3 Reasons the U.S. May Not Be a Democracy

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Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page are two academics that have everyone abuzz with their new study, “Testing Theories of American Politics.” It is from this data that so many publications are drawing the claim that the United States is, in fact, an Oligarchy rather than a Democracy. Gilens and Page never actually come out and say this of course. The word Oligarchy is never used, but the inference is no great leap — and here’s why.

1. Money Matters Most

The study compares the influence different groups of Americans have on policy changes; basically, which interests matter more? The answer, according to Gilens and Page, is quite clearly that money matters most. They say that, “Both individual economic elites and organized interest groups … play a substantial part in affecting public policy [while] the general public has little or no independent influence.” Of course, the goals and preferences of elites and average citizens often line up rather conveniently, however, when this is not the case, elite opinions win out hands down.

This has obvious implications when it comes to political strength and equality, as Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and co-director for the Center and the American Enterprise Institute. In a piece for The New York Times, he noted that if policies are based largely on elite opinion, those that would “worsen economic inequality but are supported by elites and business” are likely to pass regardless of effect on others, or opinions of lower and middle class Americans. This means that the power balance as it stands would reenforce itself as wealthier Americans choose policies that benefit their own positions, and those policies disproportionately pass in favor of others.

2. Interest Groups vs. Average Americans

The study shows, upon consideration of 1,779 policy outcomes, that when net interest groups — often meaning business groups — opinion and affluent Americans’ opinions are taken into account, “it makes very little difference what the general public thinks.” The report makes the point that if interest groups were working to further the opinions of average citizens this would work in their favor; having a large and well organized group with the advantages of pooled funding and education working for citizens political benefit on average interests would certainly be a boon. However, Gilens and Page both assert that this is not the case, rather “they are not in fact significantly correlated at all,” and further, “Interest group alignments are almost totally unrelated to the preferences of average citizens,” according to their findings.

Gilen Study Table

Economic elites may share preferences with average Americans, with a .78 correlation between the two, and this may combat some of the political power imbalances, but the same cannot be said of interest groups.

3. Median Does Not Rule

The study asks, “What are we to make of findings” that suggest “the average citizens or the ‘median voter’ has little or no independent influence on public policy?” It lists the loss of median opinion as proof that America does not match up with “theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy,” though majority and median are not the same thing in this case — as we’ll consider later. Either way, the long held idea that average Americans have a say is dismissed by Gilens and Page, who say that, “Not only do ordinary citizens not have uniquely substantial power … they have little or no independent influence on policy at all.” 

Of course, there are certainly legitimate counter arguments to the study’s points. Scott Winship from the Manhattan Institute argues in The New York Times that it’s possible that the data shown in the study is explainable through other means. For example, that votership is higher among higher socioeconomic groups than middle class. He also suggests that, “Wealthier Americans and business groups are better informed about policy,” and that therefore, they may choose policies that “may, by some measure, actually be better.” However, it is arguable that for better or worse, the point about power inequality would stand.

James Stimson, Professor of Political Science at University of North Carolina, argued in The New York Times that the study fails to do justice to public opinion, and that “we have a constitutional structure that makes [politicians] attuned to the important subgroup of Americans who turn out at the polls.” Based on Republican efforts to win over Hispanic voters with groups like the Koch brothers’ Libre Initiative, which offers classes in English, help gaining a driver’s license, and other programs, this is a fair point. However, the point only stands if voters show up at the polls, and if those numbers can balance out the power of money — something even Stimson admits may not be the case.

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