The difference I hear Libertarians wheeze about, that the United States is a Republic Not a Democracy™, is practically irrelevant. My conservative friends and I should agree that the much greater problem is that we are not a democracy but an oligarchy. Research says so:
A study, to appear in the Fall 2014 issue of the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, finds that the U.S. is no democracy, but instead an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, so that the answer to the study’s opening question, "Who governs? Who really rules?" in this country, is:
"Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But, ..." and then they go on to say, it's not true, and that, "America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened" by the findings in this, the first-ever comprehensive scientific study of the subject, which shows that there is instead "the nearly total failure of 'median voter' and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy" [Eric Zuesse, "US Is an Oligarchy Not a Democracy, says Scientific Study," Common Dreams, 2014.04.14].
A PDF draft of the paper Zuesse cites, by Princeton's Martin Gilens and Northwestern's Benjamin I. Page, is available online. Gilens and Page anticipate the possible objection that perhaps wealthy elites are better at making policy than the masses, and they dismiss that objection in favor of faith in the demos:
A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.
But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect.50 Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one's own interests or a determination to work for the common good.
All in all, we believe that the public is likely to be a more certain guardian of its own interests than any feasible alternative [Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens," draft, Perspectives on Politics, forthcoming Fall 2014; posted online at Princeton 2014.04.09].
For hope against research, I look across the border to Canada, where citizens of Kitimat just voted against a Big Oil alternative to Keystone XL:
In a vote cheered as a victory for democracy, one community in British Columbia has given a flat rejection to a proposed tar sands pipeline.
Over 58 percent of voters who headed to the polls in the North Coast municipality of Kitimat on Saturday said "no" to Enbridge's Northern Gateway project.
That project would include a pipeline to carry tar sands crude from near Edmonton, Alberta to Kitimat.
..."The people have spoken. That’s what we wanted — it’s a democratic process," Kitimat Mayor Joanne Monaghan said in a statement following the vote. "We’ll be talking about this Monday night at Council, and then we’ll go from there with whatever Council decides" [Andrea Germanos, "In Small Canadian Town Democracy Wins, Tar Sands Loses," Common Dreams, 2014.04.14].
Voting can beat money. Democracy can beat oligarchy. But we have to work at it. Fellow citizens, keep hope alive.