“Oligarchy” means government of and by a few at the top, who exercise power for their own benefit. It comes from the Greek word oligarkhes, meaning “few to rule or command.”
Even a system that calls itself a democracy can become an oligarchy if power becomes concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy people – a corporate and financial elite.
Their power and wealth increase over time as they make laws that favor themselves, manipulate financial markets to their advantage, and create or exploit economic monopolies that put even more wealth into their pockets.
Modern-day Russia is an oligarchy, where a handful of billionaires who control most major industries dominate politics and the economy.
What about the United States?
According to a study published in 2014 by Princeton Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern Professor Benjamin Page, although Americans enjoy many features of democratic governance, such as regular elections, and freedom of speech and association, American policy making has become dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans.
The typical American has no influence at all.
This is largely due to the increasing concentration of wealth. In a 2019 research paper, Berkeley economics professor Gabriel Zucman determined that the richest 1 percent of Americans now own 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. That’s up from 25 to 30 percent of the nation’s wealth in the 1980s.
The only country Zucman found with similarly high levels of wealth concentration is … Russia.
America has had an oligarchy before – in the first Gilded Age, which ran from the 1880s until the early 20th century.
Teddy Roosevelt called that oligarchy the “malefactors of great wealth,” and fought them by breaking up large concentrations of economic power–the trusts–and instituting a progressive federal income tax.
His fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, further reduced their power by strictly regulating Wall Street, and encouraging the growth of labor unions. The oligarchy fought back but Roosevelt wouldn’t yield.
“Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob,” he thundered in 1936. “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.”
But the American oligarchy has returned. We are now in a second Gilded Age. As the great jurist Louis Brandeis once said, “We can have democracy in this country or we can have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”
We must, once again, make the correct choice and reduce the economic and political power of the American oligarchy.
In 2017, we saw the birth of a movement of hundreds of thousands of local activists who started organizing with their neighbors and participating in our democracy to resist the cruel and hate-filled Trump agenda. But the power of an activated constituency shouldn’t stop at our federal representatives in Washington. We have elected officials making decisions on our behalf at all levels of government — from our local school board to our city council and state legislature. The strategy outlined in the original Indivisible Guide describes, in general terms, how to engage in the democratic process; those tactics can be applied to anyone that we elect to represent our interests in government. For the last two years, we’ve followed the stories of dozens of Indivisible groups across the country that have realized that their constituent power has more leverage locally, and have already begun taking their activism to the state level to create change in their communities.
The GOP has been using a state-centered strategy to take and hold power for almost half a century. Conservative organizations like ALEC have been drafting dangerous model legislation and ushering it through statehouses across the country for over 40 years. Then a decade ago, GOP strategists laid out a plan called REDMAP (Redistricting Majority Project) to take back power through state legislatures after the 2010 Census — and it worked, dramatically. In 2010, there were 9 Republican and 16 Democratic “trifectas” (where a single party controls the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature). In 2018, Republicans fully control 26 state governments, while Democrats control 8.
By controlling state governments, conservatives have been able to suppress voting rights, control redistricting, and maintain power in Congress via gerrymandering. By drawing districts in their favor, the GOP has been able to consistently win and hold a disproportionate share of Congressional seats relative to the number of votes that they win. For example, the GOP retained the majority in the House of Representatives in 2014 despite receiving 1.4 million fewer votes. While we don’t believe in the GOP attempt to fundamentally undermine democracy, there are lessons we can learn from the Republicans’ strategy of focusing on states. Progressives have largely ignored state legislatures to our detriment. Now is our chance to take them back.
This document is for Indivisible groups and members who are interested in using their constituent power to influence their state’s policy agenda. We hope to demystify how states can resist the Trump administration and how to develop strategies and tactics for impactful advocacy.
Indivisible States: Empowering States to Resist the Trump Agenda by Indivisible Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
UNCHECKED CORPORATE POWER
One year ago, in Epic Systems v. Lewis, the Supreme Court ruled that employers can use forced arbitration clauses that strip workers of their right to join together in court to fight wage theft, discrimination, or harassment. Unchecked Corporate Power, a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) and the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) forecasts that by 2024, more than 80 percent of private-sector, nonunion workers will be covered by forced arbitration clauses. This trend makes it critical that public enforcement agencies have the resources that they need to ensure that employers respect important worker protections such as minimum wages, earned sick and family leave, fair workweek standards, and protections against discrimination and harassment. Yet our public agencies are crippled by shrinking budgets and struggle to address persistent workplace violations.
The report calls on Congress to override Epic Systems and protect the fundamental rights of working people by passing the Restoring Justice for Workers Act and the Forced Arbitration Repeal Act. And the report urges states to enact “whistleblower enforcement” laws—such as those introduced in Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington—to empower workers to sue law-breaking employers on behalf of the state and all injured workers, including those covered by arbitration clauses. California’s Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) is a successful model. In the most recent fiscal year, California’s labor agency received over $34 million in PAGA revenue, which has funded a wide variety of enforcement programs, including cracking down on companies that fraudulent misclassify their employees as independent contractors to avoid minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and other basic obligations to workers.