The Buzz

Jon Stewart, Harry Reid and American Democracy

Jon Stewart’s recent on-air skewering of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s hypocritical attacks on the Koch brothers while simultaneously defending their fellow billionaire Sheldon Adelson is telling less in what it says about any of these individuals but in what it says about American society and American democracy.  Politicians and other establishment figures should be much more concerned than they appear to be.

The most politically significant section of Stewart’s five-minute segment comes in the last thirty seconds, during a colloquy with The Daily Show’s pseudo-reporter Jason Jones.  After Jones satirically draws a distinction between “polluted piles of influence greenbacks” and “majestic towers of liberty bucks”—based on who provides them—he and Stewart have the following exchange:


Jon Stewart: That doesn’t sound like a democracy, it sounds like we’re living in an oligarchy!

Jason Jones: No no no no.  Russia is an oligarchy.

Jon Stewart: What’s the difference?

Jason Jones: An oligarchy is a country run by billionaires who aren’t American!

It is tempting to dismiss this—after all, The Daily Show is an entertainment program, and this is just one of many sarcastic jabs among many.  More than that, the show’s audience is relatively limited and (many conservatives would argue) tilted to the left.

What makes the exchange difficult to ignore is that according to a 2012 Pew Research Center survey, some 77% of Americans (and a majority of Republicans) believe that big corporations and a small number of wealthy people have too much power in America.  This is one area where populists on the left and the right appear to agree on a problem, though not yet on a solution.  (More specifically, both want to “throw the bums out,” but they can’t agree on which bums need to go—at least not so far.)

In this environment, attacks on one or another particular company or individual matter much less than the steady increase in media and public attention to the role of money in politics and power.  Likewise, the fact that it is fundamentally unfair to criticize corporations or people who are following the rules in expressing their views or advancing their interests is secondary to the reality that Americans are less and less satisfied with the rules themselves.  From this perspective, the fact that Jon Stewart clearly knows what his audience is looking for—and that his audience leans toward young, educated, middle and upper middle class Americans—should be especially disturbing to anyone focused on our country’s future.

Interestingly, America’s second president—John Adams—warned presciently of the danger that democracy could evolve toward oligarchy.  His 1814 letters to Virginia planter John Taylor merit quoting at length:

“Take the first hundred men you meet in the streets of a city, or on a turnpike road in the country, and constitute them a democratical republic.  …You will find half a dozen men of independent fortunes; half a dozen, or more eloquence; half a dozen, with more learning; half a dozen, with eloquence, learning and fortune.

Let me see.  We have now four-and-twenty; to these we may add six more, who will have more art, cunning, and intrigue, than learning eloquence, or fortune.  These will infallibly soon unite with the twenty-four.  Thus we make thirty.  …Now, if each of these thirty can, by any means, influence one vote besides his own, the whole thirty can carry sixty votes—a decided and uncontrolled majority of the hundred … and they will instantly convert your democracy of ONE HUNDRED into an aristocracy of THIRTY.”

Adams continues this argument to assert that over time, smaller and smaller groups within the thirty “aristocrats” would eventually gain sufficient influence to control the majority needed to maintain power in a democracy.  “The republic then becomes an oligarchy,” he writes, “whose sovereignty is in four individuals.”  Adams argues that this will lead irresistibly to conflict between two oligarchical factions led by two individuals, which he describes as “the history of mankind, past, present, and to come.”

Adams’ assessment reflects his instinctive rejection of the French Revolution and its aftermath; he considers France to have experimented with democracy but not the United States as many Americans (slaves, women, and the poor) could not vote in 1814.  (Indeed, only 6% of Americans could vote in the 1789 election that made George Washington our first president.)  It also reflects the fact that Adams was something of an elitist—not unlike many of his peers among the Founding Fathers—and that it was morally and socially defensible in America at that time to defend limited voting rights.  Nevertheless, Adams clearly expected that a system permitting universal political participation would inherently give more influence to some and less to others.