USA: The Finest Oligarchy Money Can Buy?

Of the human characteristics, hunger and ambition have a bad rap, considering that we might all still be living in caves without them. However much we aspire to reduce their importance, it is the civilised comfort created by them that gives us the option to be so judgemental about their effect on human behaviour. Yet most areas of human endeavour continue to be driven by such motivation, at least in part.

However noble the posture of those involved, politics is actually no exception. While few of those involved in a democracy may confess it, the power they seek is ultimately bound up with success—and success brings money. There are very many unsuccessful politicians  to whom this does not apply, plus a few successful ones, like Ghandi. But most of those with national profile are not poor and have no intention of moving that way.

It would be unreasonable, possibly even insane to disconnect reward from success in politics. After all, most other jobs imply promotions, raises and financial incentives. But at what point does the money become tainted with real selfishness and greed? Though it has died down over the past few years, MP salaries and expenses have caused debate more than once. And a range of posts from consultancy to directorships fall to those who move beyond simple elected positions.

But fiscal reward for European politicians pales when compared to the USA. Proud of a commitment to freedom, equality and the right for each to achieve all they can, this has become the leitmotif of politics as much as of business. There may be poor US politicians but they are hard to find. Indeed, it has become such that riches are an essential ingredient of becoming a politician in the first place.

This applies to their Presidential campaigns more than any other. Consider the top five candidates for the election due next year. Their current polling status bears a strong resemblance to the funds they have available:

  1. Donald Trump ($4.5 bn) Richest candidate by a long shot is the GOP front-runner.
  2. Carly Fiorina ($58 m) Former HP CEO who has over 1,000 investments.
  3. Hillary Clinton ($45 m) The Clinton power couple trousered $28 m last year.
  4. Lincoln Chafee ($32 m) Inherited a fortune from Rhode Island royalty.
  5. Ben Carson ($26 m) Retired neurosurgeon who sat on boards for Costco and Kellogg.
  6. Jeb Bush ($22 m) Fortune has grown sixteenfold since being Governor of Florida.

Were it simply a matter of a high financial threshold preventing a broad cross-section of Americans having a credible chance at election to Congress, let alone the Presidency, this would betray egalitarian principles on which the country was founded. But election and office is only the beginning. Forbes reports:

“Several candidates have leveraged their political capital–contacts while in office, influence, power–into successful careers in the private sector (particularly private equity and consulting), or turned to media, raking in big bucks from book deals, radio shows, TV appearances, and even films. At the end of the day, being a successful politician is a lucrative business, as either Clinton can attest.”

Those who have achieved high office have uniformly prospered from that achievement. It makes little difference whether they were Democrat or Republican. Even more modest and self-effacing rarities like Jimmy Carter did well. This is the ‘league table’ of ex-presidents’ accumulated wealth over the last half-century:

  • Lyndon Johnston ($96 m) President 1963–1969
  • Bill Clinton ($55 m) President 1993–2001
  • George H. Bush ($23 m) President 1989–1993
  • George ‘Dubya’ Bush ($20 m) President 2001–2009
  • Richard Nixon ($13 m) President 1969–1974
  • Ronald Reagan ($10 m) President 1981–1989
  • Gerald Ford ($7 m) President 1974–1977
  • Jimmy Carter ($7 m) President 1977-1981

There is nothing wrong with prospering from rewards earned by representing people well. But, is it egalitarian or democratic if the threshold for high office is insurmountable for all but the very rich. Just where is the distinction between such a self-selecting oligarchy and the medieval kings the US Constitution so proudly claims to have renounced?

About davidsberry

Local councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Stood for the Scottish Parliament 2011; lost by 151 votes.
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