The American Oligarchy
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.