Monday, April 21, 2014


I’m sure you've seen this study by now. It was even reported on BBC and became one of their most popular links: Study: US Is an Oligarchy, Not a Democracy. That’s a provocative headline, even as most of us who live here no doubt roll our eyes at the “do bears shit in the woods?” obviousness of the headline. Of course, in our data-driven metrics world, even the most common-sense conclusion is invalid unless backed up by data. Fortunately, this is what these social scientists did Here’s the Wikipedia definition of oligarchy:
Oligarchy (from Greek ὀλιγαρχία (oligarkhía); from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning "few", and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning "to rule or to command"), is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people could be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.

Throughout history, oligarchies have been tyrannical (relying on public obedience and/or oppression to exist) or relatively benign. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which the exact term is plutocracy. However, oligarchy is not always a rule by wealth, as oligarchs can simply be a privileged group, and do not have to be connected by bloodlines as in a monarchy.
Paul Krugman summarizes the conclusions:
A recent paper by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page is getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Gilens and Page look at a number of issues over the past 30+ years where polling data let us identify public policy preferences, which can be compared with elite and interest-group preferences. And what they find is that politicians don’t seem to care very much about what the public thinks: when elite preferences and popular preferences are different, the elite almost always wins. This is an important insight — and it gains special force these days, when the elite’s views not only favor the elite versus the rest (duh) but have also been systematically wrong, on issues from invading Iraq to giving deficits a higher priority than jobs.
Here's John Cassidy’s account in the New Yorker: Is America an Oligarchy?

I have few quibbles. One, he states that the policy preferences of the wealthy and the majority sometimes overlap. This is deceiving. Where do the "policy preferences" of the average person come from? Well, just as often as not from the media, which is owned by the same oligarchy! So a common tactic is to bend the masses to whatever the oligarchy want them to believe:
The Koch’s ascent comes as Freedom Partners, one of their fundraising networks, last week aired its first batch of television ads targeted at this year’s U.S. Senate races, including commercials knocking Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado and Representative Bruce Braley of Iowa for supporting President Barack Obama’s health-care law.

“The Koch brothers are pouring millions into this,” Chris Harris, a campaign spokesman for Senator Udall, said in an e-mail yesterday. “They’re only fighting for their own interests, not Coloradans’. Mark Udall has a long record of fighting for the middle class and stops at nothing to protect Colorado’s special way of life.”

The ads represent an escalation in TV warfare among outside groups intervening in the Iowa and Colorado contests. In both cases, Americans for Prosperity, another Koch organization, criticized Democratic candidates for backing the health-care law.
Koch Brothers Net Worth Tops $100 Billion as TV Warfare Escalates (Bloomberg)

I would prefer to look at policies which help the average American versus policies which hurt the average American. So often people support policies that actually hurt them thanks to our media. Plus, legislation that actually hurts Americans is often passed at the behest of the oligarchy. My suspicion is that this would make things even worse than what the study, which has limited parameters, describes.

Then there’s the question of what even get proposed as law in the first place. Universal health care? Not a chance. Money for the surveillance state or free trade agreements? Fast-tracked through without a problem.

So while this study leaves a lot out, at least the “o” word is now a part of mainstream discourse, along with the 1 versus the 99 percent. Of course, as long as the 99 percent are kept divided and at each others’ throats, nothing will change, which I expect to continue in perpetuity.

Daily Kos: Too Important for Clever Titles -- Scientific Study Says We Are an Oligarchy

Ordinary Americans are powerless, but the US isn’t really an oligarchy (Quartz)

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