Matt Stoller believes that the recent pre-publication release of a study by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page doesn’t support the idea that the United States is an oligarchy yet. He says:

A lot of people are misreading this Princeton study on the political influence of the wealthy and business groups versus ordinary citizens. The study does not say that the US is an oligarchy, wherein the wealthy control politics with an iron fist. If it were, then things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc wouldn’t exist.

What the study actually says is that American voters are disorganized and their individualized preferences don’t matter unless voters group themselves into mass membership organizations. Then, if people belong to mass membership organizations, their preferences do matter, but less so than business groups and the wealthy.

Well, it’s true that Gilens and Page never say that United States is an oligarchy, and perhaps it’s also true that they don’t believe it. But they do say this:

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of ‘populistic’ democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. 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.’

And they’re right. Their data refute the idea that the preferences of the majority are, by-and-large, or even frequently, enacted into law in today’s United States. Insofar, as that’s a necessary condition for having a constitutional democracy, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that right now the United States doesn’t have one. That finding has further implications.

First, the US doesn’t have either mob rule or constitutional democracy. Nor does the study show that the political system is paralyzed, in spite of all the complaints about excessive partisanship and stalemate in Washington. So someone is ruling. Who is it?

Second, it shows that, mostly, economic elites and interest groups representing them, many of them virtual puppets of the economic elite and corporations, are getting their way. Also, it doesn’t show that one individual is getting his/her way. That means there’s no King or Queen ruling, and also that there isn’t a single tyrant ruling. So, we can conclude that, mostly, the economic elites and their interest groups are ruling. How are they ruling?

Well, third, even though there are legislative and judicial forms specified in the Constitution being followed; there are many elements of current elite rule that are neither constitutional nor legal. For example, is it legal and/or constitutional for the Executive Branch to use prosecutorial discretion as a tool to refuse to go after the big banks for their blatantly illegal behavior leading to the mortgage crisis, the failure of major financial institutions, and the world economy? Is it constitutional and legal for the President of the United States to use drones to kill US citizens without legal or constitutional due process? Is it legal or constitutional for the President to use drones to violate the sovereign territory of other nations through drone strikes without the consent of the authorities of those nations?

Is it legal or constitutional for the big banks to use fraudulent documents to implement foreclosures? Is it legal or constitutional for the Administration to refuse to prosecute officers and employees of the big banks for committing these frauds? Is it legal or constitutional for local governments and the DHS to violate the rights of free speech and free assembly of Occupy protestors across the country in order to protect elite financial interests? Is it legal or constitutional for Justices of the Supreme Court to interpret the 14th amendment as conferring the liberties of biological individuals on organizations whose legal existence is an artificial legal construct? Are the Justices who are doing this not the products of influence previously exercised by the economic elite?

Is it legal or constitutional for State legislatures to enact and attempt to enforce laws to suppress voting rights of minorities and other groups across the country; as well as laws effectively removing the right to choose to end their pregnanicies of women with limited financial resources to exercise that right? Is it legal or constitutional to apply the law harshly to racial and ethnic minorities, and the poor, while refusing to apply it at all to members of the economic elite and their companies?

The answers to all these questions suggest that the non-democratic, non-monarchical rule validated by the Princeton Study is also rule by the economic elite that is a good deal less than constitutional or just. In my book, that makes it rule by the relatively few that is unjust, and isn’t that the definition of oligarchy, whether Gilens and Page say so explicitly or not?

Yes, it’s true that the wealthy and the very largest corporations do not yet control politics with an iron fist. But I think the criterion of controlling politics by using an iron fist, isn’t a necessary criterion for applying the term oligarchy. One reason is that “control” is a word implying mechanical cause and effect. The image is that the economic elite does something which necessarily “causes” its intent to be realized. But that’s an image inappropriate for human affairs.

Segments of the economic elite are able bring much power and influence to bear aimed at getting a particular result from the political system in areas that concern them. But there is always the problem of unintended consequences in human affairs, and occasional failures to even pass legislation the elites favor. Control in a mechanical sense doesn’t exist.

At best the elites can create a strong propensity for the political system to follow one path rather than another. But elites cannot determine the path they want. If they could, then oligarchies would never fail or fall, and there would be no other forms of politics. So,”control” doesn’t work as an element in defining oligarchy.

A second reason why the definition doesn’t work is the falsity of the idea that an “iron fist” is necessary to have an oligarchy. Oligarchies may resort to brutal force as a favored method of rule sooner or later. But, the defining characteristic of oligarchy is unjust or illegitimate rule of the few, based on various instruments of power and influence, not necessarily the use of the “iron fist” as its primary method of choice.

In the US, the economic elite dominates policy across a wide spectrum of issues through legal and sometimes not so legal bribery, ownership of the main mass communication outlets, and using political and economic influence to avoid prosecution and pay minimal fines for illegal behavior. They limit the choices of the major parties for local, state, and national offices to individuals they believe are either friendly or at least not overly hostile to them, and to issues that distract attention from issues of growing inequality and their own domination of poliics. They manipulate communications and opinion in such a way that the economic world view of the public views the main principles of neoliberal ideology as “common sense.”

The ability for voters to see the truth about the behavior of elites and oligarchy is severely compromised by the influence over messaging and communications of the financial oligarchy; more and more, elite-dominated communications creates ‘reality’ for Americans. The actual reality of elite performance and the causes and cures of poor outcomes are viewed through a glass darkly, only.

For democracy to function well, the truth about the reality of elite performance must be much more available and accessible to the efforts of citizens to arrive at it, than it is now. But, increasingly, it is not. So, the two most important underlying conditions of democracy, the ability for people to arrive at the truth (their cognitive function), and their ability to act on the truth to change elites (their participative function) are both undermined increasingly over time.

As Soros rightly asks in The Age of Fallibility (p.110), “Who will enlighten the public” when these functions are compromised? And if the public cannot become enlightened, how can it keep the politicians and political operatives honest and focused on protecting the common good and the public trust? How can it prevent officeholders from orienting themselves primarily toward pleasing the economic elite?

As for “. . . things like Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, veterans programs, housing finance programs, etc . . . “ not existing if the US were not an oligarchy, that may be true in the long run, but give it time. All of these programs have come under attack by those who represent one or another segment of the economic elite, and all of them have either been frozen in place or lost ground. Their continued existence may mean that the oligarchy is only emergent at this point and not quite there yet. Or it may mean that in spite of its existence, enough nay-saying power still exists among the recipients of these programs that it would be risky to maintaining the oligarchy to push too hard for cutbacks or for eliminating them entirely.

The more one thinks about American oligarchy, the more it seems that the difference between statements like “America is not an oligarchy. But is becoming one as unions die,” and statements like “America is now an oligarchy and the oligarchy is getting more deeply entrenched as unions die,” are mere semantics, a matter of how one chooses to define oligarchy. The fact is that the US isn’t a democratic system, if it ever was one. And that economic elites now dominate politics and get their way far more often than the overwhelming majority of people get their preferences legislated. The fact is also that rule of these elites occurs through the use of illegitimate influence in the political system. So we have rule by the relatively few which is often unjust: i.e. oligarchy

If one wants to say that we now have an oligarchy, and someone else wants to say, we’re not quite there yet, but will be when a few more changes occur, that difference, alone, has little or no effect on practical action, unless one makes the further inference that if the US indeed has an oligarchy, then there’s no use resisting what the oligarchs want and attempting to transition to a democracy, where the majority can have the necessary influence to see that its interests are represented. But I don’t see people writing about oligarchy claiming anything like that. Instead, I see people who talk about oligarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy, supporting activism and doing whatever they can to turn the oligarchy into something else.

So, I think the fear that if one acknowledges that oligarchy exists, then one is either supporting or giving comfort to defeatism is unwarranted. That position doesn’t follow; precisely because there are many ways in which oligarchy can be undermined and overthrown, and that its existence at any time, doesn’t guarantee its continuance, any more than the existence of tyranny, or aristocracy guarantees their future viability.

When opposing either oligarchy or emergent oligarchy, however, I think there is one very important thing to keep in mind and that is Robert Michels’s (p. 400) “Iron Law of Oligarchy” and what it implies. Michels asserted that political parties and human organizations generally were characterized by strong continuous tendencies toward oligarchy and that these made the maintenance of democracy an unapproachable ideal.

Modern democracies have never found an answer to his argument that works. But it’s clear that if there is one it lies in countering continuous tendencies toward oligarchy with continuous tendencies toward democracy in our politics and in our various institutions, organizations, and Governments.

We need a new social invention; an institution that will enable us to restore bottom-up self-organization, distributed problem solving, and critical knowledge processing to their proper place in reinforcing open society, populist democracy, and adaptiveness to environmental and societal change. And once that is done to also enable continuously re-creating those outcomes in permanent opposition to the tendencies identified by the Iron Law of Oligarchy, and the new elite “establishments” those tendencies will always create.

In short, we need continuous democracy opposing and always checking continuous oligarchy by imposing continuous constraints on its consolidation. How do we institutionalize that? That is the problem we must solve if Democracy is to survive.

Cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives.

The Bosses of the Senate, a cartoon by Joseph Keppler