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U.S. more oligarchy than democracy, study suggests

A new study has found that elites and business interests wield the most political influence.
Supporters cast shadows on a U.S. flag as they cheer during a campaign rally.
Supporters cast shadows on a U.S. flag as they cheer during a campaign rally.

Americans may like to think they live in a Democracy, but a new study suggests the opinions of a moneyed elite class are far more influential than those of the masses.

The study, by professors at Northwestern and Princeton, found that policies supported by economic elites and business interest groups were far more likely to become law than those they opposed.

It also found that the preferences of the middle class made essentially no difference to a bill’s fate.

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence,” Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page wrote in the study, titled "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens."

While Gilens and Page call the state of the current political system “economic elite domination,” another term could also be used: Oligarchy, otherwise known as a system in which power rests with a small number of economically or politically advantaged people.

The study looked at nearly 1,800 policy issues over a 20-year period between 1982 and 2002. According to their data, when the rich support a policy, it has a 45% chance of becoming law. And when they oppose it, it has only an 18% chance of being enacted.

“In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it," the study said.

Other studies have shown that income inequality has grown in recent years. An economist at the University of California-Berkeley estimated that between 2009 and 2012, the richest 1% of Americans held 95% of all income growth.

Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and the more recent McCutcheon v. FEC have made it easier for corporations and wealthy individuals to spend money for political purposes, which could increase their influence over elections and eventually policy decisions.

“We believe,” the study’s authors concluded, “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.”