Over 40 years ago as a college sophomore, I read with pleasure some of Robert Dahl’s works on the functioning of American democracy. The books themselves have left my possession long ago, but I have warm recollections of the precision and elegance of Dahl’s arguments. They were an antidote to the SDS/Marxist theory of a corporate oligarchy which controlled America, a notion of American society then still influential on elite campuses, but one which, as the revolutionary ’60s burned out and gave way to the ’70s, had begun to seem jejune if not actually apologetic for communist brutality.
Essentially—and I am relying on Wikipedia and not memory—Dahl contended that the United States was a polyarchy, a plural society where discrete formal and informal power structures competed and compromised over political outcomes. It wasn’t perfect democracy, but it was more than decent by historical and comparative standards. Today left-wing analyses are better remembered, C. Wright Mill’s interlocking Power Elite, and William Domhoff’s series of works, depicting American society in the iron grip of a mostly malevolent and self-serving WASP ruling establishment. I’m sure those works have been superseded, and am not certain that anyone even talks about Robert Dahl anymore, though he was president of the American Political Science Association and a highly regarded figure at Yale.
To what extent has academic political science has caught up with contemporary power in America? Certainly neither Dahl, nor Mills nor Domhoff had room in their conceptualizations for phenomena like this, in which billionaire George Soros invested $33 million to turn Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson from a small police blotter item to a national cause-célèbre. Of course the story is slightly more complex than that (Snopes gives it a mixed partially true rating); what it means is that the Soros-funded Open Society Foundation streamed $33 million to “grass-roots” activist groups from all over the country which then engaged efforts to take the Ferguson protests national and keep them at the center of national attention. The Open Society Foundation had given money to such groups before, and according to its director did not directly supervise their agitation over Ferguson. But anyone curious how hundreds of professional activists could decamp from New York and Washington and elsewhere and stay for months in Ferguson (don’t they have jobs to get to? who pays for their meals?) now has an answer.
Thirty-three million dollars, even if allocated to groups which have other agenda items than Ferguson, goes a long way in paying salaries, producing media content, organizing bodies to show up at demonstrations, etc. One blogger suggested that it will be interesting if the people whose businesses were burned down in the social justice looting which followed the non-indictment of officer Darren Wilson were to depose the people whose funds kept the Michael Brown affair at boiling point for months. So, too, the family of the Bosnian man beaten to death with hammers on a St. Louis street because he was white.
Relatively small amounts of money can go a long way in organizing a protest and keeping it going. Most politically competent people have jobs and family responsibilities, and can’t devote much time to serious activism, certainly not in Ferguson, Missouri. So the ability to pay full time activists can entirely shift national perception of an issue, or even turn the direction of an entire country. The so-called Maidan revolution in the Ukraine was the culmination of years of funding by the U.S. government, government sponsored NGO’s, and private groups, including a major one, the International Renaissance Foundation, founded and controlled by George Soros. Victoria Nuland, the administration’s point person in organizing the Ukrainian revolution, boasted in a speech two years ago that the United States had spent $5 billion since 1990 trying to bring “European democracy” to the Ukraine. This is a high figure, and probably includes some crony capitalist deals which didn’t work out. But in a poor country relatively small amounts of money can go a long way—paying journalists, training people to set up internet TV stations, and equipping and staffing them. The Maidan Revolution certainly would not have occurred without hundreds of salaried and trained “pro-democracy” cadres. Vladimir Putin’s reaction, and the war which ensued have cost many lives and many billions more than the initial Western investments.
If one examines very rich people wielding enormous power, it isn’t fair to concentrate only on Soros, funder of left-liberal causes in the U.S. and more ambiguous ones abroad. Sheldon Adelson is the major funder of United Against Nuclear Iran and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, two “think tanks” which generate an impressive amount of agitation inside the Beltway against the administration’s Iran diplomacy and in favor or an American military strike on Iran. (Adelson has urged an American nuclear strike on Iran as a “demonstration” that we mean business.) Together Adelson’s groups help contribute to an inside the Beltway near-consensus that American military action against Iran is a perfectly plausible, sensible option, which could be carried out with little cost to the United States. Since Adelson is a major Republican donor as well as think tank sponsor, he stands a fair chance of getting his hawkish policies translated into action.
Now is perhaps not the place to argue in favor a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear aspirations, though one seems to be in reach: nor to stipulate that if Michael Brown had simply raised his hands up, or not tried to assault a police officer, he would be alive today. But I do wonder what contemporary political science has to say about the truly mammouth influence of rich individuals on the American political system. Their businesses are, so far as I can see, immune from popular pressure: most of Adelson’s money comes from casinos in Macau, where China has granted him a kind of monopoly; Soros made his billions on currency bets. Americans of great wealth have sought political influence before, of course, but what is now going on is on an altogether different scale. Henry Ford in his business prime published an anti-Semitic newspaper, but pressure from Jewish groups and the threats of boycott against his car business compelled him to desist and apologize. Warmonger Adelson; social justice agitator Soros have few or no American customers, and operate well beyond such social and economic constraints. (For what it’s worth, I find Soros far the more congenial; I’ve met him and found him wry and charming, which I doubt is true about Adelson.)
But America really is in a new era. The much-vaunted separation of the 1 percent, or 1 percent of the 1 percent, from the rest of society doesn’t mean simply that some people have many more homes and cars and planes than the rest of us; nor does it mean they can simply finance an insurgent candidate who might not otherwise be viable (as was the case with some antiwar Democrats in the late ’60s). It means they possess a truly enormous power to shape perceptions in our society, to bend democracy more than was possible before. What can we call such a system? Clearly Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy” concept needs serious revision. Who might undertake it?
Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.