As Ben Franklin was leaving Independence Hall in September of 1787, the work of the Constitutional Convention having just been completed, he was stopped by a woman and asked, “Mr. Franklin, what have you wrought?”
“A Republic, madam,” was his reply, “if you can keep it.”
By a Republic Franklin meant a Representative Democracy, a Government Dependent Upon The People Alone.
Today, many of us intuitively understand that we have lost that Republic. We are no longer a Representative Democracy. Our government makes decisions that are made based on the ideas and desires of the economic elite and not a majority of Americans. This belief has been confirmed by a recent academic study by Martin Gilens, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, the Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University.
While Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread franchise, the analysis of Gilens and Page suggests that the majority does not rule. When majorities of citizens disagree with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally do not get the policies they desire. The American public actually has little influence over the policies our government adopts.
They argue that since about 1980 America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most of the power, not the majority of Americans. They use data drawn from 1,779 policy issues from 1981 to 2002, to conclude that wealthy, well-connected individuals now determine the direction of the country, often against the will of the majority of voters.
In their study, Gilens and Page compared the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile — proxies for ‘average’ and ‘wealthy’ Americans. They found that the government, whether Republican or Democratic, more frequently follows the preferences of the 90th percentile rather than that of the 50th percentile.
The researchers assert that this is not a new development — as a result of recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics (e.g. Citizens United or the more recent ruling, McCutcheon v. FEC) — but has been a long-term trend and as a result is difficult for most people to perceive and more difficult reverse.
The abstract and a paid link to the paper itself can be found here:
Perspectives on Politics, Issue03, September 2014 pp 564-581
A free preprint of this papers can be found at Gilens and Page: Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.
There is also a transcript of an interview of Martin Gilens by TalkingPointsMemo.com to be found at Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means .