New Report from Princeton and Northwestern Proves It: The U.S. is an Oligarchy

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 we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

- From a recent study titled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University

In response to the publication of an academic study that essentially proves the United States is nothing more than an oligarchy, many commentators have quipped sentiments that go something like “so tell me something I don’t know.” While I agree that the conclusion is far from surprising to anyone paying attention, the study is significant for two main reasons.  

First, there is a certain influential segment of the population which has a disposition which requires empirical evidence and academic studies before they will take any theory seriously. Second, some of the conclusions can actually prove quite helpful to activists who want to have a greater impact in changing things. This shouldn’t be particularly difficult since their impact at the moment is next to zero.

What is most incredible to me is that the data under scrutiny in the study was from 1981-2002. One can only imagine how much worse things have gotten since the 2008 financial crisis. The study found that even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time. We saw this first hand with the bankster bailout in 2008, when Americans across the board were opposed to it, but Congress passed TARP anyway (although they had to vote twice).

Even more importantly, several years of supposed “economic recovery” has not changed the public’s perception of the bankster bailouts. For example, a 2012 study showed that only 23% percent of Americans favored the bank bailouts and the disgust was completely bipartisan, as the Huffington Post points out. 

Personally, I think the banker bailouts will go down as one of the most significant turning points in American history. Despite widespread disapproval, Congress passed TARP and it was at that moment that many Americans “woke up” to the fact they are nothing more than economic slaves with no voice. That they are serfs. Even more importantly, once oligarchs saw what they could get away with they kept doubling down and doubling down until we find ourselves in the precarious position we are in today. A society filled with angst and resentment at the fact that the 0.01% have stolen everything.

Another thing that the study noted was that average citizens sometimes got what they wanted, but this is almost always when their preferences overlap with the oligarchs. When this occurs it is entirely coincidental, and in many cases may the result of public opinion being molded by the elite-controlled special interest groups themselves. How pathetic.

I read the entire 42 page study and have highlighted what I found to be the key excerpts below. Please share with others and enjoy:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

Until very recently, however, it has been impossible to test the differing predictions of these theories against each other within a single statistical model that permits one to analyze the independent effects of each set of actors upon policy outcomes.

A major challenge to majoritarian pluralist theories, however, is posed by Mancur Olson’s argument that collective action by large, dispersed sets of individuals with individually small but collectively large interests tends to be prevented by the “free rider” problem. Barring special circumstances (selective incentives, byproducts, coercion), individuals who would benefit from collective action may have no incentive to personally form or join an organized group. If everyone thinks this way and lets George do it, the job is not likely to get done. This reasoning suggests that Truman’s “potential groups” may in fact be unlikely to form, even if millions of  peoples’ interests are neglected or harmed by government. Aware of the collective action problem, officials may feel free to ignore much of the population and act against the interests of the average citizen.

As to empirical evidence concerning interest groups, it is well established that organized groups regularly lobby and fraternize with public officials; move through revolving doors between public and private employment; provide self-serving information to officials; draft legislation; and spend a great deal of money on election campaigns. Moreover, in harmony with theories of biased pluralism, the evidence clearly indicates that most U.S. interest groups and lobbyists represent business firms or professionals. Relatively few represent the poor or even the economic interests of ordinary workers, particularly now that the U.S. labor movement has become so weak.

What makes possible an empirical effort of this sort is the existence of a unique data set, compiled over many years by one of us (Gilens) for a different but related purpose: for estimating the influence upon public policy of “affluent” citizens, poor citizens, and those in the middle of the income distribution.

Gilens and a small army of research assistants gathered data on a large, diverse set of policy cases: 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 in which a national survey of the general public asked a favor/oppose question about a proposed policy change.

In any case, the imprecision that results from use of our “affluent” proxy is likely to produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites on policy making. If we find substantial effects upon policy even when using this imperfect measure, therefore, it will be reasonable to infer that the impact upon policy of truly wealthy citizens is still greater.

Some particular U.S. membership organizations – especially the AARP and labor unions– do tend to favor the same policies as average citizens. But other membership groups take stands that are unrelated (pro-life and pro-choice groups) or negatively related (gun owners) to what the average American wants. Some membership groups may reflect the views of corporate backers or their most affluent constituents. Others focus on issues on which the public is fairly evenly divided. Whatever the reasons, all mass-based groups taken together simply do not add up, in aggregate, to good representatives of the citizenry as a whole. Business-oriented groups do even worse, with a modest negative over-all correlation of -.10.

The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level. Clearly the median citizen or “median voter” at the heart of theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy does not do well when put up against economic elites and organized interest groups. The chief predictions of pure theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy can be decisively rejected. Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power over policy decisions; they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.

By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy. This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups. Still, economic elites stand out as quite influential – more so than any other set of actors studied here – in the making of U.S. public policy.

The incredible thing here is that they use the 90th percentile to gauge the “economic elite,” when we well know that it is the “oligarchs” themselves and the businesses they run that call all the shots. It would have been interesting if they isolated the impact of the 0.01%.

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.

In our 1,779 policy cases, narrow pro-change majorities of the public got the policy changes they wanted only about 30% of the time. More strikingly, even overwhelmingly large pro-change majorities, with 80% of the public favoring a policy change, got that change only about 43% of the time.

Amidst all of the bad news in this study, there is one conclusion from which we can find a silver lining.

The importance of business groups’ numerical advantage is also revealed when we rescale our measures of business and mass-oriented interest group alignments to reflect the differing number of groups in each of these categories. Using this rescaled measure, a parallel analysis to that in table 4 shows that on a group-for-group basis the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential. The greater total influence of business groups in our analysis results chiefly from the fact that more of them are generally engaged on each issue (roughly twice as many, on average), not that a single business-oriented group has more clout on average than a single mass based group.

Relatively few mass-based interest groups are active, they do not (in the aggregate) represent the public very well, and they have less collective impact on policy than do business-oriented groups – whose stands tend to be negatively related to the preferences of average citizens. These business groups are far more numerous and active; they spend much more money; and they tend to get their way.

What the paragraphs above demonstrate is that the public has become very, very bad at organizing and that they aren’t even in the same ballpark as the the business groups. While mass-based interest groups will never be able to compete financially, we now live in a world of crowd-funding and a great deal of angst. Thus, there appears to be some low hanging fruit available for the activist community to pick at and become more organized.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

But sure, keep chanting USA! USA! and keep sending your children to die overseas for no good reason.

Of course our findings speak most directly to the “first face” of power: the ability of actors to shape policy outcomes on contested issues. But they also reflect – to some degree, at least – the “second face” of power: the ability to shape the agenda of issues that policy makers consider. The set of policy alternatives that we analyze is considerably broader than the set discussed seriously by policy makers or brought to a vote in Congress, and our alternatives are (on average) more popular among the general public than among interest groups. Thus the fate of these policies can reflect policy makers’ refusing to consider them rather than considering but rejecting them. (From our data we cannot distinguish between the two.) Our results speak less clearly to the “third face” of power: the ability of elites to shape the public’s preferences. We know that interest groups and policy makers themselves often devote considerable effort to shaping opinion. If they are successful, this might help explain the high correlation we find between elite and mass preferences. But it cannot have greatly inflated our estimate of average citizens’ influence on policy making, which is near zero.

So what’s the conclusion? Well we aren’t a Democracy and we aren’t a Constitutional Republic. As I and many others have noted, we have descended into something far worse, an neo-fedualistic Oligarchy.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our  findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. 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 U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

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. 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. 

Leaving aside the difficult issue of divergent interests and motives, we would urge that the superior wisdom of economic elites or organized interest groups should not simply be assumed. It should be put to empirical test. New empirical research will be needed to pin down precisely who knows how much, and what, about which public policies. 

Our findings also point toward the need to learn more about exactly which economic elites (the “merely affluent”? the top 1%? the top 0.01%?) have how much impact upon public policy, and to what ends they wield their influence. Similar questions arise about the precise extent of influence of particular sets of organized interest groups. And we need to know more about the policy preferences and the political influence of various actors not considered here, including political party activists, government officials, and other non-economic elites. We hope that our work will encourage further exploration of these issues.

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 we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

So when Sam Zell or any other oligarch prances around on television saying that the “poor should be more like the rich,” what he’s really saying is you need to sell your soul and attempt to become an oligarch. Otherwise, you’re fucked.

This is a truly excellent study and I suggest you read the entire thing here, if you have the time.

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger

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27 Comments

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  1. Ha Ha Ha. Like we really need a study by PhD’s to figure this out?!

  2. I was going to tweet this study at you yesterday, but forgot. Glad you found it anyway!

    Obviously not news, but a study out of ivy league universities (which are usually establishment strongholds) certainly gives our argument more ‘mainstream’ credibility, which is refreshing.

  3. Social democracy is a very destructive social system. Please stop praising it as an Ideal; it is the source of countless ills.
    Educate yourselves, read Hans Hermann Hoppe.
    His books are available for free online.
    In the case, I suggest ‘Democracy: The God that Failed’. Very good read, and the first time I was able to see Democracy for what it really is – a Fraud.

    • As he said himself, even the 19th century’s Monarchies were preferable to the Social Democracies of today.

    • I’ve read Hoppe. He’s an anarcho caapitalist with basically the same childish analysis of life as any radical libertarian. Libertarianism is an ideology that takes one truth, freedom is good, and elevates it to being the only truth, no matter how many suffer and no matter how blind it is to how the market works in the actual world.

      • Don’t come here to tell me how I should live my life. If that is anarcho-capitalism, then you can call me that. Go ‘manage’ someone else’s rights.

        • I am not managing your rights or those of anyone besides my own. But thinking of society entirely in terms of individual rights is philosophically naive and sociologically ignorant. The reason is that rights make sense only when considered in relationship with others,and what constitutes a right has to take into consideration both sides of a relationship.

          • SO that would make me philosophically naive and sociologically ignorant. I guess that gives you authority over me “for society’s sake”. Come here, hang me, then write up a constitution and found your utopia on my bones.

          • Perhaps if you started acting like a grown up you might be able to engage in a conversation. There is rather a large gap between thinking someone is narcissistic and ignorant, and wanting to run their lives let alone hang them. I’m busy enough with mine. But I don’t pay much attention to three year olds in tantrums and I don’t pay much attention to yours.

            Time out!

      • The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all.
        -Bastiat, The Law

      • This reply system is weird and I still haven’t figured it out. I first read Bastiat’s “The Law” maybe 45 years ago or so, I knew it well and once believed he got it right. I no longer do (I like Hayek most among that crowd). I believe strongly in what is called natural rights- but with a twist. Natural rights are the way you show respect to strangers. they do not work well with intimates or children. I wrote on it in the Review of Politics years ago and can send that to you for free if you contact me on Face Book and ask.

        • I ditched facebook- they are, imo, disrespectful of their users (Wanna see your face in an add? Stay on facebook. Beside the tracking and all.)
          You could check out diaspora. It hasnt caught on yet, and they dont have mobile apps, but it’s the first real decentralized and safe social media. Im also on twitter on google(Which I plan on ditching soon also).
          Check it out https://joindiaspora.com/

  4. Exactly the type of society US din’t want to be when it was created.

  5. The first thing the people must be aware of if they want their freedom, is to understand the contracts/agreements they have entered into with the government, allowing the government to make presumptions about your status.

    The second, is understanding jurisdiction. The federal government was created with certain delegated powers and duties, and one of those is the exclusive legislative authority of Congress, which only includes Washington D.C. and it’s possessions, not any of the 50 states of the union. For people to grasp the situation they must understand the words United States has more than one meaning and the word State has been redefined to mean Washington D.C.

    The Federal government has expanded those powers through your consent, by way of your ignorance and their fraud, including but not limited to redefining words.

    You must fully understand this could not happen without the help of the attorneys,media, and big corporate companies, which in turn control the government.

    There are many sources of information on web and many dis-info agents spreading lies and causing much confusion.

    As a start, I would suggest people read the works by Paul Mitchell, including

    The Three United States
    http://www.supremelaw.org/fedzone11/htm/chapter4.htm

    Citizenship for Dummies
    http://www.supremelaw.org/authors/mitchell/citizenship.for.dummies.htm

  6. Crime in Our PEU World

    Our world has politicians Red and Blue. Both love PEU.

    Economic elites and organised 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.

    Research confirms what many of us already knew in our gut.

    http://peureport.blogspot.com/2014/04/crime-in-our-peu-world.html

  7. Ukraine’s Anti Russian Stance Is a Zionist Masterplan

    • Michael Krieger

      Come on man, this video is beneath the content of this site. Some crazy ass Imran who used to think “the Soviet Union collapsed because of Allah’s kindness” now thinks it was “the Jews!” This clown in a costume just shifts from one insane theory to another. In three years he will think aliens caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.

      Let’s focus on the systemic issues at hand rather than getting all caught up in unproductive insanity.

      Best,
      Michael Krieger

  8. excellent summary and analysis. thank you. perhaps someday we will wake up from our sports and entertainment induced coma and decide to do something about it. But then again, be careful for what you wish for. Interestingly, looking at web sites of all factions…liberal, conservative, libertarian ….all seem to admit the conclusions in this study are valid.

    • You’ve sure got analysis in sound bites down. Sure beats having to think about an argument.

      In your sainted market if you don’t like your country club or the dues are too high, you can move. If every house is a rental you find the best rental. As with rental units and country clubs you are free to leave the US at any time. No one will force you to stay.

      There is the libertarian paradise of Somalia where government is very weak, or if that is too competitive for you, try Jamaica. They speak English, are peaceful, are probably more democratic, and have lower taxes than we do. If you don’t leave, what’s your beef? You have made your choice.

      I contributed to a demolition of libertarianism, the collection “Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism” edited by Georgia Kelly. Like any collection the essays are uneven. Mine is the only one by a former libertarian. In it I show how libertarians do not understand the meaning of any of their key concepts. The book is not pricey and I donated all my royalties to the Institute that published it, so I have no financial interest here. Libertarians have done untold damage to this country by taking concepts we all honor, such as freedom, private property, and the individual, and distorting their meaning so that it is hard to appreciate how important the community side of our lives is. It is time to call them mercilessly on their pretence of having a rational social outlook.

    • Sorry Oliver- this was meant for the guy below.

  9. “Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance.”

    There nothing in Democracy to be enjoyed. Nothing. The only possible Freedom is Unlimited Right to Secession, which automatically precludes Democracy.

    So please take your praises of Tyranny back.

  10. How do you break this pattern or cycle, certainly not by elections, the status quo is strong. Overthrow the US Govt? The challenge is to develop an alternative solution to the conventional status quo.

  11. As long as R’s and D’s are in office, nothing will change :(

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