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Henningsen: Oligarchy

Years ago, one of my colleagues was invited to address university scholars in Ecuador about U.S. cultural dominance of Latin America. She responded: “Stop worrying about that. Start worrying about how much the U.S. is becoming like Latin America – with a vast and growing underclass ruled by an uncaring oligarchy.” At the time I thought she was exaggerating, but I now believe she saw what many of us couldn’t recognize, let alone understand. Indeed, a 2014 Princeton University study argues that since the late 1970’s the U.S. has moved away from democracy and is now a kind of oligarchy whose ordinary citizens have little influence over national policies while wealthy and well-connected individuals and organizations have a very great deal. “The ability to shape outcomes,” one author said, “is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily – although not exclusively – business.”

Our current political mayhem suggests that Americans have finally figured that out. How else to explain the connection unlikely candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump forge with working class voters – who disagree violently on social issues, but unite in feeling victimized by todays Robber Barons. And how else to explain the suspicion of at least part of the public that Hillary Clinton may have, as the old song has it, sold her soul to the company store.

The Princeton researchers argue that our current situation didn’t just happen, but developed gradually over forty years. The historian in me would go further and suggest we have our perceptions precisely reversed. The strong middle class of the 1950’s and ‘60’s was not the norm, but the exception: a product of temporary conditions emerging from World War II; largely gone by the mid-70’s. The American norm has been one of significant income inequality, obscured by just enough upward economic mobility to convince the masses it was possible to rise – everyone could be an Andrew Carnegie. That wasn’t true then, and we’ve learned that it’s not true now.

But for many it’s a recent revelation – painful and confusing. Just how confusing is perhaps best expressed by a man who’s been flying the Confederate flag in his White River Junction front yard - right next to his Bernie Sanders sign.