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?