April 19, 2014
Data Show the US Is an Oligarchy

If you haven’t yet read about the study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, it apparently collects a pretty fair amount of data and comes to an unsurprising conclusion, corresponding with your suspicions about how much political power you actually have. The authors’ summation of their results is that “economic elites and organized interest groups play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.”

Briefly, the study looked at the results of 1,779 polls taken between 1981 and 2002 that asked for opinions on proposed policy changes and also included information on respondents’ incomes. Those with incomes at the fiftieth percentile were considered to represent average citizens while those at the ninetieth represented the economic elites. The study also compiled the opinions of a number of large interest groups as varied as AARP, the Christian Coalition, the NRA, the American Legion, and AIPAC. Finally, the authors generated correlation coefficients to disentangle the knotty problem of how much influence these three segments of the American populace wield over the policies the government ends up undertaking.

Andrew Prokop at Vox presents slightly edited graphics showing the situation at a glance. The first shows average citizens’ influence, which is plotted on the vertical axis. The percentage of average citizens who agree on a topic is on the horizontal, so that the left edge represents less agreement and the right edge greater.


If you’re wondering why you’re not really seeing any effect, it’s because there isn’t any. Basically, whether 10% or 90% of the population agrees on a course of action doesn’t matter with respect to what the government decides to do. Now let’s examine the economic elites and the interest groups for comparison. (Click on the image for a full-size version.)


The data appear to be solidly behind the US-as-oligarchy meme. The economic elites and interest groups often get what they want if most of them agree, whereas average citizens really only get what they want when the elites want it too. This makes it harder to realize that we actually have no influence, because we sometimes do get what we want. It’s just that it’s happenstance.

Has anyone read the Thomas Picketty book that I’ve seen so many stories about? I haven’t yet had time even to read many reviews, though I saw The Nation’s was supposed to be something like 10,000 words. If everyone would just stop writing for a bit while I catch up…!


Posted by Chuck Dupree at April 19, 2014 02:36 AM
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So, wait a minute, isn't there a need for data on whether "ordinary people" can enter/influence "interest groups" if they wish to do so? Why are people and organizations viewed as necessarily different from each other, and if so, by whom, to what end?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 20, 2014 10:49 PM
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