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Shelton A. Gunaratne, Published January 14 2012

Of wealthy, by wealthy, for wealthy

Despite the impressive facade of grass-roots democracy conveyed to the world at large by the U.S. system of caucuses and primaries, I see the operational dynamics of American representative democracy as a vitiation of how President Abraham Lincoln defined the term in the Gettysburg Address in 1863 – a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The truth is that contemporary democracy in the United States is a government of the wealthy, by the wealthy and for the wealthy. Of course, the wealthy are also people. But for Lincoln, a relentless civil rights champion, people meant the hoi polloi, not just the wealthy and their cronies. If we define democracy in the Lincolnian sense, we have to call the U.S. a hypocrisy, not a democracy. For how else can you define a country where the top 10 percent owns 90 percent of the wealth and yet professes to be the world’s exemplar of democracy?

Brainwashed by an educational system that sings hosannas of the U.S. Constitution as the perfect instrument designed by an exceptional team of Founding Fathers to create “a more perfect union,” Americans began to think of themselves as progenitors of antimonarchical representational democracy. However, they turned a blind eye to the pitfalls of the self-same Constitution (as interpreted by the federal judiciary) that made it possible for the super-rich to arrogate the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth.

Millionaires only

The ordinary Yankee Doodle is resigned to the fact that predominantly the wealthy can succeed in getting elected to high political office. Newspapers reported that the Iowa caucasus set a record for political expenditures – a sum exceeding $12 million, two-thirds of which came from “super PACs” – political action committees run by independent interest groups with no direct connection to candidates but which can spend unlimited oodles of money attacking or supporting the candidates of their choice.

Unlike PACs, which must reveal the identity of each donor whose donation is limited to $2,500, “super PACs” do not have to disclose the names of their contributors or the amounts they contribute.

Law of fish

The hoi polloi is playing the role of audience of a national comedy, watching the antics of a handful of WASPs, a couple of Mormons, and a Catholic who are set to devour one other under the insidious law of the fish (“matsya nyaya” in Sanskrit) to be the head honcho of the nation and preserve the privileges of the wealthy ruling class.

Matsya nyaya ensures the survival of the fittest – the principle of unadulterated capitalism. The audience has been brainwashed to believe this to be democracy because they have the right to vote. They are tricked to think they are electing a government of the people for the people by the people.

A study by the Center for Responsive Politics released in November 2011 reveals the hypocrisy:

“About 47 percent of Congress, or 249 members, are millionaires. In 2010, the estimated median net worth of a U.S. senator was $2.56 million.” Fully 36 Senate Democrats and 30 Senate Republicans reported an average net worth in excess of $1 million in 2010. The same was true for 110 House Republicans and 73 House Democrats.

Common man?

The number of millionaires in the United States is low. They constitute about 1 percent of the population of 313 million, whereas they constitute almost 50 percent of Congress. Like it or not, we have to concede that Congress is more interested in preserving the status quo than in ushering in changes for the welfare of the ordinary American. Can we rationally expect a group of millionaires to extinguish themselves by handing power to the common man?

Campaigns are expensive. In 2010, reliable sources say, the average winner of a House race spent $1.5 million. The average Senate winner spent close to $10 million. Closely contested races are much more expensive. And about half of that money, on average, comes from an elite group of wealthy donors.

Americans must understand that capitalism has determined the socio-economic class structure of America. Capitalism is not coterminous with democracy.


Gunaratne is professor emeritus, mass communications, Minnesota State University Moorhead.