Democracy? Republic? An oligarchy, madam
Government is a reflection of the people who comprise it – fluid, evolving, ideally adaptive to the needs and growth of the governed.
It’s why so often constitutions are referred to as “living” documents. Knowledge expands and needs change across centuries, so the best are drafted with the flexibility of broad interpretation and even reinterpretation (e.g., votes for women, abolition of slavery).
Sometimes, however, a step back reveals too far a departure from the principles society holds dear.
Lately a political drumbeat has become louder, used or misused to defend further limitations on the powers of the people: that America is “a republic, not a democracy.” Not that they are mutually exclusive.
A constitutional republic can certainly be a democratic form of government, as a representative democracy. Yet it’s true ours is not a direct democracy. Citizens don’t vote on each issue, but elect representatives to do it for them.
As the oft-quoted James Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, “We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices … for a limited period.”
That model doesn’t necessarily reflect the majority’s will. Consider five presidents who lost the popular votes but still won the election (Trump, Bush in 2000, Adams, Harrison, and Hayes).
Certain (mostly state legislative) legal maneuvers are attempting to reduce the strength of the popular voice: Gerrymandering efforts to redraw districts to cut out certain voting inclinations or profiles within them. Moves to constrict absentee voting, limit hours, or reduce ballot drop-off locations, essentially making the voting process harder.
If to some that feels like this nation is betraying the spirit of democratic ideals on both a state and federal level, there’s one more thing to consider. For a country representing itself to the world as a model of democratic ideals, or as Madison’s republic which “derives its powers” from the people, research indicates our system isn't behaving as one.
A major Princeton University study concluded the U.S. functions neither as “republic” nor “democracy” but as an oligarchy for the better part of 50 years.
An oligarchy is a form of government controlled by a small group of people who have most of the power. In 1700s England, that small group was the aristocracy — distinguished by nobility, wealth, and family ties.
Similar government forms, such as plutocracy, also involve rule by the few; the difference is that an oligarchy has the additional and unsavory connotation of corruption. That’s not opinion; Webster’s Dictionary defines oligarchy as "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes."
Using American laws and policies since 1981 in a results-oriented analysis, researchers at Princeton and Northwestern universities issued the 2014 report, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” to empirically assess the U.S. political system.
Comparing how much American policies and laws matched the expressed preferences of the rich, industries, special interests and the common citizens, they found (with some overlap of interests):
Wealthiest (top percent of income) 78 percent match; business groups, 43 percent; special interest groups, 24 percent; and citizens, 5 percent.
Once more: For average American voters, only a 5 percent match of their preferences with policies and laws since 1981.
Simply put, the American masses — who should be the heart of a free nation and have the most influence — have little to no effective influence on policy. The report’s summary states:
“Economic (wealthy) elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”
Let that sink in. The report confirmed that government, at least from 1981 forward, does not represent the interests of the majority of its citizens, but is instead heavily influenced by those of the richest and most economically powerful — according to the mismatch of its own laws and policies enacted in that period, and against the expressed wishes of its citizen majorities. Looking at the percentages, their interests don’t align with the rest of us.
What’s the fix? Suggestions include increasing access to voting, significant campaign finance reform and perhaps a revamping or elimination of the archaic electoral college system (so the presidential candidate with the most popular votes actually wins).
“When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites 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,” wrote the study’s authors.
Who are these American oligarchs?
The report suggests we’ve simply substituted a different kind of aristocracy, capitalist style. Instead of the king’s nobles, the oligarchs are the very rich and select big business, with their disproportionate and massive ability to influence lawmakers.
A rose by any other name … One way or another, big money, not the masses, rules. And can buy power.
Now this is America. We are capitalists, and that’s fine. But since more than 90 percent of American businesses are classified as “small business,” it’s interesting to note that the vast small-business majority is not the group with power whose interests are being met – yet they pay most of the taxes (Pew Research 2021 found 60 percent of Americans believe the wealthiest don’t pay their fair share).
The theory of “biased pluralism” that the researchers found most accurately fits the U.S. system holds that law and policy outcomes “tilt toward the wishes of large corporations and business and professional associations” (big lobbies).
This study followed a controversial Supreme Court case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, a case abolishing statutory limits on campaign contributions, calling such contributions “free speech.”
If money is speech, then only a select few are loud enough to be heard. Whatever our form of government, that’s probably not what we were aiming for.
(Thanks to reader Jean for the topic suggestion.)
Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network and former state lobbyist. Email: Sholeh@cdapress.com