A Princeton study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page has found that the US does not function like a democracy, but instead like an oligarchy. The idea is not new. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, the financial crisis bailouts that subsidized our richest banks, and growing income disparity have been reported ad nauseam–and loudly decried as democracy crushers. (The Occupy Wall Street movement emerged to bring transparency and attention to this influence disparity, if not quite to combat it.) But the Gilens and Page study shows a more entrenched elite power structure than was generally contemplated by the media and the public.
Comparing nearly 1,800 policy initiatives over 30 years beginning in 1981, the study found that legislation responded to a small minority of wealthy interest groups far more often that it reflected the expressed desires of the general American public. Or as the scholars put it: “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The data Gilens and Page mine terminates long before most of the recent class war uproar–ignited by the burst housing bubble and the bank meltdown–even began. The study shows that this powerful minority’s dominant influence on policy long preceded Citizens United, et al. Another notable finding is that even on those occasions when the majority’s and the oligarchy’s interests dovetail, the discourse has already been so thoroughly dictated by the oligarchy that a citizen’s opinion–still a useful public relations tool–is compromised before it’s even rendered.
Study: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. (Authors: Martin Gilens, Princeton University; Benjamin I. Page, Northwestern University.)