Conquest of the Oligarchs

by Andrew Johnson
The Left loses its marbles as the post-McCutcheon Gilded Age begins.

Just when it seemed Senator Harry Reid (D., Nev.) might run out of material about the Koch brothers for his rants, along came McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that lifted some limits on campaign contributions — and gave Democrats even more ammunition to inveigh against the American “oligarchy.”

From left-wing commentators to members of Congress to Democratic candidates, here are some of the best outbursts:

1. Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to warn that “we have got to be very, very careful that we do not allow this great country where people fought and died to protect American democracy become a plutocracy or oligarchy.”

Sanders said the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, and others would spend billions “to create an America shaped by their right-wing extremist views.”

2. Representative Keith Ellison (D., Minn.) painted a similar picture when he grabbed a megaphone outside the Capitol shortly after the Court’s ruling.

“We are lurching ever closer, particularly with this monstrosity of a decision today, towards being a plutocratic oligarchy, a nation of billionaires who fund willing pawns who will do their bidding, in this capitol of ours right across the street,” Ellison told a crowd. He urged the people to help overturn the ruling, comparing McCutcheon to Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson.​

3. The Supreme Court’s decision is not just a form of oligarchy, but tantamount to slavery, according to South Dakota Democratic candidate Rick Weiland. Just as the 1857 Dred Scott ruling effectively justified slavery, the McCutcheon case allows wealthy donors to “enslave our democracy,” he claimed.

4. Calling the high court’s ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of the Court,” Reid declared: “Today’s ruling further drowns the voices of working Americans.”

5. “It would be like the 1890s,” Democratic New York senator Chuck Schumer warned, accusing Chief Justice John Roberts of rolling back the clock with the McCutcheon decision. “We’d go back to the days of the robber barons.”

6. Former secretary of labor Robert Reich penned a UC, Berkeley blog post in which he called the ruling “the most brazen invitation to oligarchy in Supreme Court history.” He called for a series of constitutional amendments that would bar money as free speech, state that “corporations are not people,” and set limits to campaign contributions. “You with me?” he pleads. (The post has so far garnered only 19 comments, several of them attacking Reich’s argument.)

7. Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance reform group, blasted the McCutcheon decision, as well as Citizens United, for having “empowered a new class of American political oligarchs.”

8. The dangers of the Koch brothers and other wealthy donors are at the top of mind of Robert Weissman, president of advocacy group Public Citizen. “This is not democracy,” Weissman decried. “This is plutocracy.”

9. Weeks before the McCutcheon ruling, the New York Times was already tossing around “oligarch” when describing the Kochs. Praising Reid for tackling the issue, the Gray Lady’s editorial board said the majority leader had “gone to the heart of the matter.” For the philanthropic businessmen, “the fundamental purpose of the Kochs’ spending is to rig the economic system for their benefit and for that of other oligarchs,” read the op-ed.

10. Bob Franken, a columnist and cousin of Minnesota Democratic senator Al Franken (who has also objected to the ruling), cautioned that “we are becoming more of an oligarchy” after the Court’s decision on MSNBC on Thursday. He said the new standard may dissuade potential candidates from running in the future.

What the heck is an oligarch anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines an oligarch as “one of a few holding power in a state,” while Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary says oligarchy is “a form of government which places the supreme power in a small group; an aristocracy.” Random House Dictionary calls oligarchy “a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.”

According to Google Ngram, the rate of appearances of the term “oligarch” reached its lowest point since the 1850s in 1996, but it’s been shooting up since then, probably on the strength of many stories about “Russian oligarchs.” By 2008, the rate of “oligarch” mentions had nearly tripled from the rate during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.