LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Democracy is dead

One hundred years ago, 1916, during an election year, Louis Brandeis was nominated — and confirmed — to the Supreme Court, where he served with great distinction for many years. Seventeen years later, in 1933, he made a very astute observation in one of his opinions: “Through size, corporations, once merely an efficient tool employed by individuals in the conduct of private business, have become an institution — an institution which has brought such concentration of economic power that so-called private corporations are able to dominate the state … coincident with the growth of these corporations, there has been a marked concentration of individual wealth, and the resulting disparity of incomes is a major cause of the existing depression.”

Several years later, he put it more pungently in one of the most profound statements ever uttered: “We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Two years ago, almost 75 years later, two political scientists published an article which confirmed the truth of Brandeis’ warning. The study, by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, which analyzed policy decisions in the U.S. from 1981 to 2002, verified what many of us could already sense — that the political system in this country has, just as Justice Brandeis predicted, devolved into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield the power, and in which majority opinion has no real connection to political decisions; i.e., democracy in this country no longer exists.

The study found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no influence.” They concluded that the opinions of lower-income groups, and the interest groups that represent them, appear to have little or no independent impact on policy.

This unfortunate reality is as true in Delaware as it is elsewhere, as illustrated by the recent failure to pass a minimum-wage-increase proposal even through a House committee controlled by Democrats!

At a time when income inequality is even worse than in 1929, on the eve of the Great Depression, and is seriously damaging any prospect of real prosperity for future generations, when the federal minimum wage is at its lowest level in real dollars since 1968, when the present minimum wage of $8.25 [per hour] in Delaware doesn’t even come close to being a real living wage, our state government — which has Democratic majorities in both houses — can’t even pass a gradual increase to $10.25 — even though the first 50-cent installment wouldn’t start until June of next year, and even though $10.25 would not be a true living wage, either!

This all would have been quite predictable to anyone who carefully read the State News over the last few weeks. Groups like the Chamber of Commerce and well-paid lobbyists were actively weighing in and obviously having a great impact on the debate, while the thousands of hard-working citizens who desperately need a raise in order to make ends meet were hardly ever heard, and were easily ignored.

If you ever wonder why “trickle-down” economics (which gave us the Great Depression in 1929, almost gave us another one in 2008, and threatens to produce another one any day) is still so dominant — in both parties, the answer is simple. Just as Justice Brandeis foresaw, we don’t have a democracy anymore.

We are really a plutocracy.

Daniel Pritchett
Dover

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