Princeton/Northwestern Study – The US is not a democracy but an oligarchy

April 15, 2014

Oligarchy is a form of government in which power is vested in a dominant class and a small group exercises control over the general population.

A new studyfrom Princeton and Northwestern Universities concluded that the U.S. government represents not the interests of the majority of citizens but those of the rich and powerful.

An April 9 report by Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin Page, a political science professor at Northwestern University, finds that the majority does not rule in the United States. The researchers further conclude “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.”

Gilens’ and Page’s paper is entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”.

Since the report’s conclusions fit the definition of an oligarchy — a form of government in which power rests with a small number of people — many journalists immediately seized on that term to describe Gilens’ and Page’s findings. And while the authors did refer to the term in their report (e.g., “Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of ‘Oligarchy,’ in which the wealthiest citizens — even in a ‘civil oligarchy’” like the United States — dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection”) they did not, themselves, use the term to describe the current U.S. power structure.

Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

by Martin Gilens/Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page/Northwestern Universi

Abstract
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors,but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.
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.
Who governs? Who really rules? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless? These questions have animated much important work in the study of American politics.
While this body of research is rich and variegated, it can loosely be divided into four families of theories: Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism – Majoritarian Pluralism, in which the interests of all citizens are more or less equally represented, and Biased Pluralism, in which corporations, business associations, and professional groups predominate) Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or industries.

Full report can be read here.

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