A flood of articles and blogs rocked the internet recently declaring the US is no longer a democracy, but an oligarchy whose politics are completely dominated by the economic elite. They cite a groundbreaking new Princeton study that found that the political opinions of average non-wealthy US citizens have essentially zero statistically significant impact on policy. Although this confirms what most people already knew about the growing influence of money in politics and economic inequality, the zero number is devastating.
I asked myself, is my life’s work organizing working-class people to build political power completely meaningless and futile?
But then I actually read the study itself, because I’m a nerd. When I finished, I realized it confirmed exactly why I need to do this work.
The authors of the oligarchy study never actually say that average middle and working-class people don’t matter in US politics. What they say is that unorganized average people don’t matter. But organized people do.
In fact, they conclude that a mass-based membership organization that stands up for everyday people can be equally matched head-to-head with a corporate lobbying group.
Here’s what the study actually says.
Gilens and Page use statistical data to test four competing political science theories about US politics:
- “Majoritarian Electoral Democracy”: The will of the majority of people is carried out by a functioning democracy with apple pie, bald eagles and shit.
- “Economic Elite Domination”: Politicians don’t give a damn about the opinions of average people unless they happen to align with the interests of the wealthy few, whose opinions are all that really matters.
- “Majoritarian Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices of different organized interest groups that generally ends up representing what the people as a whole want
- “Biased Pluralism”: There is a chorus of voices, but you can hear a loud and distinct upper-class accent. Monocles and feather boas abound. Economic elites have more interest groups representing them, so policymaking tends to favor the wealthy.
They describe our political system as both #2 and #4. They measure this by comparing actual policy outcomes with the political preferences of middle-income citizens, the wealthiest 10% of citizens, interest groups representing businesses, and interest groups representing broad memberships of people.
The numbers don’t lie—the kind of democracy you learn about as a kid in school just doesn’t describe reality in the United States today. The support of a majority of average voters doesn’t make a policy more likely to be passed at all, but the support of wealthy elites does.
But then this begs the question: Why do food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, student aid, public housing, even public schools and libraries, still exist? Surely not out of the goodness of the hearts of America’s all-powerful millionaire oligarchs? Maybe these programs were created back when political power was distributed more evenly, when democracy still worked, and they remain only because economic elites have not yet been able to completely dismantle them. But then how do you explain the recent expansion of healthcare to millions of uninsured paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest 2%?
The answer is interest groups, who have a strong impact on policymaking. According to the Gilens-Page study, literally the only way for working and middle-class people to influence American politics is by organizing ourselves into groups that can match the political clout of economic elites.
Groups of people without political power, from exploited immigrant farmworkers in California to disenfranchised black communities in the Jim Crow South, have long known that the only thing they could do to change the oppressive political and economic systems they lived in was to organize themselves. In fact, the most celebrated leaders of America’s great social movements, from Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King, have worked to bring together unorganized people who thought they were powerless to build strong organizations in which the powerless became the powerful.
As a whole, the study finds that the political preferences of interest groups don’t reflect overall public opinion. In fact, their data shows that the most powerful lobbying groups representing industries and corporations negatively correlate with the average citizen’s wishes—they stand against the majority of people on most political issues. But mass-based interest groups that represent millions of real people who make up their membership, such as labor unions or the American Association of Retired People (AARP), have a high correlation between what they push for on Capitol Hill and what average citizens want.
The problem is that among interest groups, the former is nearly twice as influential as the latter. The study notes that “the composition of the U.S. interest group universe is heavily tilted toward corporations and business and professional associations.” However, the authors stress that it is not because public interest organizations are inherently weaker than corporate lobbyists, but simply that they are outnumbered. They calculate that “the average individual business group and the average mass-oriented group appears to be about equally influential”, but there are roughly twice as many powerful corporate interest groups as there are powerful public interest groups.
And unfortunately, as Gilens and Page point out, the mass-based public interest groups with major influence in Washington are mostly labor unions, whose memberships have been declining for decades. With the shrinking of organized labor, fewer low and middle-income people are organized into political groups today than ever before.
Note that the very rich don’t need to organize. The data shows their policy preferences, reducing regulations on businesses, taxes on high earners, and barriers to international trade, have a major impact on policymakers even before interest groups are taken into account. Although the wealthy have less need to organize, they are in fact more organized, with many more lobbying groups representing their interests.
But the harsh reality is that in a political system like the one we live in, poor, working-class and middle-class people have no power without organizations. None. Period.
There is only one thing we can do to save ourselves from oligarchy. Organize. Organize like someone who’s realized that nobody in power gives a shit about what you think. Organize like someone who’s realized that individualism only serves powerful individuals. Rebuild the organizations we’ve lost, grow the organizations we have and start the organizations of our dreams. Organize bigger, organize smarter, organize people who have never been organized before. Organize the hell out of everything. We can’t afford not to. Because without organizing, there is literally no such thing as democracy.