Remember that study saying America is an oligarchy? 3 rebuttals say it’s wrong.
In 2014, a slew of headlines seemed to confirm what many had long suspected — that the rich were actually the ones in control and the rest of us chumps were just along for the ride:
“Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy”; “Princeton Study: US No Longer An Actual Democracy”; “Study: You Have ‘Near-Zero’ Impact on US Policy”; “Study: Politicians listen to rich people, not you”; “Rich people rule!”
All of these stories were about a study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern, modestly titled, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens.”
Their conclusion was explosive: “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 paper soon went viral as proof that America is an “oligarchy” (the press’s term, not theirs) where the views of the rich control what happens and the views of the middle class are ignored. The authors were even on The Daily Show — not bad for academics without so much as a book to promote:
There’s only one problem: Research published since then has raised serious questions about this paper, both its finding and its analysis. This is, of course, how normal science works; some academics put a finding out there, and their peers pick it apart.
But the study has become a frequently invoked piece of evidence in debates about money in politics, and the public and political debate has not kept up with the scholarly one. And the latest scholarly critiques suggest that while the rich certainly have more political influence than the middle class, ordinary Americans still win a substantial share of the time, even when the affluent oppose them.
America is an imperfect democracy, in other words — but it’s hardly an oligarchy.
Since its initial release, the Gilens/Page paper’s findings have been targeted in three separate debunkings. Cornell professor Peter Enns, recent Princeton PhD graduate Omar Bashir, and a team of three researchers — UT Austin grad student J. Alexander Branham, University of Michigan professor Stuart Soroka, and UT professor Christopher Wlezien — have all taken a look at Gilens and Page’s underlying data and found that their analysis doesn’t hold up.
The implicit argument behind the Gilens/Page paper, and of Gilens’s book Affluence and Influence, is that in a democracy, there should be strong congruence between policy outcomes and the opinions of the American middle class — or, at the very least, between policy outcomes and the views of the American public as a whole.
This might seem intuitive. In a democracy, if 80 percent of people want universal health care, shouldn’t there be universal health care? But this contention relies on a rather literal, and implausible, definition of democracy. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias once put it, “The idea that the point of democracy is to implement legislative outcomes that are supported by broad-based surveys seems almost like a straw man dreamed up by an eighteenth-century monarchist.”
Read the rest here: