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The ‘Duh’ Report: Study says America is an Oligarchy, not a Democracy

Apr 15, 2014

Someone, fetch me my smelling salts! A new study conducted by Princeton and Northwestern Universities is showing that, although America is always going on about how it is a Democracy, it is, in fact, an Oligarchy. Or, rather, it is a Plutocratic Oligarchy, meaning that the vast majority of decisions are made to benefit a small amount of very rich people.

The researchers studied 1,779 policy changes made between 1981 and 2002, and judged them based on what the super rich people wanted, versus what the median voter wanted, versus what powerful lobbies wanted. Shockingly, the rich people and their lobbies got their way the vast majority of the time, with the median voter really only getting what he or she wanted when it was in line with the wishes of the affluent.

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. 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.

So, basically what this study is saying is that, quite honestly, your vote doesn’t count for shit, and although apparently we’re supposed to be under the assumption that lobbying groups speak for us, the people, and that the rich people who purchase our elected leaders have our best interests at heart, they do not. Big surprise.

After analyzing various kinds of governments, the researchers came to the conclusion that the term that best represents our current situation is Economic Elite Domination (or, you know, plutocracy).

“Economic Elite Domination theories do rather well in our analysis, even though our findings probably understate the political influence of elites. Our measure of the preferences of wealthy or elite Americans – though useful, and the best we could generate for a large set of policy cases – is probably less consistent with the relevant preferences than are our measures of the views of ordinary citizens or the alignments of engaged interest groups. Yet we found substantial estimated effects even when using this imperfect measure. The real-world impact of elites upon public policy may be still greater.”

Given that this study only measured policy changes that were enacted between the years 1981-2002, it is highly likely that things are even worse now than the study suggests. Certainly, rulings like Citizens United and McCutcheon are going to have a profound effect on our oligarchical situation here, and it’s going to become even more profoundly ridiculous that any of us thinks we have a say in our government. Which, let’s face it, with the electoral college it already kind of is.

Do I have a solution for this? Not really. I’d like to go the Ralph Nader route and eliminate private money in public campaigns entirely. I’d like to eliminate PACs, corporate contributions and soft money. I’d like to get rid of Citizens United and McCutcheon. I just don’t think a rich person ought to have any more say in government than a poor person does, and that includes having the opportunity to finance the politician he or she supports. But alas, these ideas are merely pipe dreams. Perhaps we ought to suck it up, admit we have a classist society and do like England where we have a House of Lords and a House of Commons, instead of pretending as though we all have some kind of equal opportunity here.

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