OLIGARCHY OR DEMOCRACY?
By Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)/ OpEdNews/ July 31, 2012
Economically, the United States today has, by far, the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, and that inequality is worse today in America than at any time since the late 1920s.
As the longest serving Independent in U.S. congressional history I want to take this opportunity to share with you my views about what I consider to be the most serious crisis we face: the need to defeat the effort of the wealthiest people in our country to convert our American democracy into an oligarchic form of government where virtually all economic and political power rests in the hands of a small number of enormously rich families.
The history of this country has been the drive towards a more and more inclusive democracy — a democracy that would fulfill Abraham Lincoln’s beautiful phraseology at Gettysburg in which he described America as a nation “of the people by the people for the people.”
We all know American democracy has not always lived up to this ideal. When this country was founded, only white male property owners over age 21 could vote. But people fought to change that and we became a more inclusive democracy. After the Civil War we amended the Constitution to allow non-white men to vote. We became a more inclusive democracy. In 1920, after years of struggle and against enormous opposition, we finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote. We became a more inclusive democracy.
In 1965, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others, the great civil rights movement finally succeeded in outlawing racism at the ballot box and L.B.J. signed the Voting Rights Act. African Americans could not be denied the right to vote. We became a more inclusive democracy. One year after that, the Supreme Court ruled that the poll tax was unconstitutional, that people could not be denied the right to vote because they were low-income. We became a more inclusive democracy. In 1971, young people throughout the country said; “we are being drafted to go to Vietnam and get killed, but we don’t even have the right to vote.” The voting age was lowered to 18. We became a more inclusive democracy.
Today, after centuries of seeing this country move toward a more democratic and inclusive society, we are now witnessing the most severe attack on our democratic foundations, both economically and politically, that has been seen in the modern history of our country. In terms of the distribution of wealth and income, in terms of concentration of economic ownership and in terms of political power, fewer and fewer Americans are determining the future of our country. This is a trend we must reverse. I recently appeared on MSNBC where I discussed this with Al Sharpton…
Economically, the United States today has, by far, the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth, and that inequality is worse today in America than at any time since the late 1920s. Today, the wealthiest 400 individuals own more wealth than the bottom half of America — 150 million people. Today, one family, the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame, with $89 billion, owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America. Today, the top one percent owns 40 percent of all wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns less than two percent. Incredibly, the bottom 40 percent of all Americans own just three-tenths of one percent of the wealth of the country.
In terms of income distribution, the top one percent earns more income than the bottom 50 percent. Between 1980 and 2005, 80 percent of all new income created in this country went to the top one percent. In 2010 alone, 93 percent of all new income went to the top one percent.
In terms of economic power and concentration of ownership, the six largest financial institutions in the country (JP MorganChase, Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs and Metlife) own assets equivalent to two-thirds of the GDP of this country — more than nine trillion dollars. These giant Wall Street institutions produce half the mortgages in this country and two-thirds of the credit cards. Three of the top four are larger today than they were when we bailed them out four years ago because they were “too big to fail.”
That is what is going on economically in this country. A handful of billionaires own a significant part of the wealth of America and have enormous control over our economy.
In my view the Citizens United Supreme Court decision was one of the worst and most anti-democratic decisions in the history of our country. What the Supreme Court did inCitizens United was to give enormous new political power to the wealthiest people in our country, in addition to all of the economic power they have. That decision allowed corporations and the super-rich, without disclosure, to spend as much money as they want to buy candidates and elections. In essence, the Supreme Court said to America’s billionaires: “You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we’re going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.” That is what Citizens United is all about.
Why should we be surprised that one family, worth $50 billion, is prepared to spend $400 million in this election to protect their interests? That’s a small investment for them and a good investment. But it is not only the Koch brothers or Sheldon Adelson. There are at least 23 billionaire families who have contributed $250,000 or more into the political process up to now. My guess is that number is really much greater because many of these contributions are made in secret.
From one end of this country to the other, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by the very wealthy to defeat candidates who represent the needs of working people. Not content with controlling the economy, they also want to dominate our political system as well.