A new study released over the weekend sparked a miniature firestorm on the Internet, mostly because it confirmed long-held suspicions about the role of money in politics. While the researches make strongly-worded conclusions about the state of American democracy, journalists have used hyperbolic language to state that America is already a de facto oligarchy: PolicyMic calls the findings “beyond alarming…their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter. [italics in original]“ Such overblown rhetoric makes it difficult to examine the root of the problem dispassionately in order to address the underlying issues beneath the growing inequality; instead, such reporting is fueling hysteria and pessimism about America’s inexorable decline.
Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University conducted a study measuring the impact of the wealthy and powerful interests groups on American democracy. Looking at over 1,700 proposed policy shifts, they tested whether the interest of the general public, the preferences of elites, or the desires of interest groups had the greatest influence over whether the policy was put into practice. It was hard to test the relative influence of elites and ordinary Americans, since, for the most part, the two groups had identical policy preferences. But, when the groups differed, the elites were much more likely to prevail against the popular will than vice versa. In the statistical model used by the researchers, the effect of popular opinion dwindled into insignificance once the will of the elites was factored in. The idea of “oligarchy” is never explicitly endorsed by the paper; it’s only referenced in other cited works. Furthermore, they admit that there are other factors outside the analysis they performed: “[I]t is also possible that there may exist important explanatory factors outside the three theoretical traditions addressed in this analysis[.]”
The New Yorker offered a cool-headed take of what the numbers might mean, a welcome countervail to the media hand-wringing. Their blog post points out the model only explains 10 percent of the data, which, by the authors’ own admission, is a low number that lends itself to weak explanatory ability. The New Yorker wisely doesn’t presume to judge the full validity of Gilens and Page’s argument, but gently suggests that less inflammatory language be used besides the term “oligarchy” that media outlets have picked up. It’s chiding sensationalist journalism more so than attacking the authors, but a look over the study’s introduction and conclusion does reveal some charged language: “But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.” Ultimately, the statistics they used suggest an interesting narrative, but do not tell a complete story. Another thing worth noting is the lack of future predictions regarding the impact of wealth on the political process—all the data is from 1981 to 2002. It would be helpful if the researchers could predict which direction they think America’s political process is going based on their findings. “America May Become an Oligarchy” is still a very clickable headline, but a more responsible one.
American democracy is rife with troubling inequalities, but calling it an oligarchy is a step too far. Framing America as an oligarchy implies that there is a disenfranchised group pinned down helplessly by an oppressive elite, and that the true nature of our democracy is defunct. Before making grim prognoses about the extent of the elites’ influence on policy, it may be wise to first examine all the factors that contribute to a certainly troubling trend.