Skip to main content

2020 is about oligarchy vs. democracy

Robert Reich, professor of public policy | October 29, 2019
biden in a ballcap at a baseball game

Berkeley professor Robert Reich writes that former vice president Joe Biden, right, may be struggling in the Democratic primary because “it’s hard for many Americans to get very excited about returning to the widening inequalities and growing corruption of the decades before Trump.” (Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In the conventional view of American politics, Joe Biden is a moderate, while Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are on the left and Donald Trump is on the right.

This conventional view is rubbish. The most powerful force in American politics today is anti-establishment fury at a rigged system. There are no longer “moderates.” There’s no longer a “center.” Today’s great divide is not between left and right. It’s between democracy and oligarchy.

Four decades ago, when America had a large and growing middle class, the left wanted stronger social safety nets and more public investment in schools, roads and research. The right sought greater reliance on the free market.

In those days, a general election was like a competition between two hot-dog vendors on a long boardwalk extending from the left to the right. Each had to move to the middle to maximize sales. If one strayed too far left or right, the other would move beside him and take all sales from the rest of the boardwalk.

This type of American politics is now obsolete. As wealth and power have moved to the top and the middle class has shrunk, more Americans have joined the ranks of the working class and poor. Most Americans – regardless of whether they were once on the left or right — have become politically disempowered and economically insecure. Nowadays it’s the boardwalk versus private jets on their way to the Hamptons.

As Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s chief of staff and former mayor of Chicago, told the New York Times last July, “This is really the crackup. Usually fights are Democrats versus Republicans, one end of Pennsylvania versus the other, or the left versus the right. Today’s squabbles are internal between the establishment versus the people that are storming the barricades.”

In 2016, Trump harnessed many of these frustrations, as did Bernie Sanders. If anything, the frustrations today are larger than they were then. Corporate profits are higher, as is CEO pay. Markets are more concentrated. The three richest Americans now have more wealth than the bottom half of the population put together. Yet most peoples’ pay has gone nowhere and they have even less job security.

Meanwhile, Washington has become even swampier. Big corporations, Wall Street, and billionaires have entrenched their power. Trump has given them all the tax cuts, regulatory rollbacks, and subsidies they’ve wanted.

Why doesn’t the rest of America rise up in protest against Trump’s virulent attacks on American democracy? Because American democracy was dysfunctional even before Trump ran for president. The moneyed interests had already taken over much of it. It’s hard for many Americans to get very excited about returning to the widening inequalities and growing corruption of the decades before Trump. Which partly explains why Biden is foundering.

At the same time, Trump and his propagandists at Fox News have channeled working-class rage at the establishment into fears of imaginary threats such as immigrants, socialists, and a “deep state.”

But large majority of Americans – right and left, Republican as well as Democrat — could get excited about moving toward a real democracy and an economy that worked for the many. This is why the oligarchy is so worried about Elizabeth Warren’s rise to frontrunner status in some polls.

Politico reports that Democratic-leaning executives on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley and across the corporate world are watching her with an increasing panic. “Ninety-seven percent of the people I know in my world are really, really fearful of her,” billionaire Michael Novogratz told Bloomberg.

These Democratic oligarchs hope Biden, or perhaps Pete Buttigieg or Sen. Amy Klobuchar, can still take Warren out. In just the third quarter, Buttigieg raised around $25,000 from executives at finance firms including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan and hedge fund giants like Bridgewater, Renaissance Technologies and Elliott Management. And another $150,000 from donors who described their occupation as “investor.”

If Biden implodes and neither Buttigieg nor Klobuchar takes the lead away from Warren, Wall Street and corporate Democrats hope former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will ride into the Democratic primary at the last minute.

It won’t work. The stark reality is that Democrats cannot defeat Trump’s authoritarian populism with an establishment candidate who fronts for the oligarchy. The only way Democrats win is with an agenda of fundamental systemic reform, such as provided by Warren and also by Sanders.

Unless Democrats stand squarely on the side of democracy against oligarchy, they risk that on Election Day too many Americans will either stand with Trump or stay home.

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. This article was first published by Newsweek.

Comments to “2020 is about oligarchy vs. democracy

  1. No matter what face you see on the outside, they are all the same on the inside. There is little definition between the 2 parties. Like the Magic Wizard they try and make you think there is – saying ANYTHING to get you to believe it. No one better than the other as they are all the Same ol’ Same ol’ ..

  2. Hard to believe someone wrote this article thinking that the Democrats (and especially Warren) are any less oligarchs than anyone on the right wing. Trump is a symptom of dysfunction.

    Republicans are dog****, no argument there. The idea that a rich white career politician like Warren has anything to offer is more of the same you pointed out no one wants.

  3. Professor Reich, I follow your reasoning and sadly recognize that our country’s direction has turned away from democracy and toward oligarchy. (I also enjoyed your more optimistic Twitter warning to Moscow Mitch following Tuesday’s elections.) My presidential campaign button reads, “Any Functioning Adult 2020,” and that goes for the Senate leader as well!

  4. My son has been on a bi-weekly shot that allowed him to go from homeschooled to full-time Berkeley student because of the incredible improvement it had on his health. During midterms, he was three days late for the shot, and he ended up in the hospital. His treatment costs about $3,000 a month, and for the last three years, it has stabilized him and allowed him to excel at his education. I just learned that the administrators at his “Cadillac Insurance Plan” decided he doesn’t really need the shot any more. My stress level went through the roof, and by the time I found out, he had already been denied on appeal.

    Now, I ask you, why would I vote for any candidate who lets an insurance company decide that my son’s specialists are wrong, and their stockholders don’t have to pay for his medication because it hurts their bottom line. My son would be too sick to finish the semester, and he would drop out without this shot. I’m not sure how long he would survive his frequent bouts of anaphylaxis and extremely low heart rate.

    Thankfully, I’ve been told that the manufacturer accepted him in a free-shot program because so many patients whose lives depend on this treatment have been rejected by insurance lately. I will never support any candidate who lets this happen to people like my son. Never. You may love your insurance, but just wait until you need it, and you’ll find out very quickly that their stockholders don’t love you back.

    We need universal healthcare for all. That’s why I support Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

  5. Dr Reich lives in the “progressive” echo chamber known as California. Most of America is moderately libertarian, desiring relatively free markets, low taxes, restrained government intrusion in their private lives, and non-interventionist foreign policy. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we haven’t had a major political candidate with such a platform in at least half a century. 2020 is shaping up to be the winner of the who-can-claim-to-spend-more-of-other-people’s-money-government-elites-know-best clown car and the clown-in-chief.

  6. Robert, one other thought I am most certain you must realize, is the fact that democratic politicians are just as irresponsible for getting Trump elected as the republicans were responsible for getting him elected.

    The following HuffPost article describes one of the worst failures, of an out of control number of failures by politicians in Washington, to take responsibility for protecting our civilization from global warming:
    “Democrats’ Baffling Blind Spot On Cars”
    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-democrats-baffling-blind-spot-on-carbon-emissions_n_5da4db19e4b0cad669a9b705

    Trump would never have become president if the democratic candidates had really paid attention to the needs of their constituency, as this article highlights, since their cultural failure is that they are just as controlled by The Power of Money as republicans, and today they are producing their worst failure, to focus on the future quality of life for our newest and all future generations.

    It is a fact of life that we have failed to evolve because of the Power of Money, and the worst case consequence is that time to adapt to global warming is running out before the planet becomes uninhabitable in this century, as a 2006 cover story in CALIFORNIA Magazine points out:
    Can We Adapt in Time?
    https://alumni.berkeley.edu/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning/can-we-adapt-time

  7. It seems like Warren, Bloomberg and you must join together, with the greatest sense of urgency, to inform, educate and motivate We The People to kick the oligarchy out of Washington before they overthrow our Democracy completely.

    • Now that Bloomberg is running for President, what do you think of a democratic ticket with Bloomberg for POTUS and Warren for VP? Especially since Bloomberg has dedicated himself to controlling increasingly out of control global warming threats to our civilization that our current politicians have totally failed to deal with, with the required sense of urgency now that California is burning, while coasts around the world are flooding, water and resources are rapidly declining etc., making life unlivable to millions already.

      Can you join with your UC colleagues to inform, educate and motivate the public to fight for an acceptable quality of life to enable us to survive? Right now we are failing to protect our newest and all future generations and failing to meet the challenges of change, failures that history has taught us have destroyed previous civilizations.

      Please respond, you are the best faculty member at UC to make this happen because of your worldwide reputation for protecting our civilization.

  8. Professor you need to take a closer look at Warren’s history. She is relatively new to the progressive agenda having had a considerable corporate past. There is really only one candidate that represents the people and always has. This is not a difficult decision. Bernie is the only one that will save this country from the oligarchs. We need loud, respected voices like yours to help us make this a reality. Warren is not the answer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *