Syndicated talk show host and bestselling author Thom Hartmann returns with a new book, “The Hidden History of American Oligarchy — Reclaiming our Democracy from The Ruling Class,” the latest in a series where Hartmann breaks down the biggest obstacles of our country today, placing them in historical context and providing calls to action. This is a short, pithy book, easy to dive into and read.
Hartmann spoke with The Seattle Times ahead of an upcoming Town Hall event in support of the book slated for Feb. 4. See below for details.
This interview has been edited for length.
You begin your book saying, “Democracy is rule of, by, and for the people: oligarchy is rule of, by, and for the rich.” You recount how America has had times when an oligarchy almost obtained complete power over the nation. The first followed the invention of the cotton gin, which gave birth to a “rigidified oligarchy that eventually challenged the power of the nation itself.” That threat led to the Civil War.
You see outgoing President Donald Trump as part of today’s oligarchy. On Jan. 6, Trump incited his supporters to invade the U.S. Capitol. Are we on the verge of another Civil War?
I think not. History tells us that civil wars almost always come out of a failure of governance. When the government can no longer provide for basic safety and needs of the people, a giant vacuum is created into which spread conspiracy theories, fringe parties, secessionist movements, and ultimately civil wars. The U.S. was heading in that direction under Trump because he had gutted government services and federalized local police. The Biden administration has stopped that drift, well before we got to considering a civil war.
A second turning point in stopping an oligarchy from running the country was when the Great Depression led straight to the New Deal and major anti-oligarchic reforms. Is the growing information technology industry, including social media giants, contributing to another oligarchy ascendancy?
Yes. If you look at the tech revolution which started in the 1980s and look at past tech innovative improvements, there are huge similarities. They initially brought on greater widespread wealth, a larger middle class and an increased concentration in wealth. But they all created a new norm, where the less-skilled folks fell out of the labor market.
For instance, the Industrial Revolution had produced the Roaring ’20s, which saw the top 10% become wealthier. Meanwhile, the wages below them went down during that same period, leading to the Great Depression and World War II. Those crises were largely resolved by the Roosevelt administration’s economic and social reform policies.
The tech revolution that started in the 1980s is resulting in more low-paid workers and a concentration of wealth at the top. The middle class saw their wealth expand for one or two generations. However, their prosperity is now shrinking as the new form of production has become more common to operate. When the middle class hurts, conspiracy theories grow. If the Biden administration can make the same kind of changes that the Roosevelt administration did, the middle class’s financial condition should improve significantly and stop America’s oligarchy from expanding.
History shows that a number of countries have come under the control of a ruling oligarchy. Can America be an exception?
We were the first country in the world founded on an idea rather than genetics. Although there was a large component of genetics, you don’t find it in the Constitution or the documents of the [Founding Fathers]. They intentionally dismissed or de-emphasized it, because they were aware that they were taking on a giant experiment. They learned from the experiences of the Roman and Greek democracies and from what they knew from the Native American communities. Then they based America on the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that man can govern themselves. While it has been imperfectly implemented, it’s such a cool and contagious idea, that in the 200 years since our founding, nearly half the world’s countries have adopted that idea. But we have to work to keep that idea alive.
About half of Americans voted for Trump. Why don’t they see him as part of the oligarchy? They believe his policies are benefiting them. Does this attitude hinder building support for democratic values?
Most voters are single-issue voters. They don’t view the broader issues. Republicans understand this better than the Democrats because the Democrats keep looking at policies, while the Republicans are looking at constituents. Republicans pitch the most important issue for each group. For instance, anti-gun control rhetoric for folks wanting to keep their guns, or anti-abortion talk for pro-life religious groups, and so on. Each group ignores everything else. If we can make democracy a single issue for voters, we can defeat oligarchies. For instance, longtime Republican Steve Schmidt, who was Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign manager, is now a Democrat because he doesn’t care about any other issue other than saving our democracy.
What do you mean when you say that Trump and his Republican supporters are “planted in the soil of neofascism and tyranny”?
This is not just about the individual behavior of a particular politician. Fascism is the merger of corporate and state interests, which exhibits belligerent nationalism. We have witnessed a past president and a political movement that fostered fascism. President Andrew Jackson and Vice President John C. Calhoun empowered fascism in the Southern United States. The America First [Committee] was a huge fascist movement in the [1940s], with hundreds of thousands of members. Trump’s actions also move toward concentrating money and political power in the hands of the few. I devote the last part of my book on what specific steps we can take to break oligarchy and restore democracy. We defeated those past efforts, and we can to it again.