Federal government has power to tackle oligarchy

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

In a Tartan article published last week entitled “Cut federal power, eliminate oligarchy,” staffwriter Kyle Henson editorialized that the only way to remove oligarchic influence in American politics today is to shrink the federal government where these oligarchs exert their undue influence.

Henson’s editorial was provoked by the release of a recent report — authored by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page of Princeton and Northwestern Universities, respectively — that claimed that “the majority does not rule, at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose.”

Henson asks us if we should actually be surprised by this finding. At the risk of sounding naive, I would like to say that I am indeed surprised. His rhetorical question is a bit too hard-bitten, and I must protest against the casual cynicism it implicitly conveys about our political system.

I do believe that our politics can be more inclusive and representative — than this report claims, and insofar as they fall short of this standard today, I reserve the right to be permanently surprised at their failure.

More substantially, however, Henson argues that if we wish to lessen the influence of economic elites and organized interests in our policymaking process, we must lessen the power of the federal government itself. The logic of his argument is quite simple: “The less power the government has, the less it can do for special interests, and the more democratic our society will be.” In fact, this logic is fatally simple.

The current size of the federal government is the result of a century’s worth of advocacy by the American people for robust federal intervention against special interests in our society. Progressive reformers, galvanized by the economic disparity and political corruption of the Gilded Age in the first two decades of the 20th century, called for a vigorous federal government to serve as a counterweight to the powerful special interests that then shaped public policy. The trustbusting and regulatory initiatives of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson illustrate the actual role of federal government in that era, and its ideal role ever since.

If Gilens and Page are correct, then the federal government today has relinquished its former vigor. Into the breach have swarmed special interests of every variety, who have captured the institutions — elected and regulatory — once intended to control their activities in the marketplace and the polis. Nothing else explains how a majority of the American people can be on one side of policy debates and consistently lose to elite minorities on the other side.

Henson argues that we shall not renew our democracy by restricting lobbying or regulating campaign finance. I beg to differ. If these policies are enacted, then we shall have taken two great strides toward renewing our democracy. Such policies can replenish the strength of our federal government, now long flagging, and give it a fair chance to combat the pernicious influence of special interests in our politics.

Henson claims that we can only renew our democracy by moving power downward, from the federal government to the states. I take special exception to this proposal. Historically, the federal government has been the only power in American society capable of checking the power of the special interests. If the federal government is deliberately stripped of this power, then nothing will stand between us and the special interests in our society. Oligarchy will finally supplant democracy in our republic.

Both Henson and I would like special interests to exert less influence in our policymaking process. But Henson, in calling for a weaker federal government, is actually making it vastly easier for special interests to exert a greater influence in shaping public policies. I ask him to pause and consider an intermediate step: Arm the federal government once again to combat special interests, so that the voices of the American people can once again be heard in the halls of power.