American Democracy Eroded by Economic Elite Domination

As you consume your corporate-controlled media in your underwater mortgaged home with your non-dischargeable student loan debt, rest assured that the economy is recovering...for the top 1% that is. The 6 corporations that control 90% of American media overwhelmingly omit that the top 1% “captured 95% of the income gains in the first three years of the recovery” (2009-2012) according to University of California-Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez.

If you think such disparate wealth distribution reflects an economy under an oligarchy rather than a democracy, you might not be far from the truth according to a recent study by Princeton University and Northwestern University professors. This study compared proposed policy changes with opinion surveys from 1981 to 2002 (prior to the Supreme Court cases of Citizens United and McCutcheon that only increased political domination by the economic elite) and revealed the following unsettling results:

When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites…have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule -- at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. 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.


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