As the election results in favor of Joe Biden are becoming officially certified, and the courts are consistently denying credence to Trump’s frivolous claims of election fraud, many Americans concerned about the state of democracy are breathing a sigh of relief. But, was American democracy that great in the first place? A look under the hood reveals the troubling fact that U.S. “democracy” functions more like an oligarchy.
Joseph Schumpeter1 argues in his prominent definition that the procedural heart of democracy boils down to the presence of free and fair elections that decide who gets power. While protecting this procedural core of democracy in the recent election is no small feat, Americans ought to also be concerned with whether their democratic procedures yield the intended outcomes.
As for these intended outcomes, Acemoglu and Robinson2 argue that fundamentally, a democratic government should represent the preferences of the whole population, and not just a small elite group. But are U.S. lawmakers representative of and responsive to the preferences of the whole population? Gilens and Page3 look at this question empirically by analyzing how well the preferences of citizens predict policy outcomes, and their findings are displayed in the figure below:
Summarizing these findings in words, they write ominously that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Yes, you read that correctly. This is deeply troubling, as it undermines the basic feature that should define the policymaking of a democratic government. But as it turns out, lawmakers are highly responsive to the preferences of a small, powerful group: the economic elite. An analogous figure from Gilens and Page illustrates this:
Upon focusing on policy outcomes, as opposed to procedure, the U.S. much more closely resembles what Acemoglu and Robinson see as the common thread that unites nondemocracies: a government acting in line only with the preferences of a select elite. Clearly, the Schumpetarian procedural core of democracy has somehow yielded profoundly undemocratic policymaking in the U.S.
What has allowed the economic elite in the U.S. to so forcibly subordinate the interest of everyday citizens in a democracy? I’ll suggest a few reasons. First, funding is crucial in winning elected office, and the funds come largely from a select few. In 2012, the candidate that spent more in House races won about 85% of the time, and the candidate that spent more in Senate races won about 70% of the time. This means that it takes a lot of money to win elected office: an estimated $1.6 million to win a House election, $10.4 million to win a Senate election, and $1 billion to win the race for the presidency. Making matters worse, the very richest supply an extremely disproportionate share of this money, reflecting the enormous levels of income inequality in the U.S. In 2010, .26% of the population gave 68% of all political contributions, making candidates reliant on the ultra-rich for most of their campaign funds. This means that what Schumpeter envisions as “competitive struggle for the people’s vote” may actually entail a competitive struggle for campaign contributions from the ultra-rich. Naturally, this will involve politicians disproportionately catering to the interests of the economic elite.
Second, the richest people and corporations have highly disproportionate means to put forth organized interest. Lobbying, the predominant means through which groups put forth organized interest, necessitates significant financial resources; groups looking to lobby have to hire lobbyists, education themselves on the relevant legislation, put together an agenda, and identify potential points of entry. Because of this, only the wealthiest and largest firms have been found to lobby consistently. From 1998-2014, the telecommunications, finance, health, and energy sectors each spent between $4 and $6 billion on federal lobbying. On the other hand, groups based around ideology spent only $2 billion combined over the same time period, and labor unions only mustered $590 million. This is especially important upon considering that in a democracy, there are relatively few opportunities for everyday citizens to express their specific policy preferences. People can vote every once in a while, and may attend a few protests or town halls, but in general these means are infrequent and often imperfect opportunities to convey specific policy preferences. This leaves organized interest as one of the rare avenues for groups to clearly and persistently communicate their preferences to elected officials. Unsurprisingly, politicians are much more responsive to this; Gilens and Page in the same study find that organized interest groups exert significant independent influence on policy (even when controlling for wealth). Upon considering that most of this organized interest is controlled by the wealthy and corporations, it simply acts as another means through which the economic elite disproportionately influence policy.
Third, businesses can offer lucrative lobbying jobs to elected officials after they leave office. This is important, because the evidence shows that officials who do the bidding of businesses while in office are significantly more likely to gain employment by those businesses once they leave, giving these officials a perverse policymaking incentive. Many politicians take advantage of this pipeline: in 2018, ⅔ of the 44 members that left congress went on to assume lobbying positions.
But why don’t voters simply vote out politicians who act most disproportionately in the interests of the wealthy? Pavão4 suggests one potential reason, finding that when voters perceive corruption to be widespread, they tend to vote on other issues and subordinate corruption as a concern. This may well be the case in the U.S., as polling shows that sizable majorities of both Democrats and Republicans believe that elected officials don’t listen to “people like them” and are skewed by special interest money. And with the explosive culture wars between conservatives and liberals gaining more prevalence in U.S. politics, there are plenty of highly resonant issues for Americans to vote on instead of the seemingly lost cause of curbing the influence of moneyed interests.
The fact that the U.S. has maintained the procedural essence of democracy, in the form of free and fair elections, should not make citizens complacent in recognizing this long-running democratic crisis. Moneyed interests have found holes in the democratic process that have allowed them to systematically displace the interests of the people, in favor of their own. Until this changes, perhaps we should start calling U.S. democracy what it functions like: an oligarchy.
- Schumpeter, Joseph. 1947. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers. Chapter 22
- Acemoglu, Daron and James Robinson. 2006. Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2.
- Gilens, Martin and Benjamin Page. 2014. Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. American Political Science Association.
- Pavão, Nara. 2018. “Corruption as the Only Option: The Limits to Electoral Accountability.” Journal of Politics 80(3): pp. 996-1010.