This Thursday, party insiders will elect China’s new political leadership. Tomorrow, millions of Americans—after standing in lineups for hours—will elect theirs.
China is becoming the world’s first modern superpower plutocracy. The United States remains a far better place for the super-rich to live, and express themselves. But, its democracy is still more powerful than its pushy "plutocrats."
Whichever way it tips, the 2012 US presidential election can already be celebrated as a democratic success: next to nothing has been excluded from discussion; religion, race, region, family background, and relative privilege haven’t seriously handicapped either campaign—and the influence of a "plutocratic class" hasn’t been decisive either.
Indeed, the interests of surging minorities, workers, radical pensioners, and numerous value issues of little consequence to the pocket books of the rich have dominated the desperate final appeals for votes.
As a 50-50 election, with $billions to help partisans shout out their messages and with the voices of more independent commercial and amateur opinion makers than ever before, it's been wonderful for those who collect American faux pas. Nevertheless, history will probably note that the two national parties were especially effective as inclusive, competitive political organizations.
In the closest swing states, their organizations will likely get out two-thirds of eligible voters, as they did in 2008.
Most billionaires favor the Republican Party, but don’t run it; and the Democrats found plenty of money and talent people elsewhere.
As Chrystia Freeland brilliantly reminds us in her book Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else, self-esteem and political ambition grow with the accumulation of great wealth.
However, the titans who’d like to be called "plutocrats" shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. Freeland’s thesis is essentially cautionary: entrenched wealth ultimately is self-serving, will eventually compromise social and economic mobility, and, thereby, enfeeble both America’s democracy and economic vitality—but we’re not there yet.
A working plutocracy—as opposed to a failed democracy—must secure internal cohesion among the rich and have enough talent and time away from the office to run Washington, consciously and intelligently, on behalf of their interests.
Running the American polity, with its free press, secret ballot, independent courts, and dynamic regional differences, is not the same as running one of Disneyworld’s company towns or a high-tech valley in California. Along with a talent for money, the successful plutocrat must have a talent for politics—for picking political fronts that can get elected, and for staffing a political elite that can finesse the interests of the most powerful in each of the country’s contending regions.
The best defense for democrats, however, is not to count on their incompetence. Maintaining an open, dynamic American federation, two ambitious national political parties are still the surest ways to keep the plutocrats at bay.