Thursday, September 06, 2007

American Oligarchy

The 2008 Presidential campaigns are in full swing and talk of “political elites” and “Washington insiders” is everywhere. It’s not unusual to hear stuff like the following from the candidates.
Real change starts with being honest – the system in Washington is rigged and our government is broken. It’s rigged by greedy corporate powers to protect corporate profits. It’s rigged by the very wealthy to ensure they become even wealthier....

Politicians who care more about their careers than their constituents go along to get elected. They make easy promises to voters instead of challenging them to take responsibility for our country. And then they compromise even those promises to keep the lobbyists happy and the contributions coming....

The choice for our party could not be more clear. We cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats, just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of the other....

It’s time to end the game. It’s time to tell the big corporations and the lobbyists who have been running things for too long that their time is over. It’s time to challenge politicians to put the American people’s interests ahead of their own calculated political interests, to look the lobbyists in the eye and just say no.

John Edwards, 8/23/2007

What exactly does all that gobbly-gook mean in plain English? Primarily, it is a recognition of what everybody already knows -- that America is run by a political elite. This is indisputable. The disagreements are about who constitutes the elite and what to do about it. The people on the left complain that the wealthy elite run America and the solution is always more government, while the people on the right see the problem as too much government and always seek to cut it. But the important points of agreement are that America is run by a political elite, that this hurts democracy, and it needs to be fixed

Before we delve too deeply into this, I want to define the term oligarchy. It is not a term that politicians tend not to use (but it is clearly what Edwards speech was all about) nor is it used very often in the press (yet it is a frequent topic of political commentary). Oligarchy refers to a form of organization where a small number of people hold most of the power. It does not speak to the question of who those people are (corporate elites, “the rich”, bureaucrats, etc) . So you can see that Edward’s speech was all about how America is an oligarchy (ie. Washington is controlled by big corporations and lobbyists). It is undeniably true that America is an oligarchy; however, his perception of the problem (too many lobbyists) and his prescription (not quoted above, but public financing of political campaigns is advocated elsewhere in the speech) are, in my opinion, wrong-headed.

My goal is to shed a little light on oligarchy in American politics – who constitutes the ruling elite, what are the consequences of it, and what can be done about it.

America’s Ruling Elite

One of the more striking characteristics of American politics is how close knit it is. It is remarkable how many of our leaders are genetically related to one another. Of course, there are the well-known “dynasties”, such as the Bush family and the Kennedy clan. But it doesn’t stop there. For example, did you know that former Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush are ninth cousins, twice removed, and both men are related to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who’s fifth cousin was President Theodore Roosevelt! (link) American politics is full of such relationships. If one delves into the personalities that run Washington, it soon becomes apparent that everybody seems to be related to everyone else. (link) It is this clan that constitutes the bulk of America’s ruling elite.

The members of America’s political class are self-selected, so at least in theory, anyone can join in the fun. But in practice, only a small number of very wealthy, often-interrelated families play the game at the highest levels of political power. This is an oligarchy -- a society that is ruled by a relatively small number of people. Consider the following example adapted from Prescott Small’s article “Will America Become A Democratic Republic With A Duly Elected Oligarchy?,”

How does this look to you?

George H.W. Bush: 4 years
Bill Clinton: 8 years
George W. Bush: 8 years
Hillary Clinton: 8 years
U.S. Presidency: 2 families, 28 years!

Then let’s try something really crazy:

George H.W. Bush: 4 years
Bill Clinton: 8 years
George W. Bush: 8 years
Hillary Clinton: 8 years
Jeb Bush: 8 years
U.S. Presidency: 2 families, 36 years!

Interestingly, many political scientists believe that oligarchy is an inevitable consequence of large, complex organizations. According to the Iron Law of Oligarchy (no, I am not making this up), all complex organizations have an inherent tendency to develop a ruling clique of leaders with interests in the organization itself (ie. getting re-elected) rather than of its official aims (ie. serving the public).

There are several important implications of the Iron Law of Oligarchy:
  • True democracy is both practically and theoretically impossible.
  • The all-important first step for anybody that desires political power is to gain admittance to the ruling class.
  • Differences among political rivals in an oligarchy is usually small, because they are all members of the same ruling class.
  • Oligarchy leads to apathy and disillusionment with politics

The most troublesome feature of oligarchy is the natural tendency of the political class to put its own self interest (re-election, accumulating greater power and status, etc) ahead of what is best for the public, a process known as “goal displacement”. If we accept for the moment that oligarchy is inevitable, then we must ask what steps can be taken to minimize the detrimental effects of goal displacement – in other words, how can we keep politicians focused on what is best for the public at large rather than what is best for the ruling elite.

This essay shall review the implications of oligarchy in American politics and discuss how best to minimize goal displacement.

Democracy is Impossible

Robert Michels first articulated the Iron Law of Oligarchy in his book Political Parties (1959). The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Science provides the following synopsis of how the Iron Law works:
  1. Strong organization is necessary to achieve collective democratic goals,
  2. strong organization requires delegation of popular sovereignty to an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre, and,
  3. an autonomous and self-perpetuating leadership cadre is incompatible with true democracy.

The Founding Fathers had the foresight to recognize that a pure democracy was unworkable. They chose instead to establish a government of elected representatives acting as surrogates for the general public. These representatives are, at least in theory, directly accountable to their constituents. However, as political parties grew in size and influence politicians became answerable to two masters: the electorate and the party.

Today, party bosses and party activists play a very large role in determining who runs for public office. The power of the two dominant political parties, both organizational and financial, severely limits the viability of independent candidates. Political parties also act as a check on the positions that candidates can take. Politicians that stray too far from the party platform risk losing party support and hence put their chances for becoming elected (or re-elected) at risk.

Another check on pure democracy in the United States is the Electoral College. Rather than directly electing the President, the public votes for electors, than in turn, vote for President. One of the key anti-democratic features of this system is that, in most states, the candidate that gets the most popular votes wins all of that state’s electoral votes. This “winner takes all” approach has been credited with strengthening the two-party system because it makes it extremely difficult for third party or minor candidates to garner enough electoral votes to prevail. George Will had this to say regarding the influence of the Electoral College,

The electoral vote system shapes the character of winning majorities. By avoiding proportional allocation of electoral votes, America's system--under which Ross Perot in 1992 got 19 percent of the popular votes and zero electoral votes--buttresses the dominance of two parties, and pulls them to the center, producing a temperate politics of coalitions rather than a proliferation of ideological factions with charismatic leaders.

Because of these and other anti-democratic features of American politics (such as the growing influence of regulators and other bureaucrats) it has been suggested that the modern American political system would more accurately be described as an “elected oligarchy” rather than a true republic.

The Political Class

The aspiring politician needs to curry favor with the political elite, and in many ways his political future depends upon remaining in their good graces. A politician that turns against the political establishment, may soon find himself out of a job.

The political elite is composed of the many actors that are intimately involved in selecting and grooming political candidates, and then influencing their decisions once they are in office. Most important are the political parties, but other players include big business, organized labor, mass media, lobbyists, and special interest groups. William Greider’s popular and thought-provoking book Who Will Tell the People (1992) details the extent to which powerful elites now control American politics. He correctly concludes that America is not a democracy, but stops short of calling it an oligarchy.
Many Americans perhaps think this is how the governing system is supposed to work – directed and dominated by an elite few. Many have come to accept the imbalance an inevitable and normal. But it is a political system of privilege and inequality, a rank ordering that assigns most citizens to inferior status. If fact-filled arguments and expensive expertise are the only route to influencing government decisions, then by definition most citizens will have no access. This is the functional reality. It cannot fairly be called democracy.

Actually, a society in which we are governed by elites that possess “expensive expertise” is a specific form of oligarchy called, you guessed it, elitism. Other forms of oligarchy may involve rule by a certain caste, tribe, race, military band, or whatever. Elitism presumes that the ruling class is in some way superior to the masses. The precise way that they are superior can vary considerably. Let’s take a quick look at two specific forms of elitism that have special significance for American politics.

Aristocracy: Rule by the Best
If there is to be a ruling class, then it would certainly be desirable if they were the best and the brightest among us. This is the optimistic view of oligarchy held by those on the political left. The Progressive worldview places a great deal of trust and faith in a benevolent government that is under the control of an ethical and enlightened elite. This vision of politics takes the view that wealthy Americans -- variously defined as “Big Money,” “the rich” or “corporate America” – are an interest group that corrupts American government with self-interest (“greed”), thereby preventing a redistribution of wealth that would realize the Progressive dream of an egalitarian nation.

Plutocracy: Rule by the Wealthy
Here the ruling class is superior to the general public in terms of financial wealth. There can be no denying that politicians (and the political class in general) are much wealthier than the average American. That fact alone would qualify the U.S. as a plutocracy. But liberals (including Edwards and Greider, quoted above) point to the undue influence that the wealthy have on American politics and advocate a larger and more powerful government with a socialist agenda as a means to bring greater balance to society. Clearly, the net effect of such a plan is to merely trade one form of oligarchy (plutocracy) for another (aristocracy).

In my opinion, it does not truly matter whether American politics more closely resembles an aristocracy or a plutocracy. The real problem is that political power has been co-opted from the people, and our democracy suffers as a consequence. With any oligarchy, there are real and significant consequences for our society. These shall be discussed next.

Choosing between a Giant Douche and a Turd Sandwich

Viewers of the cartoon series South Park may be familiar with the “Douche and Turd” episode. The story revolves around the cartoon characters having to choose to vote for one of two political candidates, one being a “giant douche”, the other being a “turd sandwich”. The show conveys the message that voting is pointless when both candidates are equally horrible.

It is true that most politicians are cut from the same mold. There is almost no perceptible difference among the candidates within each party, and there is remarkably little difference in the positions of leading candidates between the two major parties. Increasingly, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the White House is occupied by a Republican or a Democrat. Indeed, some have coined the term Republicrat to reflect the view that they are essentially one political party with two names. The homogeneity of the body politic contributes to political apathy and low voter turnout. The only “interesting” candidates tend to be the marginal or third party candidates (the Ralph Naders and the Pat Buchanans of the political world) – that have no chance of winning in a general election.

Both structural and functional factors contribute to the conservative tendency of American political candidates. Structural factors represent the way in which our political system operates to foster “mainstream” candidates with moderate positions on the issues. Structural factors include the two-party political system, restrictive ballot access laws, primary elections that tend to reflect the preferences of party loyalists, and the Electoral College (discussed above). Functional factors represent the ways in which candidates garner financial support and communicate with the public. Political Action Committees, special interest pressure groups (such as Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association, among many others), and political consultants all help to shape the candidate’s position on issues and develop his “message” to the voters. Consultants are recycled from one election cycle to the next, so it should come as no surprise that although the candidates may change from one election to the next, the message remains essentially the same. As candidates jockey for “front runner” status they often go through all sorts of contortions to appease as many voter blocs as possible. It is only the “second tier” candidates that are willing to risk standing out from the pack in a desperate attempt to grab the media spotlight (John Edwards and Ron Paul are outspoken second tier candidates from the 2008 Presidential campaign).

Perhaps the single most important reason for the absence of ideological diversity among career politicians stems from their concern to maintain their status and livelihood. As politicians become enthralled with their elite positions they become more and more inclined to make decisions that protect their power rather than represent the will of the people they are supposed to serve. Because politicians depend heavily on the media to provide them with credibility, and upon corporations, labor unions, and other special interest groups to provide them with money and votes, they cannot appear too extreme in their views. The political elite (including PACs, pressure groups, and mass media) impose strict limits on what constitutes an acceptable or “respectable” political position. Candidates that deviate from the mainstream risk becoming labeled as “mavericks.” While mavericks may add some spice to an otherwise boring election cycle, they never win elections.

Political Apathy

Thomas DeLuca in his book The Two Faces of Political Apathy (1995) presents two possible causes of political apathy, one is that it is the result of free and rational choice (“my vote can’t possibly make any difference”), the second is that it is a consequence of elite manipulation (oligarchy).

The first face is inherent in the idea of free choice – one becomes apathetic to some issue, but one could have made other choices that would not have led to apathy. The second face implies a condition under which one suffers – apathy is a state of mind or a political fate brought about by forces, structures, institutions or elite manipulation over which one has little or no control, and perhaps little knowledge.

It has been suggested that the DeLuca’s first face of political apathy is actually good for democracy (link). Too many people getting too deeply involved in politics could lead to a messy, unstable democracy. It is this line of reasoning that leads directly to the notion of an “enlightened elite” ruling over the “ignorant masses” (aristocracy). Societies with large and rising levels of apathy are viewed as mature and the high levels of apathy are believed to be “a leading indicator of contentment” of the citizens. Fledgling, unstable democracies (such as Iraq) tend to have very high voter turnout.

The second face of political apathy has traditionally been linked to “false consciousness,” a Marxist notion of the masses being unable to see things as they really are. From the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy,
The state of false consciousness may be the inevitable result of a way of living, and characterizes the generic and chronic kind of servitude that cannot even perceive its own situation. It may therefore coexist with a kind of illusory contentment.

It is this second form of apathy that oligarchy fosters. The masses, for the most part, remain content as long as the government continues to deliver basic services (“make the trains run on time”), and they are offered some opportunity to drink at the trough of government largess, be it in the form of a welfare check, Medicare benefits, or a tax break. Because the masses are weakly organized and have a strong need for leadership, they are inclined to accept the oligarchic elite so long as they are able to cling to the belief that they too are personally benefiting. According to Michels, despite the oligarchic leaders subversion of the democratic aspirations of the masses, the masses remain grateful and obedient because of the elites ability to co-opt dissent through control over patronage and the media.

Resisting Oligarchy

The Iron Law reminds us that there is an inherent tendency toward oligarchy. This tendency is fostered by structural and functional features of American polity. Sociologic research has, however, provided some evidence that this tendency can be resisted. The classic study of the International Typographical Union by Lipset et al (1956) found that a federal rather than unitary power structure, and factional in-fighting are important factors in resisting elite domination. Later studies have confirmed these observations.

Historically, most efforts to combat oligarchy and reinvigorate democracy in the U.S. have focused on campaign finances and term limits. While term limits may have some merit, campaign finance reform that restrict private contributions to candidates are not only doomed to failure, they are actually counterproductive. Other measures with potential include a federal power structure and greater factionalism. Let’s now take a look at each of these four strategies.

Campaign Finance Reform

Unfortunately, most campaign finance reform efforts are blatant incumbent protection schemes. Most of the initiatives that reform activists support, from limiting the amount of time in which a candidate can solicit funds to limiting how much money he or she can raise or spend, has the effect of protecting incumbents and harming challengers. Their usual justification is the simple-minded belief that money corrupts the political process, thereby keeping the ruling elite in power. Yet research has consistently shown that legislators vote the way they do for three primary reasons: ideology, constituent interests, and party discipline (link). Campaign contributions are not a significant factor in deciding how a politician will vote on a particular issue. Popular support for restricting political campaign contributions has its roots in class envy – the misguided notion that the rich can afford to buy political influence but the poor cannot. Yet despite the reams of campaign finance regulations already on the books, the influence of the political elite has not been diminished by one iota. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize winning economist, has had the following to say regarding campaign finance reform,
The McCain-Feingold Law of 2002 and previous campaign finance “reforms” attempt to restrict the competition of interest groups for political influence. I believe these restrictions are as undesirable as restricting who can run for office. Indeed, restrictions on campaign contributions do skew the political playing field toward rich individuals like Steve Forbes, Jon Corzine, Michael Bloomberg, John Kerry, and others who spend large amounts of their own monies. This is hardly a push toward greater “democracy.”

A typical example of recent attempts to foster democracy through campaign finance reform is the Democracy Matters organization. The purported goal of this organization is federally financed political campaigns. Under such a scheme, anyone could run for public office, because it would, in effect, be “free.” Would that lessen the influence of the two major political parties, political consultants, and mass media? Could amateur politicians possibly match the level of organization and sophistication of experienced professionals in running a national political campaign? Of course not. And these schemes would do nothing to lift existing restrictions on campaign contributions that protect incumbents, nor prohibit the rich from self-funding their campaigns. Nonetheless, the naïve call for taxpayers picking up the tab for amateur political campaigns continues, including the Fair Elections Now Act that would implement a system of taxpayer financing for candidates running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. It is also worth pointing out that it is simply wrong to compel taxpayers to fund political activity they would not otherwise support. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.”

Term Limits

Another popular avenue for attacking entrenched Washington elites is the term limits movement. By forcing regular turnover of politicians, term limits offer the possibility of breaking down at least one segment of the ruling elite, the politicians themselves. Former Senator James Buckley, has said the following about how term limits may influence the behavior of elected politicians while in office,

Once it becomes impossible for members of Congress to make a career of legislative service, the temptation to bend a vote for whatever reason may yield to the better angels of their nature. They may then be willing to cast principled votes based on an educated understanding of the public interest in the face of polls suggesting that the public itself may have quite a different understanding of where its interest lies.

Buckley is suggesting that the beneficial effect of term limits lies beyond simply throwing elected officials out of office every few years. It offers the hope that politicians will have a greater incentive to act in the public’s best interest. That, ultimately, is the greatest evil of oligarchy – that the ruling elite is inclined to put their own self-interest ahead of those that they are supposed to serve.

Of course, politicians are just the tip of the oligarchic iceberg. The influence of political parties, corporations, unions, and special interest groups would remain untouched by term limiting politicians. So while term limits are a step in the right direction, it is not a complete solution either.


Federalism is a system of government whereby authority is divided between national and state organizations. It is believed that federalism helps to secure democracy, protect human rights, and increase citizen participation in politics relative to a monolithic unitary government. The importance of federalism in guarding against tyranny has long been recognized. Lord Acton wrote the following of the relationship between federalism and democracy,

A great democracy must either sacrifice self-government to unity or preserve it by federalism. The coexistence of several nations under the same State is a test, as well as the best security of its freedom.

In the United States, the power to govern is shared between Washington and the states, but the extent to which national authority is supreme over local authority is subject to considerable debate. Under a system of dual federalism the two are considered co-equal partners, each sovereign. Under such a system, the federal government is limited to only those powers explicitly listed in the Constitution. An alternative view of federalism is known as cooperative federalism, which asserts that the national government is supreme over the states. While dual federalism is not completely dead, it has been in decline in since the Civil War. There has been a movement of political power away from the States to the federal government, even in those areas that have traditionally been considered State responsibilities, such as education, emergency services, and law enforcement. It is not unusual today to have State assemblies pass amendments to their state constitutions only to see them struck down by a federal judge. A recent example being amendments banning gay marriage. Concentration of political power in Washington has greatly increased the influence of K Street lobbyists. A return of power to State capitals, such that the federal government and state governments are more closely co-equal, would be very healthy for our democracy. Yet we do not seriously expect to see this happen.


Factionalism is another important influence that promotes democracy. One measure of political factionalism is the number and strength of political parties. Wikipedia reports that there were 7 major independent candidates for statewide office in 2006, and that as of April 2007 there were 11 independents holding seats in state legislatures. This anemic showing helps to explain why oligarchy has taken such a stranglehold on American politics – the two-party system fosters the power of incumbents and the wealthy power base that supports them. The presence of a strong two-party system in the United States is attributable to the fact that our electoral system is a winner-take-all system rather that one that apportions seats to each party based on the number of votes it obtains (proportional representation) – see Duverger’s Law for a detailed explanation of this phenomena. Berger has described the dilemma of third party candidates in a two-party system:

Minor parties are stuck in a cage twice locked: they must ask voters either to throw away their vote and have it not affect the outcome, or to vote and affect the outcome by “spoiling,” causing the victory of a candidate least preferred by the minor party constituency. Since voting for a third party candidate casts an insignificant vote or worse (i.e., furthers the success of an opponent), third party voting often seems irrational.

Measures that would increase factionalism, such as taking steps to increase the viability of third party candidates, would likely have the effect of increasing political diversity, decrease political apathy, and lessen the influence of the oligarchic elite.

Action Plan

Abolition of legal barriers to the growth and viability of third parties offers the best hope of minimizing the power of the political elite and reinvigorating our democracy. Legal barriers faced by third party candidates include anti-fusion laws, ballot access laws, and campaign finance laws. Therefore, an action plan to rescue our democracy from oligarchy must address these three areas. In addition, as mentioned above, establishing term limits for legislators and pressing for greater States rights would also be expected to have very positive anti-oligarchic benefits.

Abolish Anti-fusion Laws

The practice of voting for candidates that are endorsed by more than one political party is known as fusion voting. Fusion voting has been said to make a vote count twice – first it sends a message about the issues the voter cares about and then it helps elect a candidate. Anti-fusion laws were enacted to protect political incumbents from third party challengers, and they have been wildly successful. Fusion voting is now illegal in most states, and, in 1997, the Supreme Court upheld state bans on fusion voting in order to “temper the destabilizing effects of party-splintering and excessive factionalism.” It has been suggested that anti-fusion laws could be challenged in state courts as violating state constitutional rights of political participation and expression.

Relax Ballot Access Laws

Restrictive ballot access laws are a major impediment to new political parties. According to Richard Winger of Ballot Access News,

In 1994, a new party that wants to field a candidate in every race for the U.S. House of Representatives and have the party name appear on the ballot next to the candidate's name would need to register 1,593,763 members or gather an equal number of signatures. Yet the Democratic and Republican parties need not collect any signatures to assure themselves of a place on the ballot… The extreme disparity of the burdens placed on old, established parties versus new parties has no parallel in any other democratic nation in the world. Indeed, the number of signatures required for Democrats and Republicans to get on primary ballots is itself too high in some states, and as a result about 25% of all state legislative races present the voter with only one candidate on the general-election ballot.

Clearly, the effect of restrictive ballot access laws is to protect incumbent politicians and preserve the dominance of the existing political parties. The usual justification for restricting ballot access is that too many candidates appearing on a ballot would cause voter confusion, however, this has never actually been demonstrated. In fact, voter confusion was not a serious issue during the 2003 California gubernatorial recall race when 135 names appeared on the ballot. To the contrary, an exit poll found that over 80% of voters reported that finding their candidate on the ballot was “easy.” With continued progress in automated voting machine technology, difficulty managing large numbers of candidates should become even less of a concern. Because, Supreme Court decisions have generally upheld ballot access laws, it will likely take a grassroots movement to pressure state legislators to relax their ballot access laws.

Campaign Finance Reform

The type of campaign finance reform that would do the most to reinvigorate our democracy is to eliminate all limits on campaign contributions, and require candidates to provide immediate and complete disclosure of all contributions and donors. Because “second tier” candidates rely more heavily upon larger contributions from a smaller number of donors, attempts to restrict contributions only further empowers incumbents and other members of the political class, such as the mainstream media. Public financing of campaigns further empowers the political class by enabling bureaucrats to stifle candidates that challenge the status quo. Your ability to learn about these candidates would thereby be restricted. Private funding of political activity is vital to our democracy. As former Chief Justice Warren Burger once wrote, “There are many prices we pay for freedoms secured by the First Amendment, the risk of undue influence is one of them, confirming what we have long known: Freedom is hazardous, but some restraints are worse.”

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