Politics is a Game; You and I are Minor Players


Paul Krugman: “Politics determine who has the power, not who has the truth.”

Will Rogers: “A fool and his money are soon elected”

Politics is a game. That has probably been the case throughout history, but it is more true now than ever before. It seems that at every level of government, even in “democratic” societies, attaining power is all that matters.  The benefit of the citizens is secondary or tertiary, and we the voters seem to condone this attitude even though government often benefits a small group in society to the detriment of the larger group.

We expect this in autocratic societies such as North Korea or Russia, but we want to believe that in free societies with open elections those whom we choose will actually, you know, represent us.

Evidence is to the contrary. Government is a seemingly endless series of deals that in the end favor those holding power. Most of my professional life I rejected this notion, trying to believe that the democratic experiment was working. It isn’t. In a previous post I discussed how legislation rarely favors regular citizens, and that includes the recent healthcare proposals that  worked their way  through Congress.  The truth is that citizens have very little power and society is controlled by a fairly small group of people.

Back in 1956 sociologist C. Wright Mills concluded that there is a “power elite” controlling all major American institutions such as banking, major industry, and political offices. Mills didn’t believe there was a grand conspiracy to attain and control power by the elites, but rather that their wealth and power simply gave them control. He argued that the group was relatively small and that earning our way into that group is determined by the schools we attend, the areas in which we live, the churches we attend, and social clubs to which we belong.

Pretty depressing stuff for those of us not belonging to the power elite.

And Mills is not alone in reaching these conclusions. In 1913 political scientist Charles Beard concluded that even the U.S. Constitution was constructed by elites belonging to the same groups. He argued that the Founders wrote the Constitution out of a desire to protect their own financial interests. If you are familiar with the Constitution’s provisions it is fairly easy to agree with him. In later works Beard concluded that almost all governmental decisions are intended to financially favor the elites.

Countless other observers have reached the same conclusion but, like I said, I tried to disagree.

I was naïve.

So, the argument is that the elite class is relatively small, it is at least partially determined by the schools one attends (and other factors), and wealth and political influence define the group.

Here are some things to consider:

  • As always, there are nine member of the U.S. Supreme Court. Guess where they attended law school? Four went to Harvard, three to Yale, two to Columbia. Other law schools equally prepare future judges but only judges from these schools (plus Stanford, Northwestern, etc.) are ever appointed.
  • The median net worth of members of Congress is more than $1,000,000, and that is 18 times the average net worth of Americans. Since 2007 Americans’ net worth fell 43% while that of members of Congress increased by 28%. Representative Darrel Issa from California is worth about $450 million.
  • Every president since Ronald Reagan attended Harvard or Yale (Reagan attended Eureka College in California). And no, attending an Ivy League school does not necessarily mean entrance was earned or deserved or that one graduated as an enlightened citizen. These are obviously great schools but there are lots of great American schools.
  • In the 2016 election cycle one organization (Fahr LLC) donated more than $90 million to Democratic candidates and causes, Renaissance Technologies donated almost $56 million (half to Democrats and half to Republicans), Las Vegas Sands donated more than $44 million to Republicans, and fifty companies donated at least $8 million to candidates. Can Americans in the lower income brackets compete with that type of influence?
  • The “Trumpcare” healthcare bill passed the House of Representatives this year in spite of the fact that only 17% of Americans favored and 56% opposed it. According to the non partisan Congressional Budget Office the bill would have cost 23 million Americans their healthcare coverage. The bill would have allowed insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and it would allow states to permit insurers to deny coverage for specific conditions such as cancer. The bill also cut $880 billion from Medicaid over ten years thus significantly reducing coverage for the poor and elderly. The bill favored the elites and was opposed by almost everyone else.
  • I have mixed feelings about labor unions, but they have historically been a major player in the fight for common workers. Many of them fought against segregation, fought for Social Security, helped get minimum wage and maximum work day policies implemented, and promoted the creation of OSHA, a government agency working to ensure safe working conditions. I do know all of the labor movement’s warts and failings, but they have absolutely improved conditions for workers. Today more than half the states have implemented “right to work” laws that purposefully weaken unions and favor company owners (elites).
  • And then there is the “revolving door”. If I had a magic wand this is one of the three or four things I would change. Essentially what happens is that certain well-placed individuals alternately hold positions in government and powerful corporations that benefit from government’s policies. For example, Dina Powell is President Trump’s Deputy National Security Adviser.  Prior to that appointment Ms. Powell worked for Goldman-Sachs, a multi-national corporation, for fifteen years. And, by the way, she is only one of five Goldman-Sachs appointees in the current administration. Congressional staffers also take advantage of the revolving door. So, for example, to date about 190 individuals have served for a time on the Senate Finance Committee Staff then taken a job lobbying for companies benefitting from that committee’s work. These folks are part of Mills’ “Power Elite”.

Political Scientist Thomas Dye and his students have been studying American leadership for more than 45 years. They are well-informed and their research is very thorough. They conclude that a small number of “top positions” in America “run programs and activities of major political, economic, legal, educational, cultural, scientific, and civic institutions.” They found that about half of industry, transportation, and banking positions are held by this small group. The group controls about 2/3 of insurance assets. They also found that “less than 250 people hold the most influential posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government, while approximately 200 men and women run the three major television networks and most of the national newspaper chains”.

OK. Sorry. That’s a lot of information. The bottom line? A relatively small group of citizens controls a lion’s share of the power. These folks make all the major political, economic, and social decisions.

Even former Trump adviser Steve Bannon (who attended Harvard and worked for Goldman-Sachs) concluded that “elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans”.

Is this cynical view of society accurate? I’ll let you reach your own conclusions.  All I know is that, if accurate, it is dangerous. It assumes that some people are more intelligent and are uniquely qualified to make major decisions and that those outside the elite are incapable of contributing very much. That is both dangerous and just plain dumb. The most unique and original ideas I’ve heard in my 63 years came from folks who were certainly not part of the “elite” class, and a cursory glance at the ideas currently generated by those in power makes it clear that those who happen to be in the elite class are often clueless.