Bonus Episode: Talking Democracy and Oligarchy with Dorian Warren

December 22, 2022

Are democracy and inequality actually compatible?

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Michael Tomasky: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.

Felicia Wong: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

Michael: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States. We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom.

Felicia: Michael, what do we want to call this? A minisode? A bonus episode?

Michael: Yeah, minisode. I like that. That’s a good portmanteau, to squeeze in one of my favorite weird words.

Felicia: Oh my god, do we have to explain what a portmanteau is? You might have to explain it to me.

Michael: Nah, they can go look it up, but yeah.

Felicia: Well, I have to go look it up.

Michael: Let’s make it simpler and call it a bonus episode.

Felicia: In editing all of our past interviews, there were so many great moments that we ended up having to leave on the cutting room floor for time or just for logical flow of the show. Now we want to share some of those with you all listening to this show and we thought it’d be fun to do over the next few weeks as we gear up for our next season.

Michael: Yeah, so the first piece of tape we found on the cutting room floor features a moment between me and Dorian Warren, who was on the show in early October to talk with us about labor unions and economic inequality. He and I had an interesting exchange about the relationship between democracy and oligarchy.

Dorian Warren [clip]: There is something very compatible about the immense power that companies and the wealthy have in our democracy right now that overrules the rule of the people that is very worrisome.

Felicia: We’ll get into this, but what’s interesting is the tension between democracy and economic progressivism that Dorian starts to tease out, but we’ll get there. Before we get there, Michael, do you want to talk about the big union story?

Michael: What could you mean? Maybe you mean the rail workers strike and the way the president stepped in to stop their strike and make them go back to work?

Felicia: Right. I don’t even know what to say about it, Michael. I’m going to make you go first. What did you think of it?

Michael: It was not one of his finer moments. There’s no question about that. I don’t know what went on in the background. I wish that he had gotten at least some compromise—gotten them four sick days, five sick days, something to show for it—but there was a lot of economic pressure on the other end and FDR ordered striking workers back to work during the war.

Felicia: Oh yeah.

Michael: Truman ordered striking workers back to work at a couple of points, I believe, so these things happen and he risked an economic cataclysm right before Christmas.

Felicia: It’s really regrettable because what I’m so focused on here is that the reason these railways can’t allow sick days for workers is because they run such an absolutely lean logistics operation. They cut the number of actual workers. They’re willing to give the workers who remain on the job a raise, but what they can’t do is have them not fit very precisely into scheduling and a sick day means you actually have to break the schedule and there are no extra workers to fill that in. That’s a business model that treats human beings like mechanical inputs, which might be good for railway’s bottom line, but is really terrible for human beings trying to live lives and have jobs.

Michael: They’ve cut the workforces savagely in recent years. The bigger backstory here is that railways used to be run by the government and then they got privatized and I think they ought to be run by the government again. That would set everything right I think.

Felicia: Michael Tomasky, calling for nationalization of industry.

Michael: Well, that one anyway.

Felicia: So, why are we talking about the rail strike, before we talk to Dorian about democracy and oligarchy? I think one thing that this whole episode may have made some people think about is this idea that maybe our divide isn’t Party A versus Party B, maybe our real divide is the rich and the people who run things versus the poor and the workers, and that is a lot of what Dorian talks about when he talks about the tensions between democracy, oligarchy, and economic equality.

Michael: Let’s play the clip.

Michael [clip]: Only democracy, only a good democracy can help solve the problem of inequality, so it works both ways. Talk about that, I think that’s a very important point for people to understand.

Dorian [clip]: Talk about what? The relationship between—

Michael [clip]: How inequality corrodes democracy.

Dorian [clip]: I think that’s right on the one hand, so I’m going to disagree a little bit and here’s why. I think that’s right, for sure. Inequality absolutely corrodes democracy in the sense of, let’s just take the example of voter suppression. There is so much money from corporations and the wealthy fueling campaigns to restrict who has the right to vote and it’s because of the incredible transfer of wealth from working class and poor, middle-class folks over the last 40 years that the one percent can fund these campaigns to undermine democracy. It’s precisely, that is a direct connection. Increased wealth and power translates into money very easily because of a Supreme Court that has allowed this as a mechanism, which then further erodes and undermines democracy. So for sure, there’s the relationship between inequality and democracy erosion.

I also think though and wonder and question myself, maybe there is something about the compatibility of certain kinds of “liberal democracies” under capitalism and oligarchy. How do we understand the relationship between, empirically, the power of the one percent or, as you pointed out, the .001 percent in our politics? If you look at the work of political scientists the last decade study after study after study, when the wealthy have preferences that do not agree with the vast majority of working-class or middle-class folks, the wealthy always win.

There is something there that I can’t quite wrap my own head around about how we can accept oligarchic rule. We might even call an oligarchy ruled by the wealthy few in a formal democracy that is being eroded by that oligarchy in this moment. There’s still parts of democracy left in America. I don’t want to sound like we’ve lost our democracy and let me add, we are still a recent democracy, depending on how you count the numbers for that question. I count it as 1965 and the Voting Rights Act, was actually when we actually, aside from a short period during Reconstruction, when we actually had a fully inclusive democracy for the first time in America. 1965, it’s only about 50 some odd years ago and we’re in the midst of a huge backlash against that full inclusion of everybody, in terms of the right to vote. There is something I can’t quite sort out, to be honest, around the relationship of inequality, democracy of what we might call oligarchy and democracy. They’re not necessarily in tension or incompatible. There is something very compatible about the immense power that companies and the wealthy have in our democracy right now that overrules the rule of the people that is very worrisome.

Felicia: Michael, after listening to that anew, what do you think?

Michael: My original thinking behind asking the question didn’t have to do necessarily with the direction he took it in. I was just thinking about the fact that when you have a middle class that feels under duress and that doesn’t feel secure, that’s when you have an opportunity for demagogues. When there’s less economic inequality, democracy is safer, that’s what I was getting at. But he took it in an interesting direction. He’s right, obviously, about voter suppression and the broader point of a political system that serves the ends and produces the outcomes that are the preferences of the top one percent.

When we have a system that is so drenched in so much lobbying money and so much campaign contribution money from high-end donors and is just getting worse and worse with this Supreme Court along those lines, then you’re going inevitably to have a system where at least on economic questions—I don’t think this is as true on social and cultural questions—but on economic questions, you’re going to have a political system that is going to produce outcomes that the one percent like. You can easily argue that that’s not democracy really, that that is oligarchy and we’re close to that. I’ve written that many times myself.

Felicia: It reminds me of the FDR quote: “Necessitous men are not free men,” that’s what he said. I like to translate that these days into, “Necessitous people are not free,” but the point still holds. When anyone feels under economic strain, it’s really much more tempting to go with a strong leader that’s going to promise you some way out of that stress, so that’s what you were thinking. But what I thought Dorian did was to take it in a deeper direction, which is to say, look, wealthy preferences really still do win within our liberal democracy, and we can say we have a formal democracy, but really rich people, they are heard more by politicians, for exactly the reasons you said, Michael: They’re the ones who can hire lawyers; they’re the ones who can hire lobbyists; they’re the ones who can get meetings with congressmen; and therefore their preferences still do really win. There was actually this interesting study written by my friend and colleague, Alex Hertel-Fernandez, but anyway, the study basically demonstrated that most congressional staffers actually think that popular preferences are far more “conservative” than they actually are. It’s because those are the people they actually hear from. They actually hear from people who are conservative and also wealthy, so these are all these reasons that our formal democracy might not actually move in the direction of equality in ways that we’d like to imagine.

Michael: I second all of it. I will say though that I think the Biden administration overall has been pretty good about this. Its priorities are basically the priorities of the middle-class people. He’s been true to that.

Felicia: Yeah. I mean we started by saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, and the railway workers,” which is also true, which shows that there are a lot of hard choices to make, especially when you’re the president of the United States. But I also agree that, yeah, a lot of what people would call “Biden economics” or Bidenomics, or whatever, actually has been, to use your favorite phrase, Michael, “middle out.”

Michael: There you go.

Felicia: I really do think that.

Michael: It really has been.

Felicia: I mean more than we’ve seen in the last 30 years for sure.

Michael: Yeah and it always bears remembering that we did come within two votes of passing $2.2 trillion worth of investments in the middle and working classes of this country and that’s a lot closer than we would’ve come at any time in the last 40 or 50 years.

Felicia: Yeah, but those last two votes.…

Michael: Yeah.

Felicia: Last votes are always the hardest, as you know, but anyway, so that’s what I think I find interesting about it. I heard what you find interesting about it and for these bonus episodes, for these minisodes, what I think is fun is that we’re trying to pick moments that made us think again, maybe confused us, maybe made us want to have the conversation one more time and so I’d really love to hear what our listeners think.

Michael: Yeah, I would too. What do you think about this relationship between democracy and oligarchy and how far down that grim road are we? We’d be interested in your thoughts on that. And then we like the big questions on this show, Felicia, that’s why we started this podcast, so let me throw one more out there that Dorian was talking about: There’s a natural tension between democracy and capitalism, capitalism sorts.

Felicia: Yeah, that’s what he was really saying at core, I think.

Michael: Yeah. Capitalism has winners and losers and that’s as it should be.

Felicia: Really actual losers, though?

Michael: Well, the better candy store is going to be the one that’s going to stay in business and the worse one’s going to go out of business and it’s natural.

Felicia: Yeah, but that person shouldn’t be–that candy store owner should not be punished for their entire lives. They should be able to get back into some kind of other business, maybe a better candy business!

Michael: Yeah. He should go back and be able to try something else, sure. But capitalism does sort in that way, but that’s against the principles of democracy. Democracy’s not supposed to have winners and losers. Democracy is supposed to have winners. Some people are going to win more than others, that’s the world and that’s OK, but democracy is not supposed to be only about competition and sorting out and so there’s the tension between the two of them.

Felicia: It’s supposed to be about collective action too and yeah that’s actually the very deep question. When do we work together? And when is competition, which would have us pitted against each other, when is that actually healthy? That’s sort of one of the base questions here. But anyway, we could go on and on. I’m sure this minisode has become less mini. We do want to hear what you think about oligarchy, democracy, whether the candy store owner should end up as a loser. Feel free to Tweet at us. I’m @FeliciaWongRI. I really want to know what you think.

Michael: I’m @MTomasky. Let us know.

Felicia: Yeah. Maybe we’ll read some of your points on our next miniepisode, so stay tuned.

Felicia: How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael: Our coordinating producer is Kara Shillenn. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. Our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound. Other music is provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that’s reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at

Michael: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at

For our first bonus episode, we’re bringing you a never-before-heard clip from our conversation with labor scholar Dorian Warren. 

Dorian talks through the sometimes strangely compatible relationship between inequality and democracy. We want to hear your thoughts on this episode! Tweet at @FeliciaWongRI and @mtomasky to let them know what you think. 

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

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