The Widdershins

This isn’t your father’s (or mother’s)…

Posted on: April 30, 2014


Oldsmobile, er country.  And I think you know it and I know it.  But in case you needed to have that sneaky feeling confirmed, two researchers at Princeton Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page  pretty much confirmed that our democracy doesn’t really exist anymore.  Welcome to the oligarchy.  And if you are unfamiliar with the term, let me give you a definition of it.

noun, plural ol·i·gar·chies.


a form of government in which all power is vested in a few persons or in a dominant class or clique; government by the few.


a state or organization so ruled.


the persons or class so ruling.
We all pretty well know who those folks are:  the Kock Bros. for instance, definitely the oil companies, Big Pharma, Big Insurance companies and the like.
Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.
Further, when you look at the over 1800 “policy initiatives” they looked at, and when you look at their starting point, you start to see it all coming together.
Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.
Let’s see here:  When did Ronnie Raygun get elected to office?  Oh yes.
Ronald Wilson Reagan (/ˈrɒnəld ˈwɪlsən ˈrɡən/; February 6, 1911 – June 5, 2004) was the 40th President of the United States (1981–1989).
So are any of us really surprised that the dismantling of our government started when Raygun went in?  Of course I’m not.  As the two write:
“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
(bolding mine)
And here’s another little eye-opening (for some) tidbit that they found:
As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.
Gilens and Page say this is nothing new that could possibly be attributable to the recent decisions by the Supremes in Citizens United and McCutcheon.

As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.  (B&I mine)

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”


So you know all of the online petitions we get in our email and are asked to sign so they can then be presented to some congress critter?  Now you know how much of an impression they really make.

I’m not going to badmouth signing online petitions because there is a feeling of satisfaction in doing so, but just don’t hold your breath that anything will change unless somehow the “elites” somehow agree with the thing being petitioned.

There was a 2nd article at TPM

Where Sahil Kapur spoke to Martin Gilens about the study he participated in.  I’m going to paste in part of the interview here for us.

TPM: Let’s talk about the study. If you had 30 seconds to sum up the main conclusion of your study for the average person, how would you do so?

Gilens: I’d say that contrary to what decades of political science research might lead you to believe, ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States. And economic elites and interest groups, especially those representing business, have a substantial degree of influence. Government policy-making over the last few decades reflects the preferences of those groups — of economic elites and of organized interests.

TPM: You say the United States is more like a system of “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” as opposed to a majoritarian democracy. What do those terms mean? Is that not just a scholarly way of saying it’s closer to oligarchy than democracy if not literally an oligarchy?

Gilens: People mean different things by the term oligarchy. One reason why I shy away from it is it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that. It’s not only Sheldon Adelson or the Koch brothers or Bill Gates or George Soros who are shaping government policy-making. So that’s my concern with what at least many people would understand oligarchy to mean. What “Economic Elite Domination” and “Biased Pluralism” mean is that rather than average citizens of moderate means having an important role in determining policy, ability to shape outcomes is restricted to people at the top of the income distribution and to organized groups that represent primarily — although not exclusively — business.  

And this was my favorite of the interview:


TPM: How does a system like this perpetuate itself when after all it’s ordinary voters who cast their ballots and elect their leaders. Theoretically they can change it in a heartbeat. Why don’t they?

Gilens: That’s a very good question. I don’t have a complete answer for you. Part of it clearly is that while politicians need votes while in office, they need money to obtain and retain office. So they need to balance the activities that will benefit them in terms of money with the activities that’ll benefit them in terms of votes. Voters are not particularly effective at holding politicians accountable for the policies they adopt. Voters also have a limited choice set when going into an election. We find that policies adopted during presidential election years in particular are more consistent with public preferences than policies adopted in other years of the electoral cycle.  (again bolding and italics mine)

The entire interview is really an eye-opener and I strongly suggest you go to TPM and read it. Gilens does hand the rich and elite a few smackdowns but is somewhat gloomy about what any different outcomes might be or how they might come about.  I have downloaded the report of the study that these two conducted and I’ll try to upload it and find a place for it on the blog.

Gilens and Page only had documents and info on “policy initiatives” going back to the Ronnie Raygun era, but I’ll bet it has been going on longer than that.  Paddy Chayefsky may have had an inkling about it when he wrote Network.


This is an open thread but do check out the two linked articles at TPM.


Addendum:  I did get the study uploaded.  It’s on the right side under Activism.  Look for Gilens and Page…
It is in pdf format and should open separately.





13 Responses to "This isn’t your father’s (or mother’s)…"

I am itching to read Pikkety’s book. Supposedly, he elaborates on this much-needed topic. Great post, Fredster.

@1: You mean the book on capital in the 21st century?

Great post, Fredster

Nope, obviously not worth squat. I mean, not even any of our other front pagers except for you could muster a comment. 😆

So sad and the Oligarchy is failing, China is now set to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world,,, Somewhere this country went terribly wrong.

Mom Got 24 inches of rain on Tuesday Night & Early Monday morning had some roof damage my childhood room is wet fortunately he house has no water in it she got lucky but at 2 pm yesterday was surrounded by water he got power back on at 10 am but many are saying this is worse than Ivan…

Sorry I have been very busy Fredster I was coming to see how you weathered the storm?

Fuzzy@4: No biggie. I was just being a smart @ss.

@3: Oh i forgot your family was over on the panhandle! Hope things are improving for them.

Mom is good now just wants her roof fixed and now she can have the popcorn removed from her ceilings

It’s a great study. Not that it says anything Widdershin-folks don’t know, but it goes to the trouble of proving it, which makes it harder for the usual suspects to act like it’s all in our imaginative heads.

One thing that gets skipped lightly is WHY politicians need money as well as votes. It’s almost entirely to buy TV ads. Well, TV stations have to have a broadcast license to use the *public* airwaves. It could be made a condition of their license that they provide X hours of time for politicians to pitch their point up to, say, two months before an election.

End of need for a country’s worth of money.

Of course, much as incumbents are trapped by fundraising crap, non-incumbents are even more trapped, so current politicians won’t be trying to do anything about the funding treadmill or the sale of democracy.

Which brings us back to how bad the system is….

(The weather news out of the Panhandle is horrible. Stay safe if you can!)

quixote@7: Jon Stewart had the two professors on his show the other night and he had an extended interview of them. Stewart asked a question about “what could be done” or/and when was the last time things weren’t like this (slanted toward the rich) and one of the profs said you had to go back to the Progressive era in the 30s(?). He said it would take a large social movement and probably some folks with big bucks to get any attention. (sigh)

quixote said: It’s almost entirely to buy TV ads.

Yep, the teevee stations love campaign season. LOL! And it’s funny: I never pay attention to them, at least in regard to forming an opinion about a candidate.

Fuzzy said: now she can have the popcorn removed from her ceilings

Can’t blame her for that!

(Hey! Where’d the Saturday Light Fare go?)

quixote@12: I hid it. I’ll put it back out here.

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