PATTISON: Time To Choose — Democracy Or Oligarchy?

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Eliot Pattison Contributor
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Is our democracy truly in jeopardy? Our Founders would believe it so, not because of the sharp dissension between parties — they were well acquainted with political vituperation — nor because of our swollen government, though it has reached dimensions that would be unimaginable to them. 

Their thinking was more penetrating, aimed at the roots of issues. They would be quick to recognize that the cause behind both our overheated divisions and our bloated government has been the rise of what they called factions. In this election year we owe it to our forebears and our descendants to think and behave more like our Founding Fathers. We need to look past the flotsam of issues flung at us by social media and engage in more fundamental thinking. It is time to be repairing the cracks in the bedrock of our democracy

James Madison cautioned in Federalist Number 10 that factions, or powerful special interest groups, were the grave threat to democracy. Madison warned that, when left unrestricted, factions have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Sound familiar?

The Founders’ primary worry was regional factions like that behind Shays’ Rebellion, an important impetus for replacing the weak Articles of Confederation. Madison emphasized that under the new Constitution, most factions would be defeated because “popular sovereignty,” meaning the electorate, would prevent them from seizing power. In the “large” American republic, the widely dispersed voters of its many states would mitigate factions. Small republics, with a less vigorous voting base, faced a greater danger of special interests becoming powerful “spectacles of unbalance and contention.”

But no one was watching as our large republic shrank. Once our democracy was protected by the tension among 50 states, each with its unique political voice. The fiercely individualistic American voter, protective of personal freedom and sober in political decisionmaking, was the anchor of our democracy. Those grassroots voters, the wellspring of popular sovereignty, kept our democracy robust. 

Today we no longer have a multitude of voices homegrown across 50 states. When measured by the voices we now hear, our democracy has grown disturbingly small. Powerful factions aggressively impose their views across state lines, drowning out the individual voter and pumping steroids into the administrative state. No better proof of their power exists than their alarming role in election funding. In our republic’s early days there was little campaign spending apart from the occasional coin dropped for a round of rum punch. Fast forward to the 2020 presidential contest, when spending totaled nearly $14 billion, more than the GDP of a quarter of the planet’s nations. 

The funding for federal candidates in many states has shifted dramatically to out-of-state sources. The nonpartisan Open Secrets data bureau reports that since 2014 more than half the money donated to Senate candidates has come from out of state. Democratic House candidates often receive 70 percent of their funds from outside their district. In the 2022 cycle the median percentage of out-of-state funding for Senate incumbents was 66 percent, with at least seven candidates receiving more than 80 percent. Local elections thus often are not local at all. Even Franklin Roosevelt, the big government zealot, worried about such consolidations of power, warning that our democracy would be threatened if we “tolerated the growth of private power where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself.”

The distinctly American phenomenon of grassroots dialogue once found in centers of community life has largely disappeared. The vibrant process that led to geographically diverse opinions and meaningful political debate has been replaced by the mindless dialogue of social media, shaped by invisible algorithms with a strongly leftist bias. Hundreds of millions in shadowy outside money empower massive mail-in voting, unverified ballots, and weeks-long election “days.” The tiny cadre of elites who control those algorithms are also the biggest sources of these dark funds. Those elites haven’t poured hundreds of millions into ballot drop boxes, ballot harvesting and saturation advertising because they want to advance American democracy. Discovering gray spaces in our election laws, they created and weaponized the private administration of voting. In 2020 and 2022 they proved they have the power to swing close elections.

The most powerful of these elites live in Silicon Valley, which hosts the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of the planet, harvested from our phones, internet searches, and social media obsessions. Their money distorts elections, meaning they hijack the popular sovereignty that has been the traditional lifeblood of our nation. They don’t simply mean to dominate the election process, they seek to erode it, and thereby undermine the country’s identity, to serve their post-modern globalist visions. They aim to reverse the dynamic of political power so that it flows from the top down, not upward from the grassroots. They smugly speak of how our government structure is obsolete and encourage expert officials not to feel constrained by it. They routinely defend China, not the U.S., in foreign policy and human rights dialogues. It’s time to stop pretending that these are geniuses who represent the best of America. Their sin isn’t that they accumulated wealth, it is thinking that it entitles them to manipulate our democracy. They aren’t wise, they aren’t profound pundits, and they aren’t even particularly well-informed. They are simply rich, to a degree never before experienced in human history. 

As the Supreme Court jurist Louis Brandeis warned us, “we can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth accumulated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Oligarchy has been used as a metaphor in political commentary for years, but today it is emerging as an alarming fact of our political life. It is time to focus on the chaotic struggle embroiling the nation. At its core, this fight pits our democracy against a cadre of oligarchs who mock the American experiment. Pushing back on their repressive initiatives will be a bitter fight on many fronts, complicated by misleading social media and advertising tsunamis, which we need to understand as the fog of war. 

If we are to win, we need to recognize and call out the source of the tentacles reaching through that fog. Democracy is never done. It is an ongoing process, often a struggle. It is time to push back against the oligarchs and put our future back in the hands of the American voter.

Eliot Pattison’s nineteen novels include the acclaimed 18th century Bone Rattler seriesthe plots of which are driven bthe identity crises of exiled criminals, religious refugees, Scottish Jacobites, Native Americans and slaves in the years leading up to the Revolution. The seventh installment of the series, Freedom’s Ghost, will be released in October 2023.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.