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New Study Finds the U.S. Is Not a Democracy, So What Is It?

Posted on Apr 17, 2014

Phil Roeder (CC BY 2.0)

Let me offer a hint: The ruling class is far wealthier than the rest. If you guessed oligarchy, sadly, you’re correct. Princeton University researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page discovered that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Scary isn’t it? The rich have basically all the control in what was meant to be the great democracy of the United States and rulings like the Supreme Court’s recent McCutcheon decision will only further perpetuate this disaster.


An oligarchy is a system where power is effectively wielded by a small number of individuals defined by their status called oligarchs. Members of the oligarchy are the rich, the well connected and the politically powerful, as well as particularly well placed individuals in institutions like banking and finance or the military.

For their study, Gilens and Page compiled data from roughly 1,800 different policy initiatives in the years between 1981 and 2002. They then compared those policy changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public. Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found out that the government followed the directives set forth by the latter two much more often….

This problem has been steadily escalating for four decades. While there are some limitations to their data set, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez constructed income statistics based on IRS data that go back to 1913. They found that the gap between the ultra-wealthy and the rest of us is much bigger than you would think, as mapped by these graphs from the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities:

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—Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata


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