Is the United States a Democracy?

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice on November 1, 2016 at 8:39 am

By Tom Mayer, Peace Train Column, Colorado Daily, Friday, October 28, 2016

Almost all Americans believe that the United States is a democracy. One important condition of democracy is that the government be equally responsive to the policy preferences of all citizens. Some prominent scholars doubt that the government of the United States meets this essential condition. Writing before World War One, historian Charles Beard argued that the United States Constitution was written to protect the property of the very rich while severely restricting the influence of everyone else. Four decades later, sociologist C. Wright Mills maintained that political, military, and corporate elites formed a unified power structure that dominated American society. Bill Domhoff’s famous book, Who Rules America? (now in its 7th edition), argues that the owners and managers of multinational corporations rule America and indicates how they do so.

More recently, political scientists Larry Bartels, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson have published books showing how the power of wealth severely constricts the functioning of democracy in the United States. But perhaps the most convincing empirically based critique of American democracy emerges from the research of Professor Martin Gilens of Princeton University. Professor Gilens’ findings are reported in his book Affluence and Influence (2011), and in a subsequent article coauthored with Benjamin Page.

Martin Gilens studied 1,779 political policy decisions made between 1981 and 2002, and examined how these decisions corresponded to the preferences of (i) average citizens, (ii) economic elites, and (iii) organized business interests. After analyzing this data using sophisticated multivariate statistical techniques, Gilens and Page reached the following conclusion: “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence” [emphasis added] (Gilens and Page, p. 565). This pattern of economic elite and business dominance was repeated in the realms of economic policy, foreign policy, and human rights policy. It was sustained under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and government responsiveness to the preferences of the rich actually increased over the four decades examined in Gilens’s research.

Gilens and Page conclude that: “In the United States…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 or with organized interests they generally lose….[I]f policy making 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.”

The United States cannot be considered a real democracy. I would call the USA an electoral plutocracy: we have regular elections, but real political power belongs to the wealthy.


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