Princeton/Northwestern Study Seems to Conclude U.S. an Oligarchy

By:  Warren Mass
Princeton/Northwestern Study Seems to Conclude U.S. an Oligarchy

An April 9 report by Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin Page, a political science professor at Northwestern University, finds that the majority does not rule in the United States.

The researchers further conclude “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.”

Gilens’ and Page’s paper is entitled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”

Since the report’s conclusions fit the definition of an oligarchy — a form of government in which power rests with a small number of people — many journalists immediately seized on that term to describe Gilens’ and Page’s findings. And while the authors did refer to the term in their report (e.g., “Most recently, Jeffrey Winters has posited a comparative theory of ‘Oligarchy,’ in which the wealthiest citizens — even in a ‘civil oligarchy’” like the United States — dominate policy concerning crucial issues of wealth- and income-protection”) they did not, themselves, use the term to describe the current U.S. power structure.

When journalist Matt Phillips of the Quartz news commentary website asked Gilens about the accuracy of the media’s use of oligarchy to describe the report’s conclusions, the professor replied, “It’s not an unfair characterization.” But, upon further consideration, he added, “It’s a little bit alarmist.”

Whether they define the United States as an oligarchy or not — they use the term “economic elite domination” — the professors’ statements strongly point in that direction, prompting pundits to supply the presumed label. As one example, the professors wrote:

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.

In compiling their research, the authors define and study what they consider to be the “four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics.” They label these four theories as Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and “two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism.” These can be briefly defined as follows:

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