Thursday, September 2, 2010

Democracy part 1: Are We Living in a Plutocracy?

Plutocracy: (n.) Government by the wealthy. <usage> a country or society governed in this way; an elite or ruling class of people whose power derives from their wealth.

In the Western world we take great pride in our democratic ways. Democracy is one the core elements of our identity. It's the central thread in the narrative we teach to school children, "good citizens believe in democracy."

There's good reason for this. One benefit of democracy is that it gives us choices in life. Our leaders aren't chosen by something as arbitrary as being born into a royal family; we get to choose our leaders based on who is the best person for the least in theory.

But there's a problem with this narrative - that dirty little five letter word - money. Take my homeland for example - the good'ol USofA, a shining pennacle of democratic ideals. Here's a hypothetical situation from American politics:
Let's say you're from Arizona - you grew up swimming in the Colorado river, camping in the Grand Canyon, exploring every nook and cranny of your state. You went to the University of Arizona and while there you became interested in public policy and after college you embarked on a career in public service. And let's say that after 20 years of serving in every capacity imaginable, working with people from Yuma to Flagstaff, and learning the needs of your state from top to bottom you decide to run for John McCain's seat in the senate. Well too bad - you can't have it. It doesn't matter how good your ideas are or how great a leader you can be - you can't have it. Why? Because it's McCain's, and he'll bury you under a ton of cash if you even think about taking it. Think I'm exagerrating? Recently when McCain got wind that another Republican was going to challenge him for his seat he started running smear adds before the guy even entered the race. He went on to spend twenty million dollars...just on the primary. They haven't even had the general election yet! Needless to say, McCain will probably die in his senate seat (or should we say throne?).

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that McCain is a bad senator, or that his challenger (or my hypothetical challenger) would have been better. My point is that when millions of dollars are being spent in elections, the question of who's the best candidate is of secondary importance (at best). The more likely determinate of a candidate's success is the amount of money they can spend. Which raises an interesting question - where does all this money come from in the first place?

I'll talk a little more about that in the next post...

Part 2

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