Economic Elites Rule

From Talking Points Memo:

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

TPM

TPM does an interview with one of the authors, Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton.

If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from it is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that’s my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — although not exclusively — business.

An interesting addendum to this study is a brief article by Kathleen Geier for the Washington Monthly in which she calls attention to a White House meeting with teen-age billionaire philanthropists:

Today’s New York Times — in the Fashion and Style section, but of course! — reports on a White House meeting of “100 young philanthropists and heirs to billionaire family fortunes.” Some of the people quoted in the article are as young as 19, and they are from family names you’ll recognize: Marriott, Pritzker, Rockefeller, etc.

The whole article is creepy beyond belief. Let me count a few of the ways: And, do read!

Of course it’s nice that the young want to find good ways to help others but the point of living in a democratic society is that we-the-people should be deciding the major items on the agenda.  If the wealthy want to help around the edges, fine.  But when the billionaire few call the shots what you get is what they want.