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PoliSci Research: America Oligarchy, Not a Democracy

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.


  1. mike from iowa 2014.04.17

    Monied elites certainly know which programs will benefit everyone.....of their friends. They also know how to game the gubmint and force their employees to rely on gubmint welfare that the monied elites call socialism and don't want to pay taxes to support.

  2. Kal Lis 2014.04.17

    As always, I appreciate your optimism. I have trouble, however, getting from

    "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"

    to "Voting can beat money. Democracy can beat oligarchy." I think the best we can hope for is the political equivalent of Chief Joseph's retreat.

  3. Jana 2014.04.17

    Amen brother!

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.04.17

    But where would we go to fight no more forever, Kal Lis? To reservations in our own land?

  5. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.17

    This is so troubling. I wish it was surprising as well.

    Throughout my 61 years, the" doom of democracy in the US" scenarios that have been most compelling always involved corporate takeover of this nation.

    When the GWB/Cheney cabal took over in 2000, they were very open about their support for oligarchy, including complete corruption of the justice system.

    That's when my fears rose precipitously. The cooptation of large numbers of the American populace through psychological manipulation shocked me. Beginning in my 20s, in the 1970s, I've watched the slow, deliberate unfolding of this process.

    I never believed they would get this far. I never believed there was that much evil in the US. I never believed that many of the citizens were so easily manipulated.

    My disbelief, and that of people like me, is something the power elite have always counted on. "Good people do nothing." I share responsibility for the American Oligarchy with about 99% of the rest of the citizenry.

  6. South DaCola 2014.04.17

    Not to bogart this comment area, but DaCola is back!

  7. Roger Cornelius 2014.04.17

    Good points Deb.

    What has always disturbed me is the large number of citizens that do not vote, for whatever reasons. Our national elections, at best, have a turnout of 27-30% of the electorate.
    If the number of eligible voters did their duty, we would likely have more than a two party system from which to choose.
    Using food stamps as just one example of obligatory America we should ask who profits the most from food stamps? It certainly isn't the one with the EBT card.
    Republicans complain about the number of lazy people using this program but never do anything about it. The tea party cheers when the GOP throws them a bone by cutting some benefits. The GOP does not dare get rid of the program entirely since it provides a significant income to some of their supporters.
    Their protectors, lobbyist, spread money around D.C. to keep the money flowing and out of the other side of their mouths condemn the program.
    The same could be said of almost any government agency or program whether it be the farm bill, defense, transportation, etc.
    Today in a Rapid City Journal editorial, they were critical of of the personnel cuts being made at Ellsworth Air Force Base lamenting that those decreases will weaken our defense. The Journal on a regular basis continually complains about the nation's debt and government spending.
    And that is the problem, cut the programs that don't personally benefit me or that will cause a relative a decrease in income. Cut the rest.
    This vicious economic system has caused most American to lose control of their own destiny, they know they will never have enough money to profit from the government.

  8. grudznick 2014.04.17

    Mr. DaCola you are dabest libbie out there. Keep your foot on the throat of your town.

  9. Paladin 2014.04.17

    Whatever happened to the concept of popularization of thought? Knowledge of public policy and macroeconomics is not and has never been understood by the majority. Such would require thought and basic analysis by our friends and neighbors. It would also mean the the destruction of the current political parties -- those entities that wish us yo vote for a candidate purely because they have a "D" or a "R" following their name on the ballot. Our current elected officials are safe; our voters will choose to stay away from the polls or not care. And the beat goes on ......

  10. John 2014.04.18

    The biggest shock among those who broke into a Philadelphia FBI office in 1971 wasn't that the FBI was heavy into domestic spying of the late Martin Luther King, anti-war activists, and hundreds, thousands of other Americans - it was the vast network of snitches the FBI cultivated, more than enough to embarrass the Stasi. Rest assured the situation today is worse for instead of turning your neighbors to snitch, the government turned the electronic media and NSA to spy on us. Yep, we're an oligarchy and elections are irrelevant to the lives of most Americans.

  11. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.18

    Why aren't any of the GWB/Cheney criminals in prison? Because they work for, and are part of the Oligarchy.

    Why are the hyper-polluting Polymet mine in Northern MN and the uranium mining in the Hills even being considered? Because the Oligarchy wants them.

    Why is Big Money, via SCOTUS, ruling elections? Because the Oligarchy likes it that way.

    Why are the Jim Crow voter suppression laws passing in the states? Because the Oligarchy likes to control who votes.

    Why are the Jim Crow laws that fraudulently incarcerate and disenfranchise 1/3+ of all dark-skinned American males not reformed? Because the Oligarchy wants them disenfranchised.

    Why do multinational, mega wealthy corporations continue to receive massive welfare subsidies while SD ranchers can't get much help to deal with blizzards? Because the Oligarchy is afflicted with insatiable greed, and no morals.

  12. Ken Blanchard 2014.04.18

    I hate to break this to you, Cory, but most Americans are in favor of Keystone XL. Were you disappointed that President Obama did what he is best at and delayed a decision? Or were you happy that he didn't do what study after study indicated? You oligarch, you.

  13. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.04.18

    Mr. Blanchard, doesn't an oligarch, by definition, require possession of a certain level of power? It appears that SD Republicans have substantially more power than any of us Madizens, including the illustrious Mr. Heidelberger.

    Nice try Blanchard, but you are wrong, and not for the first time. Join us fallible humans.

  14. larry kurtz 2014.04.19

    Ken: you're not dead!

  15. larry kurtz 2014.04.19

    Most Americans are in favor of criminal trials for W and his henchpersons, in favor of unilateral disarmament, in favor of free public education and health care, need i go on?

  16. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.04.19

    Ken, 200 million people can be wrong. I serve no rich and powerful elites in supporting local landowner property rights over foreign corporate interests.

  17. Donald Pay 2014.04.19

    I suspect that if Keystone XL had to pass votes in each of the counties and states that it was going to cross, it would go down in a good number. The politicians can be bought, but not the grassroots folks. So, let's open the Keystone XL up to the sort of democracy the Ken has always opposed. If Keystone loses a vote in any of the counties and states it crosses, it is can't be built. And then let's put Governor Daugaard's nuclear dump up for a vote as well.

  18. Ken Blanchard 2014.04.19

    Cory: so you are on the side of Cliven Bundy and his Tea Party terrorists? Welcome to the right, my friend. I can't wait to see you side with landowners against the EPA.

    Meanwhile all of you side with such downtrodden members of the underclass as Robert Redford and billionaires Tom Steyer and Warren Buffet (not to mention the Saudis). All for what? To keep the oil moving on trains instead of in a pipeline. This is some circus you put on.

  19. Les 2014.04.19

    Keystone would pass in SD, unfortunately voters do what they think is best for them, not others. For all who think Nukuleer waste and production is fine, check out Hanford. My friends son in law works there as a contractor. It is beyond comprehension and don't say it can't still happen here.

  20. larry kurtz 2014.04.19

    Ken: put down the meth pipe.

    KXL will never be completed and not just because Pierre Shale makes it untenable. Diluted bitumen is already being refined in North Dakota and in Canada: building some pipeline to relieve some perceived stress on railroads would only accelerate ecocide.

  21. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.04.19

    Oh, crap, Ken. I've been trying to steer clear of the Bundy circus. You're right; he sounds like a terrorist. But don't cloud the issue; Bundy's story is not relevant here. Bundy vs. Uncle Sam is not the same as SD landowners vs. a private foreign corporation. Taking land for public purposes is not the same as taking land for private profit. The analogy you want for KXL is Kelo vs. New London. Bundy looks like he's doing reverse eminent domain, taking public land for his private profit without compensating the public.

    Don reminds us that my main example was the vote in Kitimat. The people who would have to live with the consequences of these big pipelines don't want them.

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