Opinion: The risk of plutocracy

By JEAN LEWANDOWSKI

Published: 07-21-2023 6:00 AM

Jean Lewandowski is a retired special needs teacher. She lives in Nashua.

Plutocracy: a form of government or rulership by the rich. This political system is dominated by wealthy people who influence the country’s political, economic, and social decisions. (wallstreetmojo.com).

Recently, Governor Sununu signed a bill expanding the school voucher program. Our state Constitution requires robust public education, and 86% of our students attend public schools. Vouchers siphon tax dollars to wealthy private schools, minus a 10% fee paid to a management firm.

There is no public oversight of private education, so we can’t know whether our money is devoted “to the preservation of free government,” as stipulated in Article 83, or something else entirely. How did we end up here?

The founders of the U.S. Constitution saw this kind of corruption coming. In their retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson corresponded about the risk of plutocracy (historynewsnetwork.org). Jefferson believed in government by the “aristoi,” the moral and intellectual elite that would leave everyone else free to pursue the American dream. He thought the popular vote, lack of inherited titles, and availability of land would prevent the rise of what he called the “tinsel-aristocracy.”

Adams replied that “No Romance could be more amusing….The vulgar rich have been the ruin of every aristocratical assembly and the foundation of every democracy that was ever on earth.”

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He meant those with any kind of privilege want to control political institutions. The most ruthless wrest control from the more benevolent, leading to corruption, exploitation, and social unrest.

History sides with Adams. The vulgar rich have always used what we now call culture wars to pit people against each other, weakening our collective power. The Civil War was the South’s last-ditch effort to preserve the white aristocracy. They exploited the concept of race to justify enslaving humans and used propaganda to stave off abolition by convincing Northern workers that emancipation would lead to unspeakable horrors, including the replacement of white workers. (“Snow-Storm in August” by Jefferson Morley) The myth of white superiority and fear of replacement remain potent political tools.

In the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution produced titans of banking and industry and their Gilded Age. While the “robber barons,” famously illustrated by Thomas Nast and others, exploited Black and immigrant laborers, they stoked white workers’ fears about being replaced. Fear and desperation create a docile workforce.

With corruptible politicians, they formed that era’s plutocracy and invented “laissez faire” economics, promising that if given tax breaks and freedom from pesky regulations, they would be engines of job creation and widespread prosperity. In reality, their excesses and predations produced the stock market crash of 1929 and the decade-long Great Depression.

While democracy requires an educated populace, plutocracy requires a pliant workforce, so it finds reasons to build barriers; racial segregation and sexism in college admissions protected the white patriarchy for a long time.

In 1970, when I was a senior at UCLA, attacks on inclusive education gave rise to today’s plutocracy. There was widespread unrest over civil rights and the Vietnam War, and California’s Governor Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. Needing a political boost, he proclaimed that public colleges had become hotbeds of perversion and Communism (that era’s “wokeism”) and shut them down.

Reagan’s education advisor revealed the real reason, though: “We are in danger of producing an educated proletariat….That’s dynamite.” (theintercept.com)

He was right. the GI Bill made white Baby Boomers the first generation of American working class children to have access to well-funded K-12 and post-secondary education. For a few hundred dollars a year, we could learn skilled trades or get a college degree. We became self-sufficient critical thinkers, making us harder to exploit or scam. In his second term, Reagan defunded public education, conveniently creating a robust college loan industry while shrinking access to post-secondary education.

Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign repackaged the fairy tale of “laissez faire economics” as Reaganomics. Their slogan was, “Government doesn’t solve problems, government is the problem,” as if Lincoln’s government of, by, and for the people had indeed perished from the earth.

Reagan and his Congress privatized everything from health care to warfare; cut education funding; deregulated big business; and cut taxes on unearned income, promising their windfalls would trickle down to the rest of us. All we’ve gotten is oppressive and destabilizing income inequality. (investopedia.com)

Plutocrats again corrupt governing bodies around the country, tending to their donors’ profit margins instead of the people’s business. The Trump administration, a living embodiment of Thomas Nast’s bloated robber barons, failed to seal the deal for plutocracy, in spite of its worst efforts, but it did create a Supreme Court majority in its image. It openly accepts lavish gifts, undermining public trust. Just this year, it supported predatory lenders over lower-income students and legacy admissions over affirmative action in colleges and egregiously infringed on women’s rights.

The GOP might collapse of its own corruption, as the Democratic Party did in the Great Depression and again in the 1960s as it fought violently to preserve Jim Crow laws. The 2022 mid-term elections proved we don’t need to wait for devastating economic collapse or civil war to reclaim government for democracy, though. We can continue to organize, mobilize, and elect leaders who represent us.

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