The American oligarchy is real. 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, American policymaking 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 and economic power. In a recent research paper, one of my colleagues at Berkeley, Gabriel Zucman, found that the richest 1 percent of Americans now owns 40 percent of the nation's wealth. That's up from 25 to 30 percent in the 1980s.
The only advanced country Zucman found with similarly high levels of wealth concentration is Russia, whose oligarchy is notorious.
America has had an oligarchy once before in the first Gilded Age, which ran from the 1880s until the first decades of the twentieth century.
Teddy Roosevelt called those oligarchs the "malefactors of great wealth," and fought them by breaking up their monopolies and instituting a progressive federal income tax.
His fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, reduced their power further by strictly regulating Wall Street and encouraging the growth of labor unions.
"Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob," F.D.R. 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."
By the end of World War II, the American oligarchy had dissipated its wealth lost during the Great Depression, its power countervailed by government and unions.
But in recent years, the American oligarchy has returned.
Bernie Sanders has done more than any other politician in modern America to sound the alarm, and mobilize the public to reclaim our democracy and economy. For that alone, we owe him our enduring gratitude.
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