09 May 2011

Waxing Your Chest Hair and Political Oligarchy in the United States

Richard Rorty once published a longish interview with the title Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies. In it he advanced a typically smart, typicaly crotchety set of philosophical and political views. I remember at the time thinking that the stress on oligarchs was a bit simplistic. More recently, as part of my day job, I agreed to publish a paper by Ben Page and Jeff Winters in the journal I used to edit; it was entitled "Oligarchy in the United States?" (abstract here). In it, the authors suggest that the U.S. could best thought of as a mixed regime - characterized by being an oligarchy in addition to being democratic - and that oligarchy needn't entail conspiracy or concerted action on the part of elites and a bunch of other sensible things. The paper is smart and considerably less simplistic than Rorty's assertion, but the stress on oligarchs still seemed to me rhetorical overkill.

Watching the ways American politics has drifted in recent years has made me more sympathetic to the Rorty and Page/Winters views. This is an idea that seems to be in the air. People much smarter than I are entertaining it right out there in respectable society. For example, Paul Krugman here in The New York Times today and Joseph Stiglitz here in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Yes, right there in the same magazine as beefcake Rob Lowe and his waxed chest, we learn that "Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth." Just so.

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