"Who rules?" That is the fundamental question of political science, determining who makes the decisions that matter, on issues that range from balancing the budget to going to war.
For centuries, Americans believed they knew the answer to this question. In a democracy like ours, the majority rules. Sure, the majority doesn't always get everything it wants. But after all the speeches have been made and all the votes counted, the will of the many outweighs that of the few.
That's what we thought, at least. But political scientists have recently challenged this comforting assumption. In a forthcoming study, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page find 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."
Their finding has inspired a rancorous debate about whether America still deserves the title of democracy. According to U.S. News, for example, the study shows that America is now an "oligarchy nation." Writing for the left-wing Counterpunch, Eric Zuess goes even farther, concluding that the U.S. "is basically similar to Russia or most other dubious 'electoral' 'democratic' countries. We weren't formerly, but we clearly are now."
There are three big problems with this kind of argument. Taken together, they suggest that America is actually more democratic than most other societies, including Western European countries to which it is sometimes unfavorably compared.
The first problem is that that United States continues to protect individual rights and the rule of law in a way that distinguishes it from authoritarian regimes like Russia's. According to most political theorists, democracy involves more than elections — at least if it's to be liberal rather than merely plebiscitarian. In addition to the casting of ballots, liberal democracy requires that citizens be secure in their persons, property, and ability to participate in politics even if their favored candidates or parties lose elections.
A second problem is that our national government was never intended to reflect public opinion or electoral outcomes in a straightforward manner. As every high school student is supposed to learn, the federal government is elaborately designed to prevent the dominance of potentially illiberal majorities. The size of the republic, and the division of powers between the branches, within the legislature, and between the national government and states, make it extremely difficult to enact any policies whatsoever. That's why the most striking finding in Gilens and Page's study was a heavy "status quo bias."
But do elites wield more power in America than in other democracies? The question is outside the scope of Gilens and Page's study, but it's crucial to assessing whether the United States is an oligarchy. After all, it's not hard to show that America is more democratic than Putin's Russia. What about its nominal peers in Western Europe?
Although there are outliers among them, European societies include several elements that might make them superficially more democratic than the U.S. First, they tend to enjoy a relatively more equal distribution of wealth, even though inequality has risen in recent decades. Second, they usually impose stricter limits on political contributions and advertising, which make it more difficult for rich individuals or business interests to influence the outcome of elections. Finally, most European countries use parliamentary systems in which the program of the winning party or parties is more difficult for minorities to frustrate than under the American division of powers and legislative procedure.
On paper, these facts seem to suggest that ordinary citizens wield more influence in comparison to the elite. But it doesn't actually work out that way. The main reason is that many Western European states are no longer truly sovereign nations. As members of the European Union, they have de facto — and in some cases de jure — ceded some of the most important areas of public policy to an unelected transnational elite.
Consider the continuing fallout from the sovereign debt crisis. Since 2008, governments in Greece, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal have all been subjected to deeply unpopular austerity regimes by the so-called troika composed of the European Central Bank, European Commission, and the IMF.
Technically, the austerity regimes were approved by national legislatures as conditions of financial assistance. In practice, however, these tax-and-spending decisions were dictated from Frankfurt, Brussels, and to a lesser extent Washington, D.C. The distribution of wealth or character of the electoral system don't matter when fiscal policy is conducted from foreign cities. As many European commentators have observed, EU member states are being eclipsed by the continental bureaucracy.
At least the austerity packages in the European periphery were implemented by elected governments. In Italy, by contrast, that task was left to a group of unelected technocrats under the former European Commissioner Mario Monti. Monti's government served only from November 2011 to April 2013, but during that time it forced through parliament major changes to Italy's tax code, pension system, and labor regulations without any democratic mandate.
America's democratic credentials come out fairly well, then, when pitted against the weaker members of the EU. That may not seem like a fair or flattering comparison, but even traditional great powers such as France have found it difficult to practice democracy in recent years. As Yascha Mounk and Thomas Meaney observe in a recent article for The Nation, policy in large and prosperous European countries is increasingly determined by international financial markets even when it escapes the dictates of Brussels.
A final reason to think that democracy in America is relatively robust is the absence of illiberal majoritarianism. The diminishing relevance of democratic institutions in Europe has encouraged the development of populist movements that aim to take their countries back — from the bankers in Frankfurt, Washington, and New York, the EU bureaucrats in Brussels, and the immigrants who cross borders where checkpoints have been dissolved by EU treaties. Whether it's the Jobbik Party in Hungary or the National Front in France, these parties remind us why real democracy must include protections of individual rights even when they oppose the will of majorities. Fortunately, they have no real counterparts in the United States.
None of these observations is inconsistent with Gilens and Page's observations about elite influence in American politics — and none amount to a defense of the disproportionate rule of the rich. But they provide some essential context for the conclusion that the United States is or has become an oligarchy. In comparison to the rest of the world rather than a theoretical ideal, America seems pretty democratic after all. And the risk of illiberal majoritarianism on display in Russia, as well as the heart of Europe, gives us reasons to be grateful for some of the checks that the Constitution and historical precedent impose on the rule of the many.