Adapted and Updated from Paul Kivel, You Call This a Democracy?
Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Walt Whitman, Albert Einstein, Daniel Webster, Andrew Carnegie, Louis Brandeis, John Maynard Keynes, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Mark Twain, Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, Adam Smith, Chief Sitting Bull, George Bernard Shaw, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Tarbell, President Eisenhower, Malcolm X, John Dewey, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—these are just a few of the most well-known people who have warned us of the dangers to a democratic society of having such a high concentration of wealth and power.
The existence of a ruling class in our country has never been a secret. At the same time, members of the power elite have been aware that if people could see clearly how undemocratic and unfair the system is, they would be more likely to get together and try to change it. Members of the power elite don’t want the rest of us to notice how much power and control they have accumulated. They have made available, and profited from, many forms of distraction. In addition, there are other dynamics that hold people’s attention because of the way the system operates.
For example, if you are fighting for a share of the leftover piece of the economic pie, trying to keep food on the table and a roof over your head, then it is difficult to have the time, attention, and energy to do anything about the social system. People in the U.S. are working more hours per week and more weeks per year for less money now than they were just 30 years ago. In 2015, the average American worked the equivalent of a month’s worth of work more than the average worker in 1980.
Many other distractions are more systematically developed to focus attention away from the power and wealth of the ruling class.
Wars in other countries, initiated or supported by the United States, are a major distraction. Many wars are for the protection of U.S. corporate interests. In addition, when economic circumstances are difficult, and communities are experiencing cutbacks in social services, political and corporate leaders will initiate military excursions to distract people from domestic troubles. Sometimes foreign excursions are directly related to the political troubles of the president.
When Clinton was embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he arbitrarily bombed Iraq, the Sudan, and Afghanistan at different times to demonstrate his leadership and divert attention from his personal trials. In full recession, with high levels of unemployment, huge levels of debt, and in a time of crucial elections, President Bush became determined to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and was able to divert much of our national attention to arms inspections and a set of issues that affect Americans much less than whether one has a job and how expensive food and housing are.
These wars are often fueled by racism, the perception by many people that other countries should defer to us, that we have the right/ obligation/responsibility to direct the policies of other countries, that the resources found in these countries are best utilized and should be controlled by us, and that lives lost in countries comprised mostly of people of color are not worth as much as U.S. (white) lives. Wars are often justified by racialized fears of invasion or terrorism from darker skinned peoples with different ideologies, different cultures, and different religious beliefs than mainstream (white) U.S. beliefs.
We are taught to fear crime and violence, fear people of color (if we are white), fear recent immigrants (if we are citizens), fear Jews (if we are non-Jewish), fear young people (if we are older), fear disease such as West Nile virus, Ebola, and SARS, fear drugs, fear white sharks and killer bees, fear anthrax, fear Muslims and Arabs, fear our neighbors, and fear people from the other side of town. Fear keeps people looking to the power elite for protection and putting up with inequality and rollbacks of our civil liberties. Fear can be aroused by portrayal of foreign (usually darker skinned) enemies. But most people’s fear is domestic in focus.
Fear in this era has become generalized to a fear of terrorism that, in turn, has become justification for a wide range of restrictive and unconstitutional policies, and allocation of funding, which we are urged to accept because they will supposedly increase our safety.
We are also specifically told by the media to fear crime, particularly violent and property crimes. On the nightly news we are presented with a constant parade of young men of color who are portrayed as dangerous to the rest of us. In particular, this coverage manipulates the racial fears of white people, despite the fact that most interpersonal acts of violence are committed against people of one’s own racial/cultural community. White people are more likely to be sexually or physically assaulted by other white people, but most whites fear people of color because of the misinformation and stereotypes they are presented with.
Corporate crime is not generally covered except in the most large scale cases, and even then, its impact on ordinary people is minimized. In 2016, the FBI estimated that robberies and burglaries cost the country a little over $4 billion.  White collar crimes are not even officially calculated and are difficult to track, but the FBI estimates they cost the country $300 to $600 billion per year. The Enron and MCI scandals, the Savings and Loan bailout, the home mortgage recession of 2008/9, and the cover-up of corporate fraud through accounting malpractice are examples of ruling class crime that will cost every person in the U.S. tens of thousands of dollars. 
Also in 2018, the FBI reported that 19,500 people were murdered by other individuals. But it wasn’t reported that in 2017, more than 99 people died every week from work related diseases and injuries, an estimated 9 million die globally from environmental pollution , and countless others from corporate malpractice and malfeasance, as well as hazardous and contaminated products.  We need to ask ourselves who the biggest criminals are and who should we fear the most.
The Cycle of Interpersonal Violence
Another way we get distracted is by a cycle of interpersonal violence, blame, and scapegoating, all of which keeps our attention on those around us rather than those at the top of the economic pyramid. Our anger at personal violations, disrespect, lack of opportunity, and social injustice is often taken out on those closest to us, such as our children, our partners, our coworkers, friends, and fellow drivers. We turn our pain, anger, and frustrations either outwards towards others, or inwards towards ourselves through high-risk activities, alcohol and other drug abuse, suicide, and other forms of self-destructive behavior. We are directed to do this by those in power. If we are men, we are taught that women are the problem, if we are white that people of color are the problem, if we are citizens that recent immigrants are the problem, and if we are adults that young people are the problem. We are fed a constant stream of misinformation, stereotypes, and lies that lead us to direct our attention towards those below us in the pyramid rather than to see the power and wealth of the decision makers who truly influence our life chances. All too often, individuals who are being exploited by the ruling class, who are losing their jobs and seeing their communities destroyed, turn their violence into hate crimes, gay bashing, immigrant bashing, anti-Jewish acts, gang violence, fights, or violence against their partners and children, instead of channeling that anger into work for social justice.
Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia
There is also a social cycle of violence through which we are encouraged to blame and scapegoat and justify violence towards groups of people with little social, political, or economic power. For example, those of us who are white are encouraged to watch people of color in sports and public dramas, such as those involving O.J. Simpson, Clarence Thomas, and Michael Tyson, and to fear people of color as violent, manipulative, dishonest, and dangerous. One function of racism is to keep white people’s attention on people of color at the bottom of the economic pyramid and not on the white, male power elite who are doing the real damage to our lives and communities.
Similarly, men are encouraged to blame the women around us for their personal problems, and to keep their attention on women as sexual objects through pornography, prostitution, and advertising, preventing them from working with women to change the power structure.
Homophobia keeps many locked into rigid gender roles, and heterosexuals thinking that lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender and non-binary people are undermining their families and way of life which makes them unable to see the ways that their families and way of life are destroyed by poverty, corporate crime, lack of jobs, child care, health care, and inadequate public education.
The wealth of our country is so concentrated that what little is left to be divided among those of us at the bottom of the pyramid is not enough to go around. Racism, sexism, and homophobia keep us competitive, blaming and fighting each other, rather than challenging the source of our problems. They are ideal distractions, intentionally used by the power elite to confuse, manipulate, and exploit us.
One way that members of ruling classes have distracted people, both in Europe and in the United States, is by amplifying anti-Jewish stereotypes to portray Jews as the real power holders in society.
The history of anti-Jewish stereotypes goes back to the early Christian period. Negative portrayals of Jews have been consistently present in Western societies for over 1,700 years. Although they have never held real economic power in any country except the state of Israel, Jews have often been portrayed as fabulously rich and as ruthless economic exploiters of others. If they had had this much power, they would have been better able to protect themselves from much of the anti-Jewish violence that has been directed at them over the centuries. In reality, there are Jews who are poor, working class, managerial class and members of the ruling class. The largest concentration of people in the ruling class by far is Christian, not Jewish, and even the wealthiest Jews have often been excluded from top levels of decision making.
In Europe and in the U.S., Jews have often been used as a buffer between the owning classes and those who are poor or working class. Jews were prevented from living in white Christian communities but were allowed to live in neighborhoods that were better than those that people of color could live in. They were prevented from entering many elite universities, trades, or occupations, but given better educational and occupational opportunities than people of color, and poor and working-class whites. Therefore, poor and working-class people, encounter Jews with a little better economic situation as shopkeepers, teachers, social workers, or landlords, but don’t often encounter white Christian ruling and managerial class people. In the last forty years, different Asian communities in the U.S. have found themselves in the same buffer location, facing restrictions from those higher up the economic pyramid, and anger and resentment from those further down.
The ruling class has used anti-Jewish propaganda combined with racism and anti-immigrant propaganda to encourage white working- and middle -class people to feel squeezed, to fear that people of color and recent immigrants with less than they will take what they have, and that Jews with more than they will exploit them and also take what they have. Anti-Jewish fears coupled with racism and anti-immigrant fears provide members of the ruling class with further opportunities to escape notice.
Lack of Time
People in the United States have comparatively little leisure time because we work such long hours. In 2018, the average Belgian, Finland, Australian, and even Japanese worker was on the job approximately 100 fewer hours or more per year than the average worker in the U.S. Workers in Luxembourg, France and Austria worked 250 fewer hours, and Germans worked around 400 hours less. In addition, average commuting time for U.S. workers is now about 26 minutes one way, though it varies among cities.
Longer work hours and longer commute times, more financial stress, and less extended family support means that most people in the U.S. are scrambling for the time to take care of children and the elderly, buy basic necessities, and keep up with the bills. This works extremely well for the ruling class because, as social policy researcher Paul Street has noted, “one does not develop the capacity to criticize US Middle Eastern or Nuclear or Environmental or Criminal Justice policy in a state of perpetual exhaustion and distraction, snatching only small pieces of time from an endless cycle of working, commuting, shopping, and, when possible, sleeping.” 
For men in particular, but increasingly for women, a great deal of our leisure time is spent watching sports. On the weekend and on most evenings, we can select from several different sports offerings to keep us occupied. These sports teams are owned by members of the ruling class who buy and sell athletes, many of whom are men of color, to field competitive teams that the rest of us watch, root for, and bet on. The media, advertisers, and team owners make millions of dollars while we sit and watch games that are of little consequence. This means we talk to each other less and pay less attention to our partners and children. There is nothing wrong with watching professional sports, but for some of us, the time and attention we put into it encroaches on our relationships with family, friends, and community.
Pornography and Prostitution
For men, pornography and prostitution are tremendous distractions. They take up our time and attention, they exploit women we don’t know, and distort our relationships with women we do. The pornography industry is roughly estimated to be a $10 to 12 billion a year industry in the United States ($97 billion worldwide) , and prostitution over $186 billion a year, globally. While women are exploited and abused , and while men are masturbating to pictures of naked women, money is flowing up the pyramid.
All of us have to shop for our basic necessities, and it can take considerable time to purchase the food, clothes, and other things that we and our families need. But shopping in and of itself has become a major distraction for women, for men, and increasingly for young people. Many of us now spend substantial time and money browsing stores, catalogs, and the web, often purchasing things we don’t need. People in the U.S. now spend billions a year on consumables. Advertisers spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year convincing us that we need more, better, and newer products more often and in larger quantities than ever before.
To give some sense of the outrageousness of these numbers, Americans on average spent $9.22 per day eating out, $1.53 a day drinking alcohol and $8.78 a day entertaining themselves 2017. Meanwhile, The Global Partnership for Education reports that it would only cost $1.25 a day to educate a child in a low-income country.
To finance these purchases many of us are increasingly in debt, currently to the tune of nearly $4 trillion , which works out to be a quarter of the United States’ total disposable personal income. This is hugely profitable for those who own the banks and consumer credit companies, not to mention the retail companies, advertisers, and others who try to convince us that it is our patriotic duty to spend more so that the stock market will rise.
Scandal, Corruption, and Drama in the Courtroom
In conjunction with the consolidation of the media into ever larger mega corporations, we are presented with less and less real news, and more and more scandals, corruption, drama in courtrooms, violence and sex. This comes at us through TV, daily newspapers, the Internet, magazines, and books. It is difficult not to become riveted to the stories of O.J. and Nicole, Anita and Clarence and Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Ford. But during the period of these distractions our welfare system was destroyed, the prison-industrial complex grew immensely, immigrant rights, affirmative action, and education were cut back, and our communities continued to be devastated by corporate pollution. Whenever we find ourselves focusing our attention on high drama, we need to ask ourselves: What social, economic, and political actions are being taken by those in power that they don’t want us to look at too carefully?
Alcohol and Other Drugs
The frustration, anger, and pain we feel about what has happened to us personally, what has happened to our friends and families, and what has happened to our communities, lead many of us to turn to drug abuse to numb our pain and lessen our despair. In addition, everywhere we turn, drugs are peddled to us and our children. No wonder that millions of us are addicted to tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, heroin, meth, uppers, downers, painkillers, and a whole range of designer drugs. The biggest killers—tobacco and alcohol—are the biggest profit makers and are legally sold in a great variety of stores, including supermarkets and drugstores.
TV and Movies
Both adults and children in the U.S. spent, on average, nearly five hours a day watching TV, or over 1,800 hours a year. From cartoons in the morning, through soaps, talk shows, sitcoms, nature shows, and newscasts throughout the day until movies and soft-core pornography in the wee hours, we are sold a lifestyle to aspire to, products to consume, a narrow and one-sided view of the world, fear, misinformation, and justification for continuing the status quo. When you add in the violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia visible throughout the day, it is a potent brew guaranteed to confuse and placate, stimulate but not satisfy, goad, misdirect, and lull us into accepting whatever policies the power elite wants to adopt.
Video Games and Computers
Some of us have moved from watching a TV or movie screen to watching a computer screen. (On average Americans spend 12 hours a day in front of one or more screens). Young men and adult men in particular spend inordinate amounts of time playing unrealistic games by themselves (or with virtual partners) often committing acts of (pretend) sexual violence towards women, and lethal violence towards a host of enemies, many of whom are men of color.
New Technological Gadgets
From computers to cell phones, DVDs, CDs, faster and faster computers, handhelds, and wifi, we are presented with a treadmill of technological gadgets which are constantly becoming obsolete, or at least out of style. We must spend time evaluating, purchasing, learning how to use, repairing, and updating these additions to our lives often only to discover that they are not as necessary or as useful (and certainly not as reliable) as we were told they would be. But they are expensive to buy, repair, and subscribe to. In 2013, the average consumer spent nearly $2000 a year just on communications services (Internet, cell phones, cable and digital subscriptions). That pans out to about 17 percent of their monthly rate or mortgage payment. We know where all of this money ends up. In addition, most of us spend hours a day on our computers and phones, including much of our spare time, which takes a tremendous toll on our health, our relationships, and our ability to be active in our communities.
State lotteries, horse and dog racing, betting on spectator sports, and casinos where people can play poker, blackjack, the slots, and a host of electronic games—legalized gambling takes many forms and is accessible to virtually every adult. Although in some states an individual has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than of winning the lottery, these odds don’t deter people from hoping for a chance to strike it big, get out of debt, and have a diversion from their everyday economic reality. Over 5.45 million American adults would qualify as problem gamblers. [PDF] States that implement lotteries to fund education usually see decreases in total spending on education after the lottery begins (perhaps because legislators and voters falsely assume that lottery money is picking up the tab). The largest spenders in state lotteries are the poor, the elderly, high school dropouts, and African Americans. Lotteries are a regressive tax on the poor.
Legalized gambling, in general, leads to increases in personal bankruptcies, broken marriages, suicides, burglary, extortion, loansharking, prostitution, and drug abuse. It also decreases the amount of money people spend on local goods and services.  Although a percentage of many state lotteries goes to fund education, most of the money collected, as with other forms of gambling, goes to large corporations and the professionals and managers who run them. What is left is often used for things like attorney fees for construction companies and for paving roads next to the schools . Additionally, states are not adding lottery money to the education coffers. Rather, they are using the lottery money to replace education funds, making this part of the budget dependent on gambling addiction. The multibillion-dollar legalized gambling business is another form of diversion, and a source of lucrative profit for the ruling class. 
We all need to have fun, relax, hang out with others, and have distractions from the stress of daily life. However, many of us spend too much of our time in activities that, besides distracting us, debilitate us, affect our relationships, consume our time and money, and provide profits to those who own the companies that produce, distribute, and market these goods.
This time could otherwise be spent in connecting with other people, developing our cultural and other creative abilities, doing community service, spending more time with our children, making music and art, gardening, cooking, and organizing for a redistribution of wealth and the development of our communities. The amount of time and money we put into programmed distractions is truly staggering. What might happen if we put some of that time towards developing ourselves, our relationships, and our communities?
The Myth of Equal Opportunity
Another distraction is the myth that if we work hard, or are very clever, smart, or lucky, we can work our way to the top and earn millions. This is the myth Horatio Alger created in his stories written at the end of the nineteenth century. Alger was a member of the ruling class with a Harvard education. But his stories were about young boys who started at the bottom, penniless, and worked their way into great fortunes. This was actually quite a rare occurrence, as subsequent research showed, but people were nevertheless fascinated by the stories and the possibilities for individual achievement they seemed to foretell.
We are presented with many Horatio Alger stories today. Whether it is political figures who supposedly started out poor and eventually became president, or corporate executives who started with nothing and became rich, we are sold false stories of rags to riches. Very often key information is missing from these stories, information about the financial, educational, or other assets that our “hero” actually started out with.
Starting at the Top
George Washington was one of the richest men in America, owning lots of slaves and thousands of acres of land. But even “poor” Abraham Lincoln was a corporate lawyer for railroads, and his wife came from a wealthy southern family. The “common” president, Andrew Jackson, was raised in a well-to-do slave-owning family. Most of the twentieth century U.S. presidents were from the ruling class, including Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and George Bush and son. Others who were of more humble origins, such as Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, used education, family resources, and political connections to become millionaires before or during their presidency.
These stories of humble origins are used to promote the myth that anyone can become president and that the president is still connected to poor and working-class people’s concerns. However, few of our presidents started out poor, and all ended up firmly in the ranks of the ruling class, sharing their interests.
We are also presented with many stories of business success of the poor-boy becomes- corporate-president variety. According to the report by United for a Fair Economy, “Born on Third Base,” [PDF] most of our richest business leaders— those who have crossed home plate in wealth—did not start out at the batter’s box. They were already on base. Thirty-three percent were born on home plate—they inherited the money that put them among the richest people in the country. Another 13 percent were born on second or third base, and 14 percent on first.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and the richest man in the world. His biographer Brad Stone attributes his success to his so-called disadvantaged childhood and a 2017 CNBC article called him the “son of a 16-yr-old mom and a deadbeat dad.” It’s true that his parents were teens and his father drank a lot. However, his young mother was the daughter of a regional director of the Atomic Energy Commission who owned a 25,000-acre ranch in Texas and spent summers travelling the country in the family luxury camper. She soon remarried to an Exxon engineer before Bezos attended Princeton. His parents invested $300,000 in Amazon at the start.
More typical of today’s ruling class are men like Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison , who grew up in wealthy families and started out with significant economic, social, and educational advantages.
Those born in the batter’s box were those whose parents did not have great wealth or own a business with more than a few employees. This certainly does not put them among the poor or even working class—although a few of them do come from impoverished backgrounds—but it does mean that they achieved great wealth against immense odds. They are often entrepreneurs, and it is not accidental that many of those who move to the top from far down the economic pyramid are white men who had significant racial and gender bias in their favor.
When one becomes a member of the power elite one gains access to many ways of accumulating wealth because of the salaries, benefits, stock options, investment options, and general connections to people with wealth that one’s power provides. Members of the power elite make decisions affecting millions or even billions of dollars and, not coincidentally, some of that money flows their way. They are not necessarily corrupt (although some are), but opportunities are available to them for building wealth that the rest of us do not have.
Overall, few people move from the bottom or even the middle of the pyramid into the ruling class or power elite. And few of these are white women or people of color. Those who do, succeed partly because they are willing to adopt the values and play by the rules of the system, partly because they are luckier than most of us, and partly because they have some talent, ability, skill, or creative use that the economic system rewards. Our hopes that we will win the lottery, play in the NBA, reach the top of the charts as a performer, or invent the next wildly popular consumer gadget can keep us from getting together with others in our community to work for change in the structure of opportunity.
- The FBI and the BJS have both reported a dramatic reduction in property crimes since the early 90s. Between 1993 and 2018, the rate fell somewhere between 54% and 69%, depending on whether you look at FBI or BJS data, respectively.
- More information on corporate crime can be found at www.corporatecrimereporter.org and in Danaher, Corporations Are Gonna Get Your Mama.
- See the movie Erin Brockovich or Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain for case studies.
- For more on this issue see Schor, The Overworked American.
- Mia Khalifa’s story is a perfect example. Even though she only had a short stint in the industry and left in 2014, she is still the second most watched porn star. She is still harassed and bothered in public by fans and has survived global death threats, yet she made only a total of $12,000 from her contract work.
- Koughan, Martin. “Frontline: Easy Money” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/gamble/etc/script.html
- For more information on the impact of legalized gambling, see Robert Goodman, The Luck Business.
- Larry Ellison is the fourth richest man in the US (after the others mentioned) and is the co-founder, executive chairman and chief technology officer at Oracle.
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