American Oligarchy: Remembering that Vidal told us so

Gore Vidal.

You can't say the late Gore Vidal hadn't been warning us for many years. The man famously characterized himself as the master of the obvious, after all. And it's become glaringly obvious that democracy in America has taken a turn for the worse.


"There isn't one person in America who has ever thought about politics who doesn't know that every single member of Congress is paid for by corporate America, and it isn't to represent the people of their state, it is to represent corporate America's interests, which are not those of the people at large," he said in a book appropriately titled I Told You So, consisting of interviews of Vidal by Rolling Stone's Jan Wiener.

Of course Vidal has never been alone in making this assertion, but his position coming from the elite classes always gave special edge to his scathing blade; that and his no-bullshit life and work.

Now a study is set to appear this coming fall in the academic journal Perspectives on Politics, the first of its kind, to present the actual data backing up this claim that policy is shaped to the liking of the elite few.

From the study's authors via the Center for Research on Globalization:

"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 America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened... 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."

Mother Jones' Kevin Drum explained the study's finding last week, noting that the study's authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page analyzed 1,779 policy outcomes over two decades "and came to a pretty simple conclusion: the collective opinion of average citizens doesn't matter a whit."

From Drum:

"When average citizens are opposed, there's a 30 percent chance of passage. When average citizens are wildly in favor, there's still only a 30 percent chance of passage. Conversely, the odds of passage go from zero when most of the affluent are opposed to more than 50 percent when most of the affluent are in favor."

And this should surprise exactly no one.

But this is the first-ever scientific study of the question whether the U.S. is truly a democratic republic.

"Until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions [that U.S. policymaking operates as a democracy, versus as an oligarchy, versus as some mixture of the two] against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so," the authors wrote.

Of course, the case for the U.S. operating as an oligarchy was strengthened quite a bit by the Supreme Court of the United States' rulings in Citizens United in 2010, and earlier this very month in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, combining to obliterate most federal campaign financing restrictions under the preposterous assertion that free speech includes anonymous corporate sponsorship of an unlimited number of candidates. 

Oligarchy throughout human history has always been only a question of degree, and is again peaking in America in the form of plutocracy.

Right here on the Moral Hazard blog, we wrote at the time that "We're losing our democratic republic and being turned into a plutocratic oligarchy, every billionaire his own sovereign."

Of course, we had the benefit of remembering that once upon a time, in a place not at all far away, Mr. Vidal had already told us so.

Find Senior Writer David DeWitt on Facebook and Follow on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.

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