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Democracy, Oligarchy and a Manifesto for Resistance

When Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens by Martin Gilens from Princeton University and Benjamin I. Page from Northwestern University was released in April 2014 the press declare the United States was not a democracy. TPM’s headline was: Princeton Study: U.S No Longer an Actual Democracy. TPM, like others, described U.S. as an oligarchy. It’s important to say that the word “oligarchy” does not appear in Testing Theories. In an interview Gilens said:

I'm sure you've noticed, this notion of America being an oligarchy seems to be a dominant meme in the discussion of our work. It's not a term that we used in the paper.

And then:

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. 

Oxford Dictionaries defines oligarchy as a “small group of people having control of a country or organization.”   Reading Testing Theories and the Gilens’ interview, the issues seems to be the meaning of “small group of people.” If a small group means a handful of named people, then no, the U.S. is not an oligarchy. If, on the other hand, it means a very small percentage of the population, say the 0.01%, controlling the government, then the U.S. might indeed be considered an oligarchy. As the old saying goes: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...We can argue about when a duck is a duck, however, if Testing Theories is an accurate description of what is going on in the U.S. then the country is not a democracy in the American common sense notion of the word. What is a system of government where the citizens vote but have little or no influence on what their elected officials actually do?

Below I have included numerous quotes from Testing Theories,[1] but if you wish to read the study in its entirety then click hereHowever, two immediate quotes will give you a good idea of what the authors found in their study:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

The estimated impact of average citizens’ preferences drops precipitously, to a non-significant, near-zero level....By contrast, economic elites are estimated to have a quite substantial, highly significant, independent impact on policy.

I’m not sure if arguing whether the U.S. is a democracy or an oligarchy is very useful. Suffice it to say that there is evidence to suggest that the average citizen is being cut out of the political process. You can be pretty sure that if the majority of Americans want the too big to fail banks to be regulated and broken up so they are small enough to fail, it won’t just happen. If the majority of Americans want higher taxes on the wealthy, it won’t just happen. If the majority of Americans want gun control, it won’t just happen. And if the majority of Americans want to maintain Net Neutrality, it won’t just happen[2]. If the majority of Americans want Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission to be overturned and for Corporate Personhood to be abolished, it won’t just happen. For any of that to happen it will take a major resistance movement by citizens. (Testing Theories did not claim that average citizen’s preferences are never met. They are when those preferences, coincidentally, match the desire of the elite.)

We must keep repeating the obvious: The concentration of wealth equals the concentration of political power. Those with political power make the decisions.

So what to do? Is it too late to claim back the political process? How do a person and a society whose values and identity are defined by consumerism resist consumer capitalism which is controlled by a small and powerful elite? Are we willing to, or even capable of, resisting (at least for a limited time) the thousands of easily obtained products on Amazon, the latest technological wonders of Apple, the information on Google? How do we resist the banks if we think resistance will threaten our accounts, savings, investments and pensions?

When people lines up and sleep on hard pavements for a single night, or even several nights, so they can be among the first to buy a new phone or tablet, it speaks volumes about who they are and where their values reside. After 9/11 President Bush told us to go shopping. There were too good reasons for this. First, shopping (consuming) is good for a consumer based economy. Second, we are consumers. It is in consuming we find our value and joy. To resist consumerism as an act of reclaiming power is to resist ourselves.

Unregulated consumer capitalism destroys our capacity to resist. It seduces and drugs us. It makes us passive. And when our elected officials and the courts continually create and nurture an environment that encourages the concentration of wealth and power, it is discouraging. When the politicians that we elected do not support and protect us, it is discouraging. It is easy to become passive. So we don’t move our money out of the big banks and into smaller ethical banks. We could do that, but we don’t. We could stop buying from Amazon until they pay a fair share of taxes. We could do that, but we don’t. We could stop buying from Apple until they get their environmental act together. We could do that, but we don’t. Is it possible for us first to overcome ourselves and our financial fears and second to believe in the possibility of success to actualize a resistance movement?

Some simple suggestions for a manifesto for resistance. Most of this comes from years of reading, but I have recently read On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance by Howard Caygill which is an excellent book bring together numerous resistance philosophies and movements (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013). Where an idea corresponds directly with a particular movement or movements that I am familiar with I have identified it or them in parenthesis.

Elements of Resistance

  • The forces being resisted are formidable; therefore, any resistance movement will take a very long time to succeed.
  • The resistance movement cannot rely on governments. Elected officials are either members of the 1% or in the pay of the 1%.Resistance is all embracing, including the cultural, sociological, religious, economic and political. (Occupy)
  • Resistance must address and change attitudes and beliefs. (Occupy)
  • Resistance actualise by appealing to its necessity.
  • Act for others as well as yourself. (Occupy)
  • Believe in the possibility of success while living in failure. (Zapatistas)
  • Accept repression is part of resistance. (Greenham CommonYellow Gate)
  • Accept that court cases are part of the resistance. ( Greenham Common Yellow Gate)
  • Accept that resistance includes suffering and repression. (Greenham Common Yellow Gate)
  • Resistance demands solidarity, selflessness, support. (Greenham Common Yellow Gate, Zapatistas, Pussy Riots,  Ghandi - Satyagraha)
  • Resistance will create counter resistance, so any resistance movement must adapt and adopt new strategies.
  • Resistance responds to the demands of justice.
  • Resistance challenges accepted legitimacies. (Occupy , Ghandi - Satyagraha)

Demands of Resistance

  • Courage over a long period of time. (Ghandi - Satyagraha)
  • Commitment without the certainty of success (Ghandi – Satyagraha, Greenham Common Yellow Gate, Zapatistas)
  • Fortitude (Ghandi – Satyagraha)
  • Prudence in choices of action. (Ghandi - Satyagraha)
  • Sustained work and presence. (Greenham Common Yellow Gate, Occupy)
  • Political Engagement.

Tactics for Resistance

  • Action on the economic and political levels.
  • Interaction with people from the grassroots to the elite.
  • Occupation. (Greenham Common Yellow Gate, Occupy)
  • Networking. (Occupy, Greenham Common Yellow Gate, Zapatistas, Pussy Riots)
  • Boycotting.
  • Sabotage. (Sun Tzu, Mao)
  • Diversion. (Sun Tzu, Mao)
  • Civil Disobedience. (Thoreau, Ghandi - Satyagraha)
  • Evasion. (Sun Tzu, Mao)
  • Exasperating the opponent. (Sun Tzu, Mao)
  • Aesthetic Resistance. (Pussy Riots, Occupy, Zapatistas)
    • Provides a way of imagining resistance.
    • Hiding our face: becoming no one in order to become everyone.
    • Manifestoes, stories, jokes, masks, tricks, defiance. (Zapatistas)
    • Performance and masks. (Pussy Riots)

It is interesting to note that the first use of the word “resistance came from the African-American experience of slavery. From On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance:

In one of the first articles of The Atlantic magazine following the US Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision that slaves could not become citizens and amid growing civil and political conflict surrounding the extension of slavery, Edmund Quincy asked: ‘Is our spirit effectually broken? Is the brand of meanness and compromise burnt in ineffaceably upon our souls? And are we never to be roused, by any indignities, to fervent resentment and effectual resistance?'[4]

Copyright © 2014 Dale Rominger

[1] From Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens (To read the study click here.) 

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, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

But net interest group stands are not substantially correlated with the preferences of average citizens. Taking all interest groups together, the index of net interest group alignment correlates only a non-significant .04 with average citizens’ preferences! This casts grave doubt on David Truman’s and others’ argument that organized interest groups tend to do a good job of representing the population as a whole.

When both interest groups and affluent Americans oppose a policy it has an even lower likelihood of being adopted (these proposed policies consist primarily of tax increases.) At the other extreme, high levels of support among both interest groups and affluent Americans increases the probability of adopting a policy change, but a strong status quo bias remains evident.

As noted, our evidence does not indicate that in U.S. policy making the average citizen always loses out. Since the preferences of ordinary citizens tend to be positively correlated with the preferences of economic elites, ordinary citizens often win the policies they want, even if they are more or less coincidental beneficiaries rather than causes of the victory.

Moreover, we must remember that in our analyses the preferences of the affluent are serving as proxies for those of truly wealthy Americans, who may well have more political clout than the affluent, and who tend to have policy preferences that differ more markedly from those of the average citizens. Thus even rather slight measured differences between preferences of the affluent and the median citizen may signal situations in which economic elites want something quite different from most Americans and generally get their way.

Because of the impediments to majority rule that were deliberately built into the U.S. political system – federalism, separation of powers, bicameralism – together with further impediments due to anti-majoritarian congressional rules and procedures, the system has a substantial status quo bias. Thus when popular majorities favor the status quo, opposing a given policy change, they are likely to get their way; but when a majority – even a very large majority – of the public favors change, it is not likely to get what it wants.

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.

Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.

the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) 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.

[2] President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to lead the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler is a former cable and wireless company lobbyist who has argued in behalf of the cable companies for a two tier net system. See Obama to appoint cable industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler as FCC head.

[3] Caygill, Howard. On Resistance: A Philosophy of Defiance. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, Kindle Edition Location 3509-3514.


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