The American Oligarchy

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Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

One of my lasting lessons from political science is that every major society has a pyramid structure in regards to wealth and power. The United States is no exception to this distribution pattern. However, the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society—which seems rather inconsistent with the pyramid.

While the United States does have the mechanisms of democracy, such as voting, it might be wondered whether the United States is democratic or oligarchic (or plutocratic) in nature. While people might turn to how they feel about this matter, such feelings and related anecdotes do not provide proof. So, for example, a leftist who thinks the rich rule the country and who feels oppressed by the plutocracy does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich. Likewise, a conservative who thinks that America is a great democracy and feels good about the rich does not prove her belief by appealing to her feelings or anecdotes about the rich.

What is needed is a proper study to determine how the system works. One rather obvious way to determine the degree of democracy is to compare the expressed preferences of citizens with the political results. If the political results generally correspond to the preferences of the majority, then this is a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is democratic. If the political results generally favor the minority that is rich and powerful while going against the preferences of the less wealthy majority, then this would be a reasonable (but not infallible) indicator that the system is oligarchic (or plutocratic). After all, to the degree that a system is democratic, the majority should have their preferences enacted into law and policy—even when this goes against the wishes of the rich. To the degree that the system is oligarchic, then the minority of elites should get their way—even when this goes against the preferences of the majority.

Recently, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern conducted just such a study: “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”  using data gathered from 1981 to 2002.

The researchers examined about 1,800 polices from that time and matched them against the preferences expressed by three classes: the average American (50th income percentile), the affluent American (the 90th percentile of income) and the large special interest groups.

The results are hardly surprising: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As noted above, a truly democratic system should result in the preferences of the majority being expressed in policies and laws more often than not. However, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the US political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.” As such, this study would seem to provide strong evidence that the United States is an oligarchy (or plutocracy) rather than a democratic state.

It might be contended that this system is fine since, to use a misquote, what is the preference for GM is the preference for Americans. That is, it could be claimed that the elites and the majority of Americans have the same or similar preferences.  However, the study found that the interests of the wealthy are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens.” As such, the preferences of most Americans do not match the interests of the wealthy—but the wealthy generally get what they want.

One current example of this, which was not part of the study, is the fact that a very strong majority of Americans favor various gun control measures (such as universal background checks) yet bills that would make these measures into laws have failed. This provides a rather clear example of how the system works in general. Naturally, this example is merely an illustration—the statistical support is based in the 1,800 examined policies.

One possible objection is that the preferences of the majority are mistaken—that is, the majority wants things that are not in their best interest and what the elites want is what is actually best. For example, while most Americans might prefer stronger consumer protection laws when it comes to financial institutions, it could be claimed that they are in error. What is in their best interest is less consumer protection, which is what the financial elites want.

The obvious reply is that even if it were true that the majority is in error and the elites know best, this would arguing that the oligarchic system is better than a democratic system not that the system is not and oligarchic one.

Another possible objection is that the system is democratic in that people do vote for elected officials who then enact policies. Since the citizens can vote such officials out of office, they must be expressing the preferences of the citizens—despite the fact that policy and law consistently goes against the expressed preferences of the majority. This is to say that we have democratically created an oligarchy, so it is still a democracy (or at least a republic).

This objection is certainly interesting and raises a question about why people consistently re-elect people who consistently act contrary to their expressed preferences. One possibility is that the choices are very limited—you can vote for anyone you want, but a Democrat or Republican will almost certainly be elected. As such, the voters do get to vote, but they generally do not get real choices.

Another possibility is ignorance—people do not generally realize that what they get does not match what they claim to want. Such ignorance would put the moral blame partially on the citizens—they should be better informed.  Then again, given the abysmal approval rating for congress it seems that people do realize this. This creates a rather odd scenario: people really hate congress, yet generally keep re-electing them over and over.

A third possibility is that there are many strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good. So, while people have a preference for one thing, they are persuaded to believe that what is in the interest of the oligarchy is what they should like. People might also be distracted by other matters—for example, people who oppose same-sex marriage will support politicians who oppose it, even if the politician also supports policies that are contrary to the voter’s economic interests. In this case, the moral failing is on the part of the deceivers—they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.

Another approach to objecting to the study is to raise questions about the methodology. One obvious question would be whether or not the 1,800 policies are properly representative of the political system. After all, if the researchers picked ones that favored the wealthy and ignored others that matched public preferences, then the study would be biased. As such, a key question is whether or not the sample used in the study is large enough and representative enough to adequately support the conclusion.

Another obvious question would be whether or not the study had the preferences of the people correct. After all, in order to properly claim that the laws and policies do not generally match the preferences of the majority, the claimed preferences would need to be the actual preferences of the majority.

Naturally, addressing these concerns would require examining the study carefully and objectively, rather than merely dismissing or accepting it based on how one feels about the matter. Some might also be tempted to dismiss the study based on mere ad homimen attacks on those conducting it. For example, one might fallaciously reject the study by simply claiming that those involved are biased liberal intellectuals who are trying to advance a leftist agenda. If this were true and the study were thus flawed, then the evidence would lie in the defects of the study—not in the feelings of those attacking with ad homimens.

 

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11 Comments.

  1. The wrong base assumption here is “the United States is also supposed to be a democratic society”.

    Using the word left and right does not mean it’s true. US has one of the least democratic government structures among developed countries.

    Not that it is necessarily a bad thing. The most significant recent example would be the California Proposition 8. In a democracy, the popular vote would have been the end of it. Majority said its word, period. No challenging the results in court (especially, no challenging the constitutionality of the popular vote /after/ the fact).

    So… Get your base facts straight and try again?..

    PS: Also… Had a major laugh at “it is still a democracy (or at least a republic)”. Sounds not much different from “it is still a democracy (or at least a dictatorship)”.

  2. It is still a democracy. A democracy only requires that citizens have a say. It isn’t specific about what say they have. Ancient democracies were limited in who had a say too.

    What could be called a ‘true’ democracy, where everyone gets an equal say in everything, only works with very small groups of tens of people, and even then the ‘will’ of the people is altered by other factors of persuasiveness.

    As soon as you get to a size that can’t comfortably gather and debate you need representative democracy, and that results in other diversions from ‘true’ democracy.

    At that point the factors that matter are the controls put in place to determine how the democracy works.

    The American dream has become (probably always was) the American delusion. It’s always those that ‘made it’ that tell you how good this dream is, and that you could make it too, if only you tried. They neglect to tell you how lucky they were, how much they relied on others being losers, or how they actively walked over others, in order to make it. It is a quite ridiculous notion to think that everyone can make it. There are various hierarchies of capabilities that people have, so as long as the system is competitive, as Capitalism is, there will always be winners and losers.

    Without a really revolutionary change, which is not guaranteed to produce a better system, and might well produce a worse one, as communist revolutions have so far demonstrated, we are stuck trying to improve on what we have.

    The money = power problem is the greatest threat to any democracy that most non-moneyed non-powerful people could accept. And the greatest current problem is that non-elected money has control of elected power.

    The people the people vote for stop acting for the people that voted for them because the people with money are more persuasive to the elected people. Whatever one thinks of Obama’s true democratic and Democrat credibility there’s no doubt he has been hampered by power-money.

    The biggest favour American citizens could do themselves would be to encourage and actively support this: http://www.wolf-pac.com/

  3. s. wallerstein

    One might also wonder how the majority of people get their preferences.

    Our preferences are shaped by the media, by the educational system, by omnipresent advertising and propaganda.

    In general, the media, the educational system and the advertising/propaganda apparatus represent the points of view and the interests of elites.

    So the majority of people are inculcated, from very young ages, with ideas that represent not their own interests, but those of the elite.

    Internet, to a certain extent, counters that, since almost anyone has access to communicating their point of view, but
    in reality, the website of the New York Times, a faithful reflection of the elite mindset, gets a lot more hits than does yours, Mike and has a lot more prestige, not always merited than does your worthy website, Ron Murphy.

    So while the above mentioned research shows that the masses do not always share the mindset of the elite, one wonders why they share the elite’s mindset to the extent that they do, since the interests of the 1% and those of the rest are not generally the same. There is only so much wealth in any given society and how it is distributed is a political issue.

  4. It is difficult for me to envision any group without leaders that make decisions for the group. In that sense “elites” seem unavoidable. The USA government is not democratic but representative- in theory we elect the society government elite. How ever in practice, it seems that this process in heavily conditioned by power interest groups. In summary, I believe we will always be governed by “elites”. But the problem is are these “elites” serving the interests of the society or people or their own interest; and to what degree.
    Mike’s article points to evidence indicating that they serve more their own interests. This appears as a corroboration of simple daily observation. The key questions is how do we balance this currently very unbalanced system. How can we make the elites act more on society interests? How can we limit their currently unchecked behaviour?

  5. John M.,

    I assume that in the long run any elite is going to look after its own interests, whether deliberately or blindly confusing its own interests with the general good. In the short run there are some cases of benevolent elites.

    I agree with you that elites are unavoidable and I also agree with you that the issue is how to check their behaviors. I have no simple solutions and it’s a constant process of citizens informing themselves, informing others and speaking out in order to keep elites from, as I said, either consciously running things in their own interests or unconsciously losing sight of what counts, of what matters for the rest of us.

  6. John M.,

    True-the notion that the US is an oligarchy is an obvious one. As you note, a key challenge is making Locke’s idea of government (that it is for the good of the people) a reality.

  7. S.wallerstein,

    Good point. If people prefer X because they are manipulated or deceived into preferring X, then that could be a problem.

  8. “The ruin of oligarchy is the ruin of democracy…And so tyranny naturally arises out of democracy and the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery out of the most extreme form of liberty?” (Apologies to Plato)
    Christian corporate fascism anyone?

  9. American Oligarchy is a form of american aristocracy both political and business.
    Us constitution is 300 years old and nobody wants to change it.
    why? us politicians are most lazy and most expensive

  10. Dennis Sceviour

    Mike argues against “strong propaganda machines that are devoted to convincing people that the laws and policies are good…they are tricking citizens with deceit and corrupting democracy.” For once, I agree with Mike LaBossiere.

  11. Dennis Sceviour,

    Ah, then I must be wrong. :)

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