If sometimes it feels this nation is betraying its founding ideals, that’s because it is.
For a country that represents itself as a model of democracy, research indicates we aren’t behaving as one. Nor is it anything new.
Rather, according to a Princeton University study, the United States’ form of government functions as an oligarchy, going back decades. This is not good news.
An oligarchy is defined as a form of government whereby a small group of people have control; a structure in which power rests with a small number of people. In 1700s England, that small group was the aristocracy — distinguished by nobility, wealth, and family ties.
Similar government forms, such as plutocracy, also involve rule by the few; the difference is that oligarchy has the additional and unsavory connotation of corruption.
That’s right, corruption. That’s not opinion; it’s Webster’s Dictionary’s definition.
Using our own national laws and policies since 1981 in a results-oriented analysis, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities examined the U.S. style of government and issued the 2014 report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” to empirically determine the state of the U.S. political system.
Comparing how much policies and laws matched the expressed preferences of these groups, the results (with some overlap of interests) were:
Wealthiest (top percent of income) 78 percent; business groups, 43 percent; special interest groups, 24 percent; and citizens, 5 percent.
Simply put, the American masses — who should be the heart of a democracy and have the most influence — have little to no influence on policy and their federal government. The report’s summary states:
“Economic (wealthy) 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.”
Let that sink in. The U.S. government, at least from 1981 forward, does not represent the interests of the majority of its citizens, but is instead ruled by those of the rich and economically powerful — according to the mismatch of its own laws and policies enacted in that period, against the expressed wishes of its citizen majorities.
As reported in Business Insider, researchers concluded that U.S. government policies rarely align with the preferences of the majority of Americans, but do favor special interests and lobbying organizations.
What’s the fix? Significant campaign finance reform and, many argue, a revamping or elimination of the archaic electoral college system (so the presidential candidate with the most popular votes actually wins).
“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,” wrote the study’s authors.
Who are these American oligarchs?
The report suggests we’ve simply substituted a different kind of aristocracy, capitalist style. Instead of the king’s favors, the oligarchs are the very rich and select big business, with their disproportionate and massive ability to influence lawmakers.
A rose by any other name … One way or another, money, not the masses, still rules. And can buy power.
The theory of “biased pluralism” that Princeton and Northwestern researchers found most accurately fits the U.S. system holds that law and policy outcomes “tilt toward the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations” (big lobbies).
This study followed a controversial Supreme Court case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a controversial case abolishing statutory limits on campaign contributions, calling such contributions “free speech.”
If money is speech, then only a select few are loud enough to be heard. That’s not a democracy.
Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and former state lobbyist. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.