America’s Democracy: A Rant in Favor That this is a Thing (still)

Perhaps you’ve heard. America, it has been proven, is “no longer a democracy.” Or perhaps you heard that “it’s an oligarchy.”

No one agrees on what a democracy is, but Princeton has determined that America is definitely not least according to the news reports. America has been demonstrably less of a democracy than it is today and yet, somehow, we are “no longer” one as “proven” by science. This is of course all poppycock. And if you let me explain, I will. First, go familiarize yourself with the news stories linked above…or better, go read the actual paper [PDF]. Then, let’s start with my libertarian friend.

I have a friend, let’s call him “Brian.” He’s more-or-less a libertarian and as such often find himself in agreement with the policy pronouncements of groups like the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute is financed and operated primarily by the now infamously rich Koch brothers—millionaires with a lot of political power. Now, I’m not saying that everything that is in the Koch brothers’ interests is also in the best interest of my friend Brian, but when they are, they are. And when they are not, they sometimes are. Let me explain.

Brian is a single voter in a country of millions of voters. He is also a busy person with a job and family. He isn’t interested in running for office and he does not have the time to campaign constantly for those things that are in his best interest. Nor does have the skills, necessarily, to lobby distant and hard-to-reach representatives in his state capitol or in DC. Moreover, he lacks access to those people. Sure, we could say that Brian’s lack of access is related to his limited wealth. But it’s just as accurate to say that Brian’s lack of access is related to his inability to try to gain access on a full-time basis. It is also related to the fact that Brian would only be speaking for himself (and perhaps accidentally for a few unknown others with whom Brian shares an ideology and perhaps a financial and geographic salience). So Brian relies on a groups like Cato to speak for him. So Brian needs groups like Cato to be around. And groups like Cato stay around when they are successful at what they do. So even when Cato is not representing Brian, Brian benefits from their victories, because those victories ensure that Cato remains profitable and relevant in a very competitive industry and they will be there to speak for him tomorrow. Provided that Cato is victorious more often in ways that benefit Brian than in neutral or disadvantageous ways, then Brian gains from having his views represented by this strategically-minded, successful organization run by two economically elite brothers.

My views are often fought for and represented by the Brookings Institution. More locally I find myself in agreement with the Colorado Trust and the Colorado Health Institute. Sometimes very wealthy professors at Harvard who happen to run organizations that I am a member of express my views. Sometimes my views are expressed by the millionaire functionaries at the top of certain for-profit engines, like Google. They do not do this for me or because of me. Many times they do this through their support of a political party that I ally myself with in the same manner that Brian allies himself with Cato. I am frequently at odds with both the policies and politics of my chosen political party. But overall they represent my views more often than the alternatives. It behooves me to vote for members of that party even when I know that individual has different values than I do, because on net, the party more often than not passes laws that I am more or less in agreement with. The party and our polity’s structure constrain the actions of individuals so much that one rarely votes for an individual. An individual in Washington has nearly as little say over what goes on as an individual outside it. [PDF]

My freedom to have my own views is unconstrained in this environment. My freedom to ally with this or the other side of any policy fight is unconstrained by law and, for the most part, by society (except in certain marginalized areas). My freedom to give my own money directly to politicians that support my views is virtually unconstrained. My ability to support millionaires by purchasing products their companies manufacture is limited only by my income and my willingness to do so. I am fully capable of extending my politics into my capitalist activities by boycotting stores I know support politicians I don’t, and I can even publicly rally my friends to do so as well without fear of imprisonment. My power to do this has grown exponentially over the past decade and a half. Through Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, and Amazon I am more capable than ever of communicating my ideas of how the world should run and advocate for the success of agents, both public and private, that agree with me. Pro-equal rights groups just caused the CEO of a major tech firm to willingly step down from his top post.

This relationship, the one I describe above, between different sects of voters and different sets of economic elites is not a new thing. It is the very thing—the thing at the heart of American democracy. I don’t want to get all wonky, but to paraphrase Louis CK, America has only been a democracy since the 1920s when women got the right to vote. Actually, I’ll expand that to the 1960s when certain laws, primarily but not exclusively in the American South, de facto prevented African-Americans from voting. Even today our franchise is arbitrarily limited—by law. Felons cannot vote and in many states ex-felons cannot vote. This is a tragedy, and it is deeply undemocratic. You can only vote once you’re 18 with no rhyme or reason. Most of the +18-year-olds I know (and practically all of the freshly 18-year-olds) lack the intelligence, the education, and the wisdom to vote with anything but their emotions. I also know (or knew) a not insignificant quantity of more than capable 14-, 15-, and 16-year-olds who would have made fantastic additions to our dwindling pool of participating voters. Some reasonable people advocate opening the franchise to any child with the interest in voting and the ability to push the buttons on their own. And why shouldn’t they? But that’s beside the point a little. My point is that, free, frequent, and fair elections open to the people (the “demos,” in Greek) is a fundamental attribute to “democracy.” At various stages our so-called “democracy” has fallen dramatically short of this of this very simple measure for most of its existence. Is “democracy” relative to a point in time? It might be. If there were a polity out there right now that denied women—half the population—the right to vote, it would scarcely be called “a democracy” by most today.

Certainly elections are not the beginning and end of what constitutes a democracy, but what other factors are important? A president is not required. Most of the world’s democracies lack this position and instead embed their executive functions inside the legislative branch—a far more “democratic” structure by any measure. But separate branches and a checking and balancing of powers seems to be important. But in what way is it important? Is it fundamentally necessary or is it contingent? There doesn’t seem to be anything inside the definition of “democracy” that requires competing branches of power. Rather, it’s something inside human nature, or something inherent in the nature of power itself that requires institutional constraints to prevent power from accumulating totally in one agency—or worse—one person. Our democracy, and I do qualify “democracy” with “our” because our type—however we decide to define it, is not the only type. That is, even without a specific definition we can see that any two places that most people would consider a democracy have differences between them. And we can say that some of these differences make those democracies more or less democratic to those other democratic nations to which we decide to compare them. But this is just to emphasize what we already knew—that “democracy” is not only dynamically altering its nature in one nation over time, but differs statically from one nation to the next.

“Democracy” is not like “this apple;” it cannot be held up to the light, or sliced and placed under a microscope. It’s existence and nature cannot be objectively verified by independent coders with 100% accuracy. This is true, of course, even of the classes of supposedly simple things, “apples,” for example. Some are green, some are yellow, some are red. Some have mushy meat, other crisp. Some are sweet, others tart, some sour. If apples can be this complex, would it even be possible for “democracy” to be less so, subject as it is to the competing demands of millions—billions—of people to shape its structures and edges on the one hand and to attempt to define it on the other? Of course not. What we do know is that there was never a doubt in the minds of the world’s elite observers that America in 1887 was a democracy, also in 1913 and in 1958—and this despite failing to have an open franchise—an absolutely crucial feature of a democracy.

And it is no less a democracy today.

It is certainly far from a perfect democracy—whatever that is, however we decide to define it. Democracies are not discovered, they are invented. We should have discussed that earlier. They are art, they are not the unalterable, provable law of the universe. They are subject to the fall and folly of human beings. We can’t even draw a perfect circle and I’m supposed to be shocked that two political scientists at elite universities have decided that the United States fails some basic test of their definition of “democracy” even as they admit that theirs is only one of several such definitions and is by no means agreed upon.

And I haven’t even started talking about their methodology.

And please bear in mind, I think this study is a good one. It seems to me the authors themselves showed all the requisite lack of certainty around their choice and definition of terms and showed appropriate doubt as to the reliability of their proxy measures. It is not them or their work that I find concerning here. It is the coverage their article is getting—and from where. It is primarily liberals, anti-capitalists, and conspiracy theorists that have glommed on to this study as final truth supporting their long-held belief that we are a capitalist oligarchy, that our system is entirely corrupted by cash and the wishes of the top 1%.

These beliefs, however, are deeply problematic to start with because they assume two untrue things—demonstrably untrue. They assume 0% social mobility. Social mobility in the US is small—and certainly smaller than the myth of the American Dream says, but it is not zero. And it assumes 100% homogeneity in the ideologies of the 1%. This is not true either. They fight each other over ideologies, over access to markets, over politics, and over personal matters. This is not how true, that is to say “ideal,” oligarchies are run. The constraints on power, the separation of power into distinct branches and into federalized levels, discourages the formation of elite cartels.

Again, it is not perfect.  Our laws are neither perfect nor perfectly enforced. Government transparency is certainly not 100% transparent. Our government spies on us and uses the language of jurisprudence to validate the inhumane slaughter of untried “terrorists” residing in other countries. This is undemocratic by any measure. Our laws do not substantively recreate the natural rights on which most of them are based, which allows our legal system to unfairly imprison free men and let guilty men walk. I would never want to be in a position to say that “America, in its current condition, is the best democracy the world has known and the best that it can know.” That is clearly wrong. It is just as wrong as saying it is not a democracy at all.

But let’s look at the study, briefly. The authors do not provide a review of the democracy literature. To do so at this point is difficult. They acknowledge that this literature is “rich and variegated” and then claim it can be “loosely be divided into four categories of theories” (3) This may or may not be true. It is a claim and not one that is particularly testable–and if nothing else, the authors do not provide us that ability, nor do they appeal to other scholars who have defended this four-class typology of theories (which are not, descriptions of democracies themselves). I’m not critiquing this move, mind you, but merely pointing out where in the world of theory we are. The authors have proposed a theoretical way of classifying theories of polities–not a way of classifying democracies. These classes of theories include: “majoritarian electoral democracy, economic elite domination and two types of interest group pluralism.”

What may not be immediately clear is if this typology is supposed to be exhaustive. Where are the totalitarian regimes: (monarchies, sultanships, dictatorships etc), where, other than in “economic elite domination” are the other types of group leadership (tribunals, councils, etc)? What seems to be happening here is a typology of Who can Influence Democratic Regimes. So this study cannot prove that the US is not a democracy, because it relies on an assumption that it is one. That is not to say that it attempts to and then fails. That is to say it is logically impossible for it to do so. In the authors own words:

Each of these perspectives makes different predictions about the independent influence upon U.S. policy making of four sets of actors: the Average Citizen or “median voter,” Economic Elites, and Mass-based or Business-oriented Interest Groups or industries.

The authors set up a situation where the only thing they can test is who influences US policy. There is an assumption here, based on a simplified version of the median voter theory, that the US policy should reflect the wishes of “the average voter.” So their test is this: look at what “the average voter” wishes would happen on a certain policy question and then look at what “economic elites” wanted to happen on the same question. When those two parties differed, who “won”? This test does present a certain kind of problem though: time. What if, as with S-CHIP, Bill Clinton (a Democrat) wants something passed and all the Republicans think it’s a horrible idea, BUT THEN George Bush gets in the White House and he wants it passed and then all the Republicans think it’s a grand idea but the Democrats (suddenly) think it stinks? (This all happened with NAFTA, but in reverse.) Well, the authors propose a window: What did “the People” think of the policy in Year 0? And what laws were passed within four years of the poll being conducted? Obviously the examples above would confound this particular test, but in most cases the test probably works to determine whether the voting preferences of the mythical “median voter” were thwarted or not.

It’s a pretty simple test really, but it is fraught with problems in addition to the one mentioned above. Not “problems” because the researchers are stupid, ignorant, or biased, but problems because social science is hard and studies like this, warts and all, are the best we can do (a lot of the time). In the authors’ own words, same page “Our measures are far from perfect.” So what are these imperfections?

Think about a policy…like Obamacare. Who “won” that fight? Obviously, if you read the newspapers it was the “liberals” or the “Democrats.” “Conservatives” and/or “Republicans” lost. But is that what really happened? Almost everyone understood that healthcare finance reform needed to happen. It’s been on every presidential agenda since Truman. Many of the reforms in Obamacare look similar to reforms initially submitted to the public from the extremely right-wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation. I’m not saying, as some have, that “Obamacare was a product of the Heritage Foundation.” I know better than that. But it is worth considering that this law was not a purely Democratic creation. The notion behind Obamacare was non-partisan. And the ultimate bill that passed was a watered down version of the bill that was proposed. It was a compromise between the two parties (even if the Republicans disowned it come time to vote). Most people did not like the bill by the time it came to vote. Many insurance companies aligned against it, but the AMA and some important insurance companies backed it. 

The authors describe their methodology beginning on page 10. The policies in question are 1,779 instances between 1981 and 2002 where a national poll was administered asking respondents a Yes/No choice on specific federal policy decisions and also provided some economic information about the respondents. Policy preferences were measured at the 50th income percentile (the median income response) and at the 90th percentile (representing the affluent response). The authors claim that the 50th percentile income response is identical or nearly so with the median voter preference. The authors also claim, but do not argue or prove, that the 90th percentile vote can be used as “proxies for the opinions of wealthy or very-high-income Americans” even though “people at the 90th income percentile are neither very rich nor very elite“! [Words theirs, emphasis mine.] I’m not sure how it is that non-rich, non-elite voters can be used to proxy the voting preference of rich, elite voters. The authors unfortunately leave that explanation up to my very limited imagination. They do show a correlation between the the top 2% and the top 10% income earners in a study of 13 policy preferences. It’s strong, but leaves me wondering why they didn’t just measure the top 2% of earners (the “truly wealthy”) instead of relying on a proxy of a proxy. To be sure, the top 10% of earners’ preferences are correlated with the top 2% r=.91, but they are also correlated with the 50th percentile r=.69. The difference is significant, but not absolute.

The authors argue that their use of a proxy will produce underestimates of the impact of economic elites but I think they are dead wrong. If both the 50th and 90th percentiles agree on an issue, (and they do about 35% of the time, statistically speaking) that isn’t diluting the differences, it’s masking them. We don’t know what’s under the mask. It could be the case that the 98th percentile are more often in agreement with the 50th than they are with the 90th. This is unlikely, but it is possible. We see exactly this sort of intra-strata economic competition at lower financial levels all the time (e.g., poor whites often vote with elite whites on issues related to race). With this particular test, the voting preferences of the truly elite is hidden. It may be diluted, it may not be. We simply don’t know.

To test the power of business/economic elites the authors rely of Forbes Power 25. This in turn is a proxy for a large dataset of business groups previously compiled by another researcher, which in turn is a proxy for “the opinions of the average rich person.”  By now I shouldn’t have to point out the problem here. Introducing a proxy measure produces a lot of uncertainty, introducing a proxy of a proxy introduces another layer of uncertainty. Uncertainty isn’t additive, it’s multiplicative. And now we’re using a proxy of a proxy to measure voter preference and we’re using a proxy of a proxy to measure business elite preference. And of course we’re also using polls (and self-reported income) to measure “voter preference.” Polls use a sample to predict the parameters of the population. In other words…a proxy there too…and one that relies on self-reports and all the problems that introduces.That is not to say that such proxies are not useful or accurate. It is to say that the amount of uncertainty in this study are substantial. To repeat the authors’ own caveat “Our measures are far from perfect.” The only thing that is certain in this study is “Bill X did or did not become a law within four years of conducting a poll asking people their preference for or against passage.” But, as I tried to make clear in my examples above, it is often unclear if voters really know their policy preferences. If they vote YES for a bill introduced by George Bush and NO for the same bill introduced by Bill Clinton how do we know what they want policy wise?

Similarly related to the above and points mentioned earlier, the authors offer this disclaimer:

Before we proceed further, it is important to note that even if one of our predictor variables is found (when controlling for the others) to have no independent impact on policy at all, it does not follow that the actors whose preferences are reflected by that variable – average citizens, economic elites, or organized interest groups of one sort or another – always “lose” in policy decisions. Policy making is not necessarily a zero-sum game among these actors. When one set of actors wins, others may win as well, if their preferences are positively correlated with each other.

Well then! With the full acknowledgment from the authors that a situation like Brian’s described at the beginning of this rant probably happens all the time, let’s proceed to our analysis! So what do the authors find?

It turns out, in fact, that the preferences of average citizens are positively and fairly highly correlated, across issues, with the preferences of economic elites (see Table 2.) Rather often, average citizens and affluent citizens (our proxy for economic elites) want the same things from government.

Um. So when economic elites win, the average citizen wins. There you have it folks. Your proof that our democracy is an entirely corrupt oligarchy dominated by the policy preferences of the average….the 1%, or both, or something. Maybe. But certainly business-related interest groups take similar policy stances as the 1%…the 1% are all up in our business, LITERALLY!!!

Nor do we find an association between the preferences of economic elites and the alignments of either mass-based or business oriented groups. The latter finding, which surprised us, may reflect profit-making motives among businesses as contrasted with broader ideological views among elite individuals. For example, economic elites tend to prefer lower levels of government spending on practically everything, while business groups and specific industries frequently lobby for spending in areas from which they stand to gain.

Well, … shit.

Honestly, the authors are able to find a significant correlation for elite interests against so long as those interests are shared with business interests but not with the average citizen. In other words, when two of three measured groups align against the average Joe, Average Joe loses out. This is not nothing. Basically, they find that independent of their alignment with economic or business elites, the “average citizen” has no political power. But that’s nothing new. Madison wrote about this. The role of the citizen is to create just such groups and organize them to fight. The single citizen is powerless. That’s what we want. We want the individual to be representative of a class. We don’t pass laws that support ONE PERSON. That would be weird. Here are some more caveats from the authors about their findings:

This does not mean that theories of Economic Elite Domination are wholly upheld, since our results indicate that individual elites must share their policy influence with organized interest groups.


Again, the predictions of pure theories of interest group pluralism are not wholly upheld, since organized interest groups must share influence with economically elite individuals.


These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence.

Well, you know, except that part where the average citizen is mostly in support with elite opinions. But whatevs.


The rather low explanatory power of all three independent variables taken together (with an R-squared of just .074 in Model 4) may partly result from the limitations of our proxy measures, particularly with respect to economic elites (since our “affluent” proxy is admittedly imperfect) and perhaps with respect to interest groups (since only a small fraction of politically active groups are included in our measure).


Policies with strong support (as defined above) among both groups are only adopted about 56 percent of the time. (17)

That last point is worth noting. They note a “a strong status quo bias.” Indeed, this is a feature, not a bug, of our specific form of…wait for it…democracy!!!! Don’t believe me? Here’s the authors, emphasis added.

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.(18)

From this statement alone you can still argue that our original “political system” was not democratic, but you certainly cannot claim “it is no longer” a democracy. Whatever it was, it still is. The little guy is protected from 44% of business and elite interests that run contrary to his own because of institutional constraints that make it hard for those groups to get their way all the time. And how often does the “average citizen” get what he wants? When he has an 80% majority preference, he gets his way about 43% of the time. About half. I’m not blind to the difference of 56% (plus a margin of error) and 43% plus a margin of error. Neither should you or anybody else be blind to their amazing proximity.

James Madison, tiny genius that he was, just clogged our legislative process full of veto points. It’s just full of them. That makes it very hard to get bills passed in our system. Seriously. Even though when business policy preferences combines with the power of America’s incredibly wealthy upper-upper crust, they get their bills passed just over half the time. Not much better than flipping a coin. What kind of “oligarchy” is that?

No kind. That’s what.