It’s normal that political leaders drive policy changes and historic events. However, quite often, there are individuals away from the public’s eye who have influence on these leaders. Sometimes they influence the public itself, often by way of institutions. Sometimes the leaders have hidden agendas themselves.
Power structures in history
It’s true that there’s nothing new under the sun. Back in the days of Renaissance Europe, the royalty often was related to each other. Further, some of the kings were pretty corrupt; it was normal for them to have mistresses, and a few made Bill Clinton seem like a monk by comparison. Bribery certainly is nothing new; today, they just have more sophisticated means. The wealthy and ambitious clamored for access to their kings, and some profited greatly. The difference from today’s times was that things were more out in the open. Even illiterate peasants became aware of scandals and court gossip, long before television, tabloids, and social media existed.
Still, the intricate pattern of alliances and rivalries between the royal dynasties was public knowledge, and historians have little trouble studying the power structures. We’re also aware of the beliefs and power of the Catholic Church and its Protestant rivals. We also have a fairly good idea about what other sectors of society were doing: merchants, guilds, and the peasantry. Some things are shrouded in the mists of time, but the broad picture is discernible.
A rational king would identify with his nation and acted in its best interests, so that his eldest son would inherit a stable kingdom, and his dynasty would thrive. Not all were top-notch, though; some were tyrannical, others were incompetent. Being the King was no guarantee of good character or even intelligence (some were too inbred). He got the job by being the firstborn in the lineal succession of whatever warlord last took over the country, and had the advantage of first-class education, but otherwise there’s nothing special about monarchs. When the common people became literate and started getting a fairly decent education, monarchy started becoming obsolete.
Thus, during the Age of Enlightenment, democratic government became fashionable. The newborn USA led the way as a proof of concept. With the people in charge, it was expected that the best men in the nation would rule.
Modern power structures
So the new model worked, giving the public more input into government since the Roman Republic. An extensive system of checks and balances prevented power from being amassed into too few hands. (As much as people complain about our recent batch of Presidents, fortunately the USA hasn’t had to deal with any rulers like Caligula, Vlad the Impaler, or Ivan the Terrible.) In practice, several complications arose. The Founders didn’t anticipate all this, though they were well aware that their Constitution would only work right with a virtuous public. In any event, even this masterfully devised system isn’t perfect.
It was intended that the cream of society would do tours of duty in Washington, then return to private life. These days, politicians are careerists, usually ascended lawyers. Some are decent people, but all too often they gradually fall out of touch with the experience of their constituents. The best and brightest don’t always come to power; having the right connections is the critical factor. Further, the corrupt and power-hungry have a way of rising to the top. Finally, excessive centralization and judicial abuses have distorted Constitutional rule of law.
The influence of monopolies and trusts became very powerful during the Industrial Age. As time went on, semi-formal international coalitions of billionaires began casting a long shadow. The banking dynasties of Europe were already manipulating politics there. In the USA, industrialists and bankers began forging international alliances in the 20th century, with considerable political influence behind the scenes by the 1940s.
Unlike monarchy at its best, business interests aren’t in it for the generational long haul, but rather whatever gets the best quarterly numbers. Neither must they be loyal to their countries; instead, they see things like borders, sovereignty, and national solidarity as a barrier to profits. Short-sightedness is a huge problem. It seems that today’s Powers That Be don’t care if their heirs inherit a global slum.
Perhaps the greatest unintended consequence of the democratic system is that political parties almost immediately became the gatekeepers of power. In the USA, the Electoral College and lack of runoff elections all but guarantees the two party system. (In Europe, it’s a little more diverse, where three and sometimes four viable parties operate and form parliamentary coalitions, but they can still defy the people’s will with impunity.) So it came to political machines, Tammany Hall, smoke-filled rooms, and all the rest of it.
Today, money and media access are everything. Major contributors call the tune, usually hedging their bets with both parties. This is how the oligarch class has owned the Republicans and the Democrats in recent decades, giving the public the good cop / bad cop treatment.
The 2016 election was a great upset, practically a bloodless coup. Democrats were stunned, as one would expect. What truly was surprising – at least to those unaware of today’s power structures – was that Republican party bosses fought their top candidate every step of the way. (The bipartisan opposition by the leadership had everything to do with Trump’s disdain for to globalist policies, and nothing to do with saying the word “pussy”.) Donald Trump is a billionaire, but is basically a rebel opposing others in the oligarch class. His victory was possible only because he is rich enough that he could finance his own election and couldn’t be bought off. However, how independent he actually is – and what the extent of the Deep State is – remains anyone’s guess at this moment.
Ultimately, the oligarchs have become even more powerful than most nominal heads of state. Yet in today’s information age, ironically the picture of the top-level power structures is quite murky. With the lack of transparency, looking for evidence about today’s shadow government leads one down countless rabbit holes, leaving more speculation than facts.
The problem is, democratic societies are supposed to be better than all this. With the people in charge – so the theory goes – if politicians abuse their power, the public could throw the bums out. The Founding Fathers did understand that danger was always present; as Thomas Jefferson said,
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.
If he were around today, that attitude probably would’ve put him on some watch list. All told, perhaps draining the swamp might be more akin to a Superfund abatement.