No, this is not some arcane argument about democratic versus republican forms of government. Rather it is the conclusion of what has been described as the first ever scientific study of the question of whether the United States is a democracy.
The study, by Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, a political scientist at Northwestern University, is titled “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” and will be published in the fall 2014 issue of Perspectives on Politics, an APSA journal.
The study aims to answer the questions “Who governs? Who really rule? To what extent is the broad body of U.S. citizens sovereign, semi-sovereign, or largely powerless” by examining a huge data set that addresses thousands of policy issues.
Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.
A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues. (p. 2)
The findings provide “substantial support” for theories of Economic Elite Domination and Biased Pluralism, in short the U.S. is found to be an oligarchy. No surprise really, unless you’ve had your eyes wide shut for the past 40 years. While the political and media elites, capitalists and other oligarchs (along with social studies textbooks and teachers) continue to promote the fiction that the U.S. is a democracy, this study concludes that the average citizens’ influence on policy making is “near zero.” So, don’t bother writing that letter to your “representative.”
The researchers used a single statistical model to pit the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other using a unique data set that included measures for key independent variables on policy issues. Their “striking findings,” include “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. 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” (p. 21).
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 threaten. (p.24)
While some critically minded observers may claim that this study only confirms what we already know, we should not underestimate the importance—and pedagogical power—of this empirical investigation of democracy in the U.S.. which puts a lie the most powerful trope of school curriculum and mass media propaganda. The U.S. is not democracy; the central features of American democracy are illusory.
The narrative of “American democracy” promulgated in schools and in the media is distraction from the triumph of neoliberal capitalism and the rule of oligarchs. If we—social studies educators—are truly committed to the principles and practices of social equality it requires engaging with our students in systematic analysis and inquiry into our present circumstances (as well as historicizing preconditions of the present). From that point we can start to pose questions and envision tactics, strategies, and grand strategies that point toward resolution of problems/contradictions our analyses identify. This study presents findings that will surely provoke dialogue about (and deconstruction of) of what currently passes for “democracy” in the U.S., and, one hopes, inspires not merely more powerful teaching, but actions to reclaim/remake the political landscape.