at that precise moment, Donald Trump descended the escalator. Aristotle wrote that when the people believe they are being ruled by a corrupt oligarchy, “anybody is good enough to be their champion.” President Trump can be described as a vulgar, narcissistic, and ill-mannered leader, and even as a demagogue, but the people looking for a champion against the corrupt establishment feverishly welcomed him. Trump’s message resonated because he gave voice to grievances that had been ignored, or consciously created, by the oligarchic establishment: a hollowing out of manufacturing, declines in working-class wages, out-of-control illegal immigration, huge income disparities, trashing sacred national symbols, and endless wars. Trump did not solve these problems, but he was a genius in pinning the blame on the oligarchs and undermining their legitimacy.
With Trump, many Americans came to understand that the denizens of the institutions that make up oligarchic America—the media, the universities, entertainment, politics, and business—have rigged the game for themselves and live in an affluent bubble. Therefore, even before Trump captured the nomination for president, the oligarchic establishment sought to undermine his movement. They illegally surveilled him and his campaign in hopes of catching him colluding with the Russians. We all witnessed the endless “show me the man and I’ll find the crime” Mueller probe. Finally, there was the buffoonish Adam Schiff and the farcical impeachment. Many fabricated falsehoods, as well as selective leaks of classified information, would find their way into Jeff Bezos’s Washington Post. As with Lois Lerner, no one who did the dirty work for the oligarchs was punished for the illegalities used to frame Trump. His followers, who felt they finally had a leader fighting for them, took it personally.
The final shoe to drop was the pandemic, and it was dropped on the neck of the working class and small-business owners. While California’s oligarchs dined without masks at The French Laundry, they crushed one hundred thousand mom-and-pop restaurants. While oligarchs escaped the cities, using Zoom from their second homes in the Hamptons, the working class put on their masks and went to work at the warehouse, the hospital, and the grocery store (if they kept their job at all). During the pandemic, the collective net worth of the oligarchs grew by $931 billion while middle-class unemployment broke records.
Then came the 2020 election. Only thorough investigations can establish whether Trump’s wild allegations of election corruption have any truth, but, given the oligarchic establishment’s ruthless behavior during Trump’s presidency, the deep suspicion of Trump supporters is understandable. The belief that the election was stolen, which Trump recklessly encouraged, became the last straw. It was on to the Capitol.
The strategy of the oligarchs has been to use the ugly protests to justify crushing the deplorables once and for all. First, cut Trump off from social media and disconnect him from his followers and, at all costs, try to prevent his return through a second impeachment. Next will come banana republic-style prosecutions. For his supporters, put them on no-fly lists, get them fired from their jobs, and begin a CCP-style social credit system. Throw the entire weight of federal law enforcement against the Trump protesters, while allowing the violent leftist rioters from this summer to avoid punishment because they enjoy both the financial and moral support of the oligarchs.
The oligarchs will assume that, given their dependable partnership with corporate America, Silicon Valley, the mainstream media, and the FBI, their political dominance is now permanent. They seem oblivious to the seething anger that this consolidation of power will create.
As Aristotle would have predicted, the volatility of our politics is increasingly driven by clashes between the institutions controlled by the oligarchs and working-class people who view elites with contempt and do not share their woke cultural, religious, and philosophical outlook. We are entering what historian Michael Vlahos calls, ominously, the “revenge cycle” of politics. We no longer seek compromise and common ground; now politics is about crushing your opponents, in the way that a warring army would force an unconditional surrender.
It is historically the case that leaders of populist revolutions tend to get more extreme and the masses more radicalized, not less so. This is particularly true when ruling elites are slow to acknowledge working-class grievances, as they were in pre-revolutionary France and Russia, and as they are now in the United States.
Like many elites, Joe Biden seems oblivious to the powder keg he is sitting on. If he continues to ignore working-class grievances and simply to be a mouthpiece for the oligarchy, Aristotle would say that our country is headed to a bad place.
William S. Smith is senior research fellow and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America. His recent book is Democracy and Imperialismfrom the University of Michigan Press.