According to a new Princeton study, the U.S. can no longer be strictly called a democracy, as ordinary citizens have effectively lost their say over public policy. Instead, the U.S. more precisely resembles an oligarchy, or a form of government in which the economic elite — less than 1 percent of the population — has control over most of the policymaking decisions.
The study, conducted by Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern University, will be published this fall in the journal Perspectives on Politics. Their conclusions, though unsurprising, are nevertheless chilling and raise some serious questions about the direction our country is headed in.
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.
To be clear, Gilens and Page never use the word “oligarchy” in their report, instead using the phrase “economic elite domination.” But this is all semantics. Our lawmakers are being economically dominated by the most affluent individuals in America such as Charles and David Koch, who push policy in their favor rather than that of the majority of the U.S. population.
Gilens and Page insist ordinary Americans are hoodwinked into believing that they have any real decision-making powers. With the advancement of Citizens United and the Supreme Court’s recent lifting of federal campaign donation limits, a vast majority of the population has little hope at convincing legislators to take up their cause.
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.
The study shows above all else that when the economic elites favor something, it tends to happen. Conversely, when they oppose something, it is extremely unlikely to happen. In essence, then, they wield a sort of citizens’ veto power. This is grim news indeed.
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.
What this means, unfortunately, is that the “status quo bias” guarantees the longevity of this oligarchic form of government which began to emerge thirty years ago during the Reagan administration.
President Calvin Coolidge once said that “the chief business of the American people is business.” Now, it seems, business is also our master.