"We say no to oligarchy!" Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who again is running for the Democratic nomination for president, proclaimed in a 2019 speech to 16,000 supporters in San Francisco.
Sanders, who warns that billionaires are buying elections and exerting too much power over the government, uses the O-word frequently, but he's not the only one. If you read enough articles on the web, you'll see places ranging from Russia, China and Saudi Arabia to Brazil and even Hong Kong described as oligarchies. A 2017 Salon article even warned of the growing power of a global uber-oligarchy comprised of wealthy, super-powerful figures ranging from financiers to rock stars. And the concept isn't just owned by the left, either. President Donald Trump may not have used the same terminology, but the billionaire businessman rose to power in part by railing against the "elites" that he accused of disenfranchising ordinary Americans.
If you're not a political science major, you may be wondering: What exactly is an oligarchy, anyway? And do we really have one in the U.S.?
"An oligarchy is a combination of wealth and power, and often tends to close off access to its ranks — 'pulling up the ladder,'" explains Ron Formisano, the William T. Bryan Chair of American History and professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky, and author of the books "American Oligarchy: The Permanent Political Class," and "Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the Poor."
Oligarchy — from the ancient Greek word oligoi, meaning few — is a concept that goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who used it to describe a society governed by a select few wealthy or aristocratic people, as opposed to rule by a single monarch, or a democracy in which the great mass of people of humble means hold control. Aristotle actually didn't favor either oligarchy or democracy — he preferred a sort of half-decaf cup of joe in which a middle group of moderately wealthy citizens controlled the reins, as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains.