Study: The U.S. Is an Oligarchy

A new study by researchers from Princeton and Northwestern Universities finds that America's government policies reflect the wishes of the rich and of powerful interest groups, rather than the wishes of the majority of citizens.

The researchers examined close to 1,800 U.S. policy changes in the years between 1981 and 2002; then, they compared those policy changes with the expressed preferences of the median American, at the 50th percentile of income; with affluent Americans, at the 90th percentile of income; and with the position of powerful interest and lobbying groups.

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. Our 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...

Recent research by Larry Bartels and by one of the present authors (Gilens), which explicitly brings the preferences of "affluent" Americans into the analysis along with the preferences of those lower in the income distribution, indicates that the apparent connection between public policy and the preferences of the average citizen may indeed be largely or entirely spurious.

The theory of Economic Elite Domination is fairly self-explanatory. The theory of Biased Pluralism holds that policy outcomes "tend to tilt towards the wishes of corporations and business and professional associations." In essence, the researchers found that government policy changes are correlated with the wishes of the wealthy and with interest groups, but not with the wishes of the average American—even though the whole idea of "Democracy" is to ensure that the wishes of the majority tend to carry the day.

The study notes that the position of the median American and the position of the affluent American are often the same; therefore, regular people tend to think that their political interests are being represented when they see the triumph of some political position that they agree with. In fact, the researchers say, this is a mere coincidence. Yes, the average American will see their interests represented—as long as their interests align with the interests of the wealthy.

Furthermore, the study found that the positions of powerful interest groups are "not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens," meaning that to the extent that special interests groups have political power, they are driving our government's decisionmaking process away from the interests of the average American. Our current system of a competing thicket of special interest groups all fighting for influence is not equal to a true representation of the wishes of the citizenry. "Whatever the reasons," the study says, "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."

Whether or not the majority of Americans will ever tire of being systematically marginalized remains an open question.

[The full study. Image: AP]